The Chinese National Championships, which also served as one stop of the Olympic team trials, concluded Sunday in Tianjin. |Yang Yilin
When asked to recap the weeklong competition and where the Chinese women currently stand as a team, Head Coach Lu Shanzhen reiterated that "the [Olympic] team gold is of course of the utmost priority."
Comparing the Chinese and U.S. teams, Coach Lu noted that "the U.S. National Championships have not taken place yet, so we are not certain what secret weapons or new upgrades the U.S. team will unveil. However, from the information gathered so far, in a 6-3-3 team scenario, the Chinese team can now match or even outscore the U.S. on vault, on bars we can outscore the U.S., and on floor exercise if we hit our routines the way we've hit them today we'll be on par with the U.S. team for a good fight."
Coach Lu's optimism is wisely tamed with caution though, as he emphasizes that "while we've made significant technical upgrades across the board, competition results are not determined on technical ability alone. We have a relatively young squad, so stress management under high-pressure continues to be an area we work on and improve upon."
Lu was most pleased with the team's progress on vault, traditionally the Achilles' heel for China in team competitions. While Cheng Fei's three consecutive World titles on the event turned a new page for China, the Tianjin Nationals seemed to have ushered in a new era for the Chinese women's collective vaulting ability. Aside from Cheng Fei, during the preliminaries/team competition, Jiang Yuyuan performed a 2.5-twist Yurchenko with gorgeous form and great ease, Yang Yilin vaulted a double-twisting Yurchenko with a stuck landing, and He Kexin also competed her double-twisting Yurchenko successfully. Cheng, however, remains the only major Olympic contender amongst the Chinese women to compete two vaults. Vault event finals was effectively a one-woman show, led by Cheng Fei; Cheng did not use her maximum difficulty, opting for just a double-twisting Yurchenko (instead of Yurchenko 2.5 twist) and her signature Cheng vault, and still dominated the field (15.812 average).
On uneven bars, Lu also expressed satisfaction that China now has two top contenders for Olympic gold, in He Kexin and Yang Yilin. Both compete routines worth 7.7 in A-score but with markedly distinct styles — He specializing in difficult release combinations (the Li Ya combo; layout Jaeger; Tkatchev connected to Pak), and Yang capitalizing on her intricate pirouetting skills and long bodyline. He, in particular, has shown remarkable consistency thus far, not making any major mistakes in bars competition throughout Nationals or the two earlier World Cup events this spring. Though the uneven bars event final showed some controversial scoring and placement, He and Yang were still by and large in a field of their own, finishing first (17.325) and second (16.725), respectively, followed by Pang Panpan (third, 16.475), Jiang (fourth, 16.400), and He Ning (fifth, 16.075).
When asked to comment on her bars performances, He Kexin admitted that she "still has room for improvement," in execution as well as in difficulty. When asked about other top contenders for the Olympic title on bars, He and Yang were unanimous in immediately singling out "Liukin" — American Nastia Liukin — as their fiercest competition, then adding "also each other."
Interestingly, it was also Liukin's bars performance at this year's American Cup that provided extra motivation for improving He Kexin's A-score, according to He Kexin's personal coach, He Hua.
Coach He recalls that "earlier [this year] Kexin's A-score was set at 7.5, which we all thought was already quite high and difficult. But during March's American Cup, we saw that Liukin's A-score already reached 7.6, which meant what we had in mind about upgrading others had also thought about. We then upgraded Kexin's A-score to 7.7... The first half of an Olympic year is a critical time for researching your fellow competitors, and often you have to go back and forth several times to adjust accordingly."
Another surprising highlight of the week-long competition was the emergence of Sui Lu as a dark-horse on floor exercise and balance beam. Sui clinched golds on both events in event finals and made a strong statement for her Olympic bid. Sui finished second to Cheng Fei last year on floor exercise at the 2007 Chinese Nationals (where seniors and juniors compete together) and won the floor exercise title at the 2007 Inter-City National Games, China's most prestigious competition for juniors. At this past week's Tianjin Nationals, Sui Lu delivered a flawless performance (6.4 A) on floor that showcased balletic elegance, musicality, and precise twisting ability all in one package. Sui scored 16.200 and tied for gold with Cheng, who had the edge in higher A-score (6.5 A) but landed low on her double-double.
This Nationals is the first time Cheng Fei debuted her new floor routine, using a special version of the "Yellow River Concerto" composed and arranged exclusively for her Olympic bid. The new musical arrangement is unique in that not only does it showcase ethnic Chinese flavors (conveyed by the traditional "Yellow River"), it newly incorporates segments from Peking Opera. Ding Hua, Cheng's national team choreographer and dance instructor, explained: "This music was made specifically for Cheng Fei's floor and intended to convey a majestic, regal style. Cheng Fei's choreography includes some characteristics mimicking a dragon, and also some acrobatic moves adapted from Peking Opera, whereby she is like a general directing in combat. Our goal is to have Cheng Fei showcase ethnic Chinese flavors through her music. [And parts of the dance help] convey the idea that the Chinese are descendants of the dragon.... The Olympics are taking in place in our backyard, so of course we want to showcase our own ethnic flavors and national identity."
