Women's gymnastics is a sport that enjoys a brief but intense window of prominence every four years — a window that stays open for the duration of the Summer Olympics. The competitors become heroes and are cherished, like Kerri Strugg and her one-legged landing in 1996 or Gabby Douglas and her landmark win in 2012, where she became the first African-American gymnast to win the Olympic all-around gold medal
But the long road to the Olympics starts years before, and 2014 is an important point on the way to 2016 and Rio's Summer Games. The World Championships, the most prestigious competition outside of the Olympics, begin on Saturday in Nanning, China.
At Worlds, countries debut their young talent, test their veterans, and hope to find the next Douglas or Strugg. And it's an opportunity for casual viewers to get acquainted with the next great American gymnasts before everybody's talking about them in two years.
Here then, is a guide (with the help of some gifs) to the field this year, some tricks to look out for, and the complex world of international gymnastics:
How scoring works
Gymnastics, like figure skating, is somewhat subjective, and scoring can be confusing. Two scores are given. A D-score measures the quantified difficulty of a routine, and the execution score is just what it sounds like and tops out at 10. Combine those two scores to get a gymnast's score for a routine. What you want to see are scores around or (the best possible scenario) far above a 15. Anything below a 14 at this level of competition is not good.
At the World Championships team event, a country may bring six gymnasts (and one alternate) to the event. Each country then chooses three gymnasts (from those six) to compete in each of the four events — bars, beam, floor, vault — and those three scores count toward the team's final score. It is possible to "hide" a gymnast from a weak event, but it works out better for a team when multiple gymnasts are able to be strong in more than one event.
Why the Americans should obliterate everyone
The Americans are heavily favored to take home the team gold this year. This is despite McKayla Maroney nursing an injury, the promising Elizabeth Price choosing to go to college instead of continuing with gymnastics, and Aly Raisman and Gabby Douglas from 2012's team mounting comebacks but not yet ready to compete internationally.
Still, there's a clear separation between the Americans and the next tier of contenders, such as Russia and China. Here's why:
The Vault: America's biggest advantage
Over the last 10 years or so, American gymnasts have essentially taken over the vault. The way this was done was through teaching a vault called the Amanar, one of the most difficult in the women's event, to young gymnasts. The vault is one-and-a-half flips, combined with two-and-a-half twists. It's named for a Romanian gymnast Simona Amanar, a seven-time Olympic medalist. Though Amanar had the vault named after her, some say 2012 gold medalist Maroney perfected it in the team finals:
Here's another look, in slow-mo, at Maroney's Olympic Amanar, one of the cleanest Amanars to date:
Maroney is nursing an injury (she had knee surgery in March) that's kept her out of competition. But Simone Biles, the reigning world champion and anchor for Team USA, has what many consider the second best Amanar in the world:
There are small differences between Biles's and Maroney's Amanars. You'll notice that Biles crossed her feet and had a small hop on the landing. She also didn't catch the height that Maroney did. Those small details are tiny deductions that keep this from being a perfect vault like Maroney's, but they shouldn't be enough to seriously derail Biles.
Biles's teammate Mykayla Skinner is also capable of another difficult vault called the Cheng. The Cheng — a half-twist onto the horse, followed by one-and-a-half flips and one-and-a-half twists — has a higher starting difficulty than the famed Amanar:
Though Skinner's form isn't perfect (she could get more height and look less like a helicopter), the vault's difficulty keeps her score very high. Biles's and Skinner's teammate Kyla Ross, the only member from 2012's gold medal-winning team competing at these championships, is also capable of landing an Amanar, though she'll probably be doing a less difficult vault.
Having three vaulters who will reliably rack up good scores is crucial, because the team aspect of gymnastics rewards depth. If a team has three gymnasts capable of hitting difficult vaults (one of whom is the best vaulter at the moment) when most countries have one or two, it gives that team a big advantage.
