Miss gymnastics yet?
If you loved watching gymnastics at the Tokyo Olympics and are missing the thrill of a stuck landing, you’re in luck, because gymnastics doesn’t just happen at the Olympics. In fact, the 2021 World Artistic Gymnastics Championships are set to kick off in Kitakyushu, Japan on Monday, featuring some of the top athletes in the sport.
Normally, worlds are held only in non-Olympic years. But when the 2020 Olympics were postponed, 2021 worlds stayed in place on the calendar, making this the first time in 25 years that a world gymnastics championship has been held in the same year as an Olympics. In 1996, the competition happened a few months before the Games, so it acted as a dress rehearsal for top talent like Simona Amanar and Svetlana Khorkina.
Here, a worlds held just months after the Olympics will be less predictable. We’ll see some overachievers who have pushed through after the Olympics, but we’ll also see athletes from very deep countries like the United States, China and Russia who were left off of their Tokyo teams and now hope to make a name for themselves.
It’s not the type of competition you can expect to see each year, but if you’re a fan during the Olympics, this one is well worth your time. The competition starts Monday with qualifications. The all-around final on Thursday and the event finals on Saturday and Sunday will air live on the Olympic Channel. NBC will also provide tape-delayed coverage.
Here are five things to look out for at this year’s worlds:
Russian star Angelina Melnikova just won a gold and two bronze medals at her second Olympic Games. If anyone told her that it’s OK to take a breather after the best competition of her life, she hasn’t listened, instead plowing through to make the Russian team for her fourth world championships.
In fact, despite injuries, a breakup with her longtime coach, changes in her body and even the now-infamous twisties, Melnikova says she hasn’t missed a competition since 2017. “I thought about whether to take a break [after Tokyo] or go to the World Championships,” she said in an interview translated by Gymnovosti. “But since I was invited to various … competitions, I still need to be in shape. So, why not try it?”
Why not? Melnikova is at the top of her game and excels in all four events, so this could be a worlds where she cleans up. Plus, without U.S. stars Simone Biles and Sunisa Lee — who beat her at the Olympics — in the mix, the coveted world all-around title appears to be hers to lose.
But first, she’ll have to answer to Rebeca Andrade. A veteran of the Brazilian team, Andrade came back this year after tearing her ACL three times and repeatedly missing world and Olympic podiums to do what we all knew she was capable of — winning.
In Tokyo, she earned a silver medal in the all-around, her country’s first-ever Olympic medal in gymnastics, and an incredible gold on vault. “I wanted to shine in the best way possible, and I think I did,” she told the FIG.
Look out for her powerful Cheng, an Yurchenko-style vault and one of the most difficult performed by women today.
After the Olympics, many of the top U.S. gymnasts are away, either recovering from injuries, off at college or participating in Biles’ post-Olympic tour. That’s why, when the U.S. held worlds trials earlier this month, only six athletes competed.
That doesn’t mean there’s a dearth of talent on the U.S. team, though. Quite the contrary: Kayla DiCello and Leanne Wong, both Olympic team alternates, are world-class athletes who hope to make a splash on the international stage. DiCello had an impressive showing at trials, winning the all-around and earning the highest score on three events. Plus, she doesn’t seem phased at all by the prospect of leading this team. “This is our turn to show the world what we can do,” she said.
Wong, meanwhile, earned the top score on floor, where she competes a gorgeous whip to triple twist. After spending much of her Tokyo experience in her hotel room after her teammate tested positive for COVID-19, Wong hopes to have a better showing at worlds.
“I was really disappointed in my experience,” she said. “And I just wanted to train more and get the real experience of competing outside the country.”
She’s had trouble with consistency in the past, but if she does what she’s capable of next week, then she has a real shot at a medal.
Filling out Team USA’s roster are eMjae Frazier, who surprised when she took second in the all-around at trials, and Konnor McClain.
McClain’s year has been marked by drama and unmet expectations. After an incredible 2019 season, MClain had disappointing performances in the lead-up to the Olympic trials, followed by a last-minute gym change. Then, at worlds trials, she fell twice on beam and twice on floor.
But there’s reason to be hopeful for McClain at worlds. After trials, she told the media that she’s feeling much better at her new gym, both mentally and in terms of her gymnastics. “I didn’t feel any nerves at all [at worlds trials], so I just felt different. It was a good experience,” she said. “The last four months have been really good … it’s just crazy how much it has changed and how happy I am to go into the gym every day.”