On balance beam, Sui Lu's repertoire includes piked barani to Korbut, aerial to back handspring stepout, layout stepout; switch leap, back tuck, sheep jump; side somi; front pike to back handspring layout and double pike dismount. Though Sui's beam performance in finals (7.0 A) had multiple missed connections and balance checks and and was not as fluid as earlier in qualifications (where she had ranked second), Sui managed to stayed on the beam throughout — while the two favorites on the event, Li Shanshan and Xiao Sha, both counted falls. Top qualifier and two-time defending champion Li Shanshan had a nearly flawless routine but fell on her full turn with free leg held in 180 degree split position, the same skill that had cost her the '07 world title; earlier in the week during preliminaries and all-around finals Li had competed consistently throughout and hit two top-scoring beam routines without errors (7.3 A). Xiao, another favorite on beam, who qualified third to the finals and also hit her two earlier beam sets, fell on her two-foot layout opening sequence. Rounding out the beam medals were Guo Wei (second place) and Zhang Nan (third place).
In the men's competition, Zou Kai was the most successful with golds on both floor exercise and high bar.
On pommel horse, Xiao Qin nearly received a "perfect" score, with four B scores of 10.0 and two of 9.90.
All-around champion Yang Wei tied 2006 world rings champion Chen Yibing for the title on that apparatus.
Guo Jiahao won vault, though he is not a contender for the Olympic team. 1999, 2002 and 2003 world vault champion Li Xiaopeng competed only one vault (16.900, highest score) during preliminaries as a precaution for his foot and hence did not qualify for finals this time. Aside from Li Xiaopeng, the only other Olympic team main contender with two vaults is Lu Bin, who unfortunately suffered a major elbow injury just days before Nationals and is likely out of Olympic contention.
Technically speaking, Li Xiaopeng, Huang Xu, and Yang Wei are all legitimate contenders for Olympic gold on parallel bars. Li Xiaopeng qualified first with 16.90, followed by Huang Xu (16.70) and Yang Wei (16.65). Li was the clear favorite on this event — with what was supposed to be a 7.3 A routine (as he had done in preliminaries) — but had major mistakes during the second half and finished fifth (score 16.125, 6.9 A).
Next up for the Chinese Olympic contenders is this weekend's World Cup in Tianjin. Slated to compete for China are Cheng Fei, He Kexin, Yang Yilin and Xiao Sha for the women, and Yang Wei, Chen Yibing, Li Xiaopeng, Xiao Qin, Zou Kai and Huang Xu for the men.
2008 Chinese National Championships
May 10-11, Tianjin
1. Cheng Fei 15.812 (Double-twisting Yurchenko, 15.50/Cheng 16.125)
2. Deng Shaojie 15.45
3. Deng Linlin 14.90
1. He Kexin 17.325 (7.7 A)
2. Yang Yilin 16.725 (7.7 A)
3. Pang Panpan 16.475
4. Jiang Yuyuan 16.40
5. He Ning 16.075
1. Sui Lu 16.575 (7.0 A)
2. Guo Wei 16.500 (6.9 A)
3. Zhang Nan 16.300 (6.8 A)
4. Cheng Fei 16.175 (6.8 A)
5. Li Shanshan 16.125
6. Cui Jie 16.050
7. Hu Yuhong 15.500
8. Xiao Sha 15.30
Women's Floor Exercise
1t. Sui Lu 16.200 (6.4 A)
1t. Cheng Fei 16.200 (6.5 A)
3. Yang Yilin 15.675 (6.2 A)
4. Cui Jie 15.500
5. He Ning 15.625
6t. Guo Wei 15.500
6t. Jiang Yuyuan 15.500
8. Xiao Sha 15.450
Men's Floor Exercise
1t. Zou Kai 16.300 (6.7 A)
1t. Liang Fuliang 16.300 (6.5 A)
3. Zhang Chenglong 15.700
1. Xiao Qin (A 6.6) 16.575
2. Zhang Hongtao (A 6.6) 16.375
3. Chen Chen
1t. Chen Yibing 17.100 (7.4 A)
1t. Yang Wei 17.100 (7.5 A)
3. Yan Mingyong
1. Guo Jiahao 16.587
2. Hu Junjie 16.300
3. Liang Mingsheng 16.262
1. Huang Xu 16.800 (7.0 A)
2. Feng Zhe 16.650 (7.0 A)
3. Yang Wei 16.475 (7.0 A)
1. Zou Kai 16.55 (7.0 A)
2. Feng Zhe 15.925
3. He Jiajin 15.725