And the US team has had steady stable of capable vaulters (in 2012, Jordyn Wieber, Gabby Douglas, Aly Raisman, Mckayla Maroney, and Ross all had Amanars), which isn't the case for chief rival Russia, which has struggled to teach its gymnasts the vault. Back at the 2012 Olympics, as GIF guru Elspeth Reeve reported, Russia's inability to cleanly and consistently land difficult vaults put the team in a hole against the US that it couldn't climb out of.
The Floor Exercise: Biles's bread and butter
Usually, powerful vaulters are pretty good at floor exercise, too. That was the case with Raisman and Wieber from the 2012 Olympic team, and it continues with Biles, the reigning world champion. She's known for packing a lot of difficulty into her tumbling passes, like this effortless (and huge — look at how much air she gets) double-double (twisting/flipping):
She's also known for the "Biles," a double layout with a half turn:
Biles's prowess — she consistently scores on or above 15 — on the floor and vault give the U.S. an edge. Skinner and the always consistent Ross have capable floor routines as well.
Uneven Bars: Room for improvement
While American gymnasts have created a tradition of excellence in the vault and floor, they haven't yet mastered the uneven bars. In fact, bars have traditionally been a weakness for the U.S. team. Back in 2012, the Americans amassed a huge lead after their vault rotation, only to see it all but disappear after the Russians dominated on the bars.
The American weakness on bars is due to a number of reasons (training, discipline, coaches, etc.), but the primary one is that the bars require timing and finesse. They can't be muscled through the way tumbling or a vault can. Power gymnasts tend to struggle on the bars, and the US is really good at producing power gymnasts.
In 2012, the uneven bars were the Achilles heel of Jordyn Wieber, the top U.S. gymnast at the time. This year, the bars are considered Biles's weakest event. Though Biles brings a lot of power to the bars, there are small form breaks, like the separation of her legs during this transition from the low to high bar, that prevent her from getting stellar scores:
The bars reward straight lines, pointed toes, and straight handstands. Russians, like 2012 gold medalist Aliya Mustafina and Viktoria Komova, are excellent at this:
Mustafina, who will be competing at the World Championships against Biles, often ties together tricks and release moves in transition, cranking up her score:
But Biles is improving. And the US also has some good bar workers coming up the ranks. One of those is Ashton Locklear. This past summer, Locklear took home gold at the Secret U.S. Classic, scoring a 15.7 on her routine:
Locklear will be 18 when the 2016 Olympics roll around. These World Championships could be a test run to see how she does on an international stage, against competitors from Russia and China.
The Beam: Steady and solid
The balance beam is a test of mental toughness. Very often, a small bobble will sit with even the best of gymnasts and gnaw away at her routine. The best balance beam workers are the ones who can forget a small mistake and those who don't even think about falling.
While the US isn't as strong collectively on beam as it is as vaulting and tumbling on floor exercise, its gymnasts are solid. The key to unlocking the balance beam is to tie in difficult moves in succession without any bobbles like this pass from Katelyn Ohashi, a once-promising but oft-injured American gymnast, which ends in a twisting layout:
At the World Championships, many eyes will be on Kyla Ross. Ross was picked to the Olympic team in 2012 because of her consistency and because of her elegance. Both of these qualities shine on balance beam and in moves like this ring leap, where Ross shows off beautiful extension:
Ross also has some beautiful combinations, like this leap into a back tuck:
In order to keep the advantage on floor and vault and not lose any ground to Russians on the bars, the Americans need to make sure their beam performance is as good as their chief rivals. As mentioned, beam is all about mental toughness, and Biles and Ross are two of the mentally toughest athletes in the game.
What the US's chief rivals look like
The rest of the world is in a similar position to the US. Many countries are fielding younger teams because team members are nursing injuries. Some are evaluating young talent and doing homework for 2016. Here's what the Americans' top rivals look like:
Who to look out for: The only given here is Aliya Mustafina. Mustafina has been a constant on the Russian team and is always a threat on the bars. She comes into the World Championships nursing a plethora of injuries and without the help of her sidekick, 2012 silver all-around medalist Viktoria Komova, who is injured.
