TOKYO — Four years ago, Russian gymnast Angelina Melnikova watched as the United States women’s gymnastics team steamrolled its way to the team gold medal, winning by an outrageous 8.209 points.
The U.S. was a juggernaut. There was nothing Melnikova, then 16 years old, could do except grow determined to make the next time different.
Well, the next time is here, and while the Americans should remain the favorite to win Tuesday’s team title, it was Melnikova and her Russian teammates who posted the top team score in Sunday’s qualifying, not the United States.
Russia recorded a score of 171.629 to the United States’ 170.562. That’s a 1.067 advantage. Although the scores do not carry over, the Russians should be confident that they can take down the mighty Americans in what would be a monumental upset.
“We hope that,” Melnikova told the media Sunday with a translator. “We’re also going to struggle and fight. We have to. That’s the expectation for us.”
The U.S. scored highest in qualifying in both of its consecutive team gold medal performances — in Rio de Janeiro in 2016 and London in 2012 — and every world championship since 2010.
While the Americans still are capable of winning gold, perhaps even handily, this was not a particularly impressive performance on Sunday. There were underperformances throughout. Even Simone Biles wasn’t perfect. Both Grace McCallum and Sunisa Lee were below their typical standards on the floor.
Then there was Jordan Chiles, who struggled throughout and had to be consoled by Biles after stumbling on her beam dismount. She finished with a disappointing 53.698, in 40th place overall.
As expected, Biles and Lee qualified for the all-around competition, which will take place Thursday. BIles posted the highest score of qualifying with a 57.731. Lee was third at 57.166, trailing Brazil’s Rebeca Andrade.
Biles, in particular, is capable of much higher, although she still qualified for all four individual finals: floor, vault, bars and beam. She has a chance, albeit unlikely, to win six gold medals.
Lee also qualified in bars and beam.
The next three top scores, however, were Russians: Melnikova (57.132), Vladislava Urazova (57.099) and Viktoria Listunova (56.93).
American team member Grace McCallum recorded a 55.165, which was also disappointing. Both Jade Carey (56.265) and Mykayla Skinner (55.398), who are here only to compete in individual events, not the team, finished higher than McCallum and Chiles, which will no doubt lead to plenty of second-guessing.
It’s too late to change team members now.
Carey was particularly strong. She qualified as a finalist in both vault and floor and likely would have made the all-around if not for a rule that prohibits more than two gymnasts per country to make the finals.
For the United States, there are two days to rest, regroup and realize the Russians are coming for them.
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