Olympic Women's Gymnastics 2012: Top Contenders, World Records & Events Primer

Avi Wolfman-ArentCorrespondent IIJuly 27, 2012

Olympic Women's Gymnastics 2012: Top Contenders, World Records & Events Primer

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    If the Wheaties boxes of yore are any indication, the women's gymnastics competition in London will produce more than a few overnight starlets.

    Who and why remains a mystery—particularly in a sport as unpredictable as women's gymnastics—but the tea leaves of the last four years leave us with some names and teams to watch.

    Read ahead for a quick rundown of the six medal events and a primer on the most talented and intriguing athletes in each.

Schedule

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    Sunday, July 29

    Qualification: Five sessions beginning at 4:30 am, 6:15 am, 9:45 am, 11:30 am and 3 pm respectively

    Tuesday, July 31

    Team Final: 11:30 am

    Thursday, August 2

    Individual All-Around Final: 11:30 am

    Sunday, August 5

    Vault Final: 9:50 am

    Monday, August 6

    Uneven Bars Final: 9:50 am

    Tuesday, August 7

    Balance Beam Final: 9:47 am

    Floor Exercise Final: 11:23 am

    Note: All start times are Eastern Daylight Time.

Team Competition

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    Rules: Eight teams qualify for event final based on combined preliminary scores and are seeded accordingly. In the final, teams select three gymnasts to perform on each apparatus. All scores count toward the final tally.

    Defending Olympic Champion: China

    Defending World Champion: United States

    Date: Tuesday, July 31

     

    TOP CONTENDERS

    United States: For the third Olympic cycle in a row, Team USA comes to the Summer Games as defending world champs. After settling for silver in Athens and Beijing, the Americans hope their vaulting supremacy helps them buck an unsettling trend.

    Russia: The Russians reached an almost unimaginable nadir four years ago, failing to bring home a women's gymnastics medal for the first time in their 12-year Olympic history. They've since reloaded, particularly on uneven bars, and are the most likely candidate to upset Team USA.

    China: The Chinese are strong where Team USA is weak (most notably on beam), but lack punch elsewhere.

    Romania: The longtime gymnastics power disappointed at the 2011 World Championships. But as B/R's Emily Bayci points out, Romania seems to be adding difficulty on vault and could nab a surprise medal.

Individual All-Around

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    Rules: The top 24 gymnasts in qualification (max. two from each country) compete in the event final. Finalists compete on all four apparatuses, with the highest combined score taking gold.

    Defending Olympic Champion: Nastia Liukin, United States

    Defending World Champion: Jordyn Wieber, United States

    Date: Thursday, August 1

     

    TOP CONTENDERS

    Jordyn Wieber, United States: The reigning world all-around champ doesn't stand out on any particular apparatus, but she's strong in all four rotations and rarely errs.

    Gabby Douglas, United States: The outgoing, high-flying Douglas has long been a fan favorite, but it wasn't until she upset Wieber at U.S. Trials that she went from lurking medal contender to front-line favorite. A risk taker who can post gaudy scores when she hits her marks, Douglas will have gymnastics fans everywhere rapt with attention when she takes the floor.

    Viktoria Komova, Russia: The uneven bars maestro finished a close second to Wieber at 2011 Worlds despite lingering injury concerns. If healthy, she's the most dangerous threat to U.S. supremacy.

    Aliya Mustafina, Russia: After ACL surgery wiped away much of her 2011 season, the 2010 world champ is something of an unknown heading to London. At her best, Mustafina is a wrecking ball of artistry, athleticism and confidence.

    Yao Jinnan, China: China's best all-arounder does stellar work on beam and bars. She took bronze at last year's World Championships.

    Larissa Iordache, Romania: Romania's best hope for an all-around medal is the only non-Russian, non-American gymnast with a difficulty score in the world's top ten according to the ace bloggers at The All Around. (UPDATE: Iordache has plantar fasciitis and looks iffy for the all-around. Stay tuned.)

    Aly Raisman, United States: With only two gymnasts per country permitted in the all-around final, Raisman's toughest task will be qualifying. If she can clear that hurdle, Team USA's most senior member is plenty capable of earning a medal.

Vault

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    Rules: The eight highest-scoring gymnasts in qualification advance to the event final (max. two per country). Each athlete gets two vault attempts in the final, with the highest average score taking gold.

    Defending Olympic Champion: Hong Un-jong, North Korea

    Defending World Champion: McKayla Maroney, United States

    Date: Sunday, August 5

     

    TOP CONTENDERS

    McKayla Maroney, United States: The defending world champ suffered a scary fall in warm-ups at Visa Nationals, but bounced back nicely at U.S. Trials. Assuming no symptoms resurface, she's the oddsmaker's favorite. (UPDATE: Maroney confirmed to NBCOlympics.com that she will be competing with a broken toe. In podium training she was able to hit her vault without incident.)