She also said that she hit her high-difficulty beam routine during the behind-closed-doors session on Day 2. If she can replicate that at worlds, then this could be a turning point for her career.
China’s best gymnasts, normally representing a superpower in the sport, had a rough outing at the Tokyo Olympics, coming in seventh as a team in the final. Team members Tang Xijing, Lu Yufei and Fan Yilin also underperformed in the all-around and bars finals to miss the podium. It looked like China could actually go without a medal until the beam final, where Guan Chenchen and Tang went 1-2 in glorious fashion.
Now, China is sending a very strong and talented group to worlds for the chance at redemption. Wei Xiaoyuan, for one, gets to make a name for herself on the world stage after coming in second in the all-around and first in bars at China’s second Olympic trials but still being left off of the Olympic team. Here, she’ll lead China in the all-around after winning that title at the recent Chinese National Games with a 55.064. Bars are her specialty, and if she, Becky Downie and Melnikova compete there at full strength, it will make for a thrilling final.
Wei Xiaoyuan - UB 2021 CHN NG QF pic.twitter.com/73hYp6Wdxa— Xiaoyu_CHN_DTY_in_Tokyo⚰️ (@xiaoyuonion) September 20, 2021
Wei Xiaoyuan - UB 2021 CHN NG QF pic.twitter.com/73hYp6Wdxa
We also saw the return of Li Shijia, who was a favorite to make the Olympic team before an injury ruined her chances. At the National Games, she earned a 14.666 at qualifications — the highest beam score of the competition — with a routine that she absolutely needs to repeat at a world championships.
Li Shijia BB TQ Welcome back Jiajia💕💕 pic.twitter.com/koxOmOoCbw— 体操光年 (@chngym) September 20, 2021
Li Shijia BB TQ Welcome back Jiajia💕💕 pic.twitter.com/koxOmOoCbw
Becky Downie is back. A two-time Olympian and one of the sport’s great veterans — she’s competed as a senior elite since 2008 — Downie was set to contend for a bars medal at the Tokyo Olympics before she was shockingly left off of Team Great Britain. The situation surrounding her omission made it all the more heartbreaking: Downie’s brother died unexpectedly during the trials process, and while British Gymnastics granted her a separate trial, they still didn’t include her on the team.
Downie expressed her disappointment, but didn’t let it stop her from training for her 10th world championships. “I don’t want to retire like this,” she wrote on Twitter.
Her inclusion on Great Britain’s worlds roster, then, was a relief for many fans, who hope to see her dominate in the bars final. Downie is known for her exciting bar routines, which are packed with releases and quick transitions.
Only way is up 🤍 pic.twitter.com/DAcagDEQAV— Becky Downie (@Bdownie) May 14, 2021
Only way is up 🤍 pic.twitter.com/DAcagDEQAV
If she’s able to bring her full difficulty to Kitakyushu, it will be a thrill to watch.
It’s a small thing, for sure, but the misguided rule that fans and athletes have hated for years is finally gone — the “no one-touch warmup before event finals.”
Some background: In team and all-around finals, athletes get the chance to warm up on each apparatus before they perform. But historically, in event finals, the warmup happens in the back gym, and when athletes come out to compete, they don’t get to try out the equipment again before competing. The rule, according to gymnastics authorities, was meant to appease broadcasters.
It stood at the Tokyo Olympics, where falls during the bars final led to an outcry from athletes and fans, who argued that not having a warmup leaves gymnasts at a disadvantage. McKayla Maroney said on Instagram that when she competed in the vault final, her legs felt “like Jell-O” after the long wait.
The controversy was enough to get the rule changed, starting at these world championships. Here, the first four athletes in an event final will have the chance to warm up before they compete, followed by the other four. It’s unclear what the effects of this will be, but ideally we’ll see fewer falls and better performances. And, needless to say, it probably won’t affect the viewing experience.
Jessica Taylor Price is a freelance sports writer. Her work has appeared in Teen Vogue, ESPNW, and Bleacher Report. She is also the gymnastics writer for the women’s sports newsletter The IX. Follow her on Twitter @jesstaylorprice.