ANTWERP, 10:15 a.m.: Fresh air in the morning! Eschewing the luxury of organized transport, the Russian women's team opted to walk from their hotel down the Jan van Rijswijcklaan to the training venue at the Antwerp Expo. I saw them from the tram, about two stops away from the Expo. (Members of the media tend to walk as little as possible during large events, and consume lots of chocolate while watching others perform extraordinary feats of athleticism. This competition will be no exception.)
The three Romanians (Sandra Izbasa, Larisa Iordache and Stefania Stanila) were working out on beam when I arrived at Training Hall Three. That is, Izbasa was stretching and Iordache nad Stanila were up on the beam. Iordache trains beam much like she competes it -- calmly and fearlessly. She didn't do many of her super hard skills, and seemed to be polishing (I saw several full turns with leg at head.)
Stanila, a last-minute replacement for the injured Diana Bulimar, stood at attention (think the U.S. team camps when Martha Karolyi is addressing them) every time a coach addressed her. She gives the impression of someone on an all-day job interview. Which for her is basically what this is. Stanila, who competed as a Junior at last year's European Championships, does have excellent longer lines, a bit reminiscent of Amelia Racea.
Fashion note: For training, the Romanians have gray warmup suits which they layer puffy purple vests over.
The Romanians don't look like they're pushing too much -- for them, it was a chill session. At the end of the beam workout, in fact, they stood around for a bit and chatted with Octavian Bellu. Business as usual.
10:35 a.m.: Under the watchful eyes of her coach, a very fit looking Sanne Wevers worked out on beam. Wonderful, wonderful turns -- they're even better in person than they are on film. She does them more easily and comfortably on beam than any gymnast I've ever seen.
Leotard award of the morning goes to the Irish, who were working out on uneven bars in emerald green leos with a three-leaf clover cutout in the back. No doubt about what country they represent, is there?
11:00 a.m.: The duo from Chinese Taipei, Yu Chun Chen and Yu Ju Lo, were especially cute on floor, with lots of laughing and happy faces as they went through their tumbling. One of them did an especially good 2.5 twist and breathed a huge, almost comic sigh of relief, which made her teammate giggle even more.
11:15 a.m.: Said hello to the French, who like many of the athletes when done with workout took the opportunity to chill out in the large reception area just off the training halls. The French men have sent six of their best -- Danny Pinheiro-Rodrigues, Samir Ait-Said, Axel Augis, Arnaud Willig, Cyril Tommasone and Hamilton Sabot -- here and given their overall strength at the moment are probably disappointed that there is no team competition this year.
Their coach said they had been training in Ghent, Belgium for the past few days to acclimate themselves to the Janssen-Fritsen equipment that will be used here. (At home, they train with French supplier Gymnova.) Any big differences in the two equipment makers? Not really, the coach said, except for the pommel horse, which apparently has slightly bigger pommels than Gymnova's.
11:30 a.m.: USA in the halls! The four U.S. women -- Simone Biles, Kyla Ross, Brenna Dowell and McKayla Maroney, are standing at attention at a corner of the floor in hall three, ready to begin their workout. Interestingly, also in here right now is Alexander Alexandrov, wearing a tracksuit of Brazilian blue and overseeing the workout of Leticia Costa and Daniele Hypolito.
Also here: Italians Carlotta Ferlito, Vanessa Ferrari and Alessia Leolini. Italy's fourth I don't recognize, but she'll be the replacement for 2000 Olympian Adriana Crisci, who tore her ACL just before this event.
11:40 a.m.: After their general stretch, the U.S. women move to bars, where they continue to condition. (Pull up/leg lefts and hanging on the bar upside down and doing crunches, as well as cast handstands.)
And boom! The first real piece of gymnastics anyone does this session comes from Brazil's Costa, who without warning rips off a huge double Arabian and follows up with a big double pike. (Huge noise from the floor as she lands.) That is some big impressive tumbling. Is this Alexandrov's doing? Probably not -- maybe she's a former protege of Oleg Ostapenko?
11:50 a.m.: Photographer Grace Chiu stops by and chats about her hotel near the venue, where Tandoori Chicken has his own bed. A few other teams are staying there too, Grace says, which is how she has photos of the Chinese men's team and coaches hauling several shopping bags full of groceries through the streets of Antwerp.
Grace also says that for this competition, Canada's Victoria Moors will revert to her old floor routine, to "Assassin's Tango" for this competition. The reason: She can do four tumbling passes with that one, whereas she can't with the routine she's been competing all year. Moors is also working on another completely new floor routine as well.
11:58 a.m.: Gotta hand it to Jessica Lopez and Vanessa Ferrari. What veterans! They both look so focused and so well prepared, and their polish really stands out. Ferrari's beam is very correct in terms of hitting 180 on her splits and such, and the presentation and dance are just so...mature. So much improved from when she was a young senior before the 2008 Olympics.
But nowhere is that improvement more pronounced than on floor, where she has a sharp new tango routine for this season. After her heartbreaking finish on floor at the Olympics last year, a lot of fans will want to see a medal for her on that event here.
Lopez is swinging great bars, connecting her Tkatchev to inbar Geinger very well.
Fashion notes: Italians in brilliant turquoise, Brazilians in black and white Adidas with yellow racing stripes, Americans in a deep rose and black color. Lopez is in a pink and black flowered leo.
12:03 p.m.: The Americans commence in earnest on bars. Just saw a great toe Tkatchev half to bail from Brenna Dowell. Very well connected, and her height on the Tkatchev half is quite impressive. She misses the connection the next time she goes, however (overcooks the bail) but continues the routine. Great full twisting double layout dismount.
Simone Biles on bars is calm and focused and does her pike Tkatchev to Pak very well. She struggles a little on her toe stalder -- it's not quite as fluid as you might like to see.
McKayla Maroney is training bars as well. Just saw a full set from her, with good full twisting double dismount. It's not flawless, but it would service in an emergency (oh man, that sounds meaner than it was meant to). Dowell is cleaner on the event, but there does seem to be some question about that Tkatchev/bail combo...
12:13 p.m.: You know how the Romanian women generally talk each other through a bar routine? (You can hear them chattering and yelling encouragement from the sidelines.) They really commentate the thing, and are always saying something. Martha Karolyi does exactly the same thing to the Americans in their training on bars...
On floor, Carlotta Ferlito has a wonderful, expressive routine. Italian floor choreo these days is up there with Italian tailoring. Wonderful stuff. She takes some form with her triple twist, however, much like Aliya Mustafina does -- same bent, crossed legs.
12:18 p.m.: Kyla Ross looks like her usual solid self on bars. Beautiful double layout dismount, usually done with a tiny hop they'd like to erase. She did just fall on an undercooked toe stalder, though...
12:23 p.m.: Italy's replacement for Crisci is Francesca Deagostini, who helped their team qualify for London at the 2012 Test Event and also competed at the 2012 Euros. (She was injured and did not go to the Games.) Deagostini looks much taller than she did last year, but still pulls around a decent full in pike on floor.
The younger one, first year senior Alessia Leolini, is a sharp tumbler who is sometimes a bit wild and low on her landings. She's working an Arabian double front and full in tuck on floor.
12:30 p.m.: The Americans are working it on beam. Full routine from Maroney: Solid front pike, well done. Bhs, layout, also