    Oksana Chusovitina, Germany: The ageless wonder competed in her first Olympic Games three years before McKayla Maroney was born and finished second to her American counterpart at 2011 Worlds.

    Sandra Izbasa, Romania: The 2008 veteran won gold in Beijing on floor exercise and has been hard at work upgrading her vault difficulty.

    Phan Thi Ha Thanh, Vietnam: Phan surprised many with a third-place finish at 2011 Worlds, but, as The Couch Gymnast reports, has struggled in the year since amid sundry coaching changes.

    Yamilet Pena Abreu, Dominican Republic: It's always good to see a few non-traditional gymnastics powers in the mix, and although Pena is unlikely to medal, she does feature the kind of difficulty that can make things interesting.

Uneven Bars

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    Rules: The eight highest-scoring gymnasts in qualification advance to the event final (max. two per country). Each athlete performs one routine, with the best score taking gold.

    Defending Olympic Champion: He Kexin

    Defending World Champion: Viktoria Komova

    Date: Monday, August 6

     

    TOP CONTENDERS

    Viktoria Komova, Russia: The reigning world champ remains among the world's best.

    Beth Tweddle, Great Britain: The home country's best medal hope has been a contender on bars dating back to the early aughts. Still with no Olympic medals to her name, London represents her last, best chance for a Summer Games breakthrough.

    He Kexin, China: One of the gymnasts implicated in China's 2008 age scandal, He struggled to make the Olympic team, but is purported to have recently upgraded her routine and should have one of the highest difficulty scores in the competition.

    Huang Qiushuang, China: While the latest buzz about Huang relates to her vault upgrades and all-around potential, her bread is still buttered on bars.

    Gabby Douglas, United States: Nicknamed the "Flying Squirrel" for her soaring athleticism, Douglas can elevate like you wouldn't believe.

    Aliya Mustafina, Russia: Mustafina was one of the world's best before injuring her knee in 2011. When all is well, her dismount can wow.

Balance Beam

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    Rules: The eight highest-scoring gymnasts in qualification advance to the event final (max. two per country). Each athlete performs one routine, with the best score taking gold.

    Defending Olympic Champion: Shawn Johnson

    Defending World Champion: Sui Lu

    Date: Tuesday, August 7

     

    TOP CONTENDERS

    Sui Lu, China: Left off the 2008 team, Sui has bounced back with medals at each of the last three World Championships. The most recent was a gold medal on beam that augurs well for London.

    Catalina Ponor, Romania: Ponor, who won this event in 2004, came out of retirement last year to gear up for one last Olympic run.

    Larissa Ioardache, Romania: Romania's best all-arounder mixes difficulty and grace with surprising aplomb.

    Yao Jinnan, China: The 2011 world silver medalist on this apparatus has competed sparingly in the past year.

Floor Exercise

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    Rules: The eight highest-scoring gymnasts in qualification advance to the event final (max. two per country). Each athlete performs one routine, with the best score taking gold.

    Defending Olympic Champion: Sandra Izbasa, Romania

    Defending World Champion: Ksenia Afanaseyva, Russia

    Date: Tuesday, August 7

     

    TOP CONTENDERS

    Aly Raisman, United States: Fans of Bar Mitzvah revelry will be pleased to know that Raisman, a sturdy, explosive athlete, performs her routine to Hava Nagila. Mazel!

    Larisa Iordache, Romania: According to The All Around, only Raisman has a more difficult routine than the 16-year-old Romanian upstart.

    Lauren Mitchell, Australia: By winning gold at the 2010 World Championships, Mitchell became her home country's first ever world champion.

    Jordyn Wieber, United States: Her name could pop up in any of the four event finals, but her power is particularly well-received on floor.

    Ksenia Afanaseyva, Russia: Team Russia's veteran leader won gold at last year's World Championships.

    Catalina Ponor, Romania: The latest news of podium training is that she's added difficulty to what was already a stellar routine.

    Vanessa Ferrari, Italy: In her frequent battles with the press, veteran Italian gymnast Vanessa Ferrari can come off as combative, melancholic and, at times, even tortured. But when her head is on straight, the woman they call "The Cannibal" can hang with the best.

Records of Note

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    Most Career Medals: Larysa Latynina, USSR (18)

    Most Career Gold Medals: Larysa Latynina, USSR (9)

    Most Medals in One Olympiad: Mariya Horokhovska, USSR (7)

    Most Team Gold Medals: Soviet Union (9)