It appears Russia will be using this competition as a chance to test the likes of 15-year-old Maria Kharenkova, who has shown flashes of brilliance on events like floor and beam. This tumbling pass, featuring two whipbacks, is quite lovely:
Biggest weakness: Inexperience and the vault.
Who to look out for: The children. China is one of the most controversial countries in gymnastics today because its gymnasts often look very, very young.
Half of the Chinese gymnasts that competed in the 2008 Olympics looked like they were still in the process of losing their baby teeth. This led to many questions and some investigations which led to weird paperwork that said some of their gymnasts were younger than 16 (the age limit). The International Gymnastics Federation said it trusts the passports that the Chinese government provided.
This year is no different. Shang Chunsong (L) and Yao Jinnan (Center) are, according to their government papers, 18 and 19 years old:
In women's gymnastics, the older a competitor gets, the worse off she is. The physics of gymnastics favors the light and limber. Flipping and swinging become a lot easier when you're tiny — Gabby Douglas, the all-around Olympic champion in 2012, was 4'8" and 90 pounds when she won the gold. Therein lies the motivation to get the youngest, smallest athletes out there. It's why throwing out a team of children and lying about their ages might be something a country — any country — might do.
There's also the factor of puberty. Gymnastics favors small, lean women and the subjective eyes of judges favor women who look "long" on the uneven bars and in floor routines. Because women cannot control how their bodies change shape after puberty, once promising gymnasts can have their dreams thwarted by those changes. By picking gymnasts that haven't hit puberty, the Chinese can avert both problems: it doesn't have to worry about hips and breasts, and its gymnasts are guaranteed to be shorter.
That said, the Chinese, like the Russians, are strong at bars. And Yao Jinnan, a sturdy veteran, will lead the team. She performed a skill called the Mo Salto in 2013, which takes your breath away:
Yao also has beautiful pirouettes on the bar:
Biggest weakness: Youth. China's team is full of youngsters (regardless of whether or not they are the age China says they are), who have little experience on the world stage.
Romania and Great Britain
Who to look out for: These teams are probably on the outside looking in, but they shouldn't be underestimated. Britain is constantly improving and is going to lean on star Claudia Fragapane and her strong tumbling in the floor exercise.
Likewise, Romania will be looking to its veteran star Larisa Iordache for leadership. Iordache has been here before and is capable of stringing together some big skills on the beam. This sequence, which ends in a full-twisting layout, is extremely difficult:
Biggest weakness: Depth. Iordache and Fragapane don't have talented wing women. They need their teammates to step up.
Why the U.S. and Biles should win gold, in four charts
The beauty of gymnastics is that you can actually look at how a gymnast improves (or doesn't) based on their scores. They perform the same routines over and over, and if they're getting better at them, the scores reflect that. A blogger at the site hitting4for4 has compiled the scores of the world's top gymnasts over the past year and found that Biles's scores (aside from a fall on the beam at the P&G championships in August) on her weaker events (beam and bars) are trending upward:
Mustafina, Biles's chief international rival, has scores that aren't as high as Biles's have been over the past year. You'll also notice that Mustafina is giving up huge points to Biles in the vault and floor events:
Further, if you crunch Kyla Ross's numbers, you can see Ross's sterling consistency. But you'll also notice that she doesn't have the big numbers that Biles does:
Iordache's number's are similar to Ross's, but her peaks are higher, and her valleys are lower:
Gymnastics is unpredictable, and falls happen. These numbers, however, show that the leaders for the US women are more consistent and score higher than their counterparts on a regular basis. If the US doesn't win gold, a huge upset would have to happen.
How to watch the World Championships
The World Championships begin on Saturday, and the women's team final is scheduled for Wednesday. Universal Sports will have a live webstream of the women's team final from Nanning, China on Wednesday and the women's individual all-around on Friday, October 10. NBC will be broadcasting the event on tape delay on Saturday, October 11, and Sunday, October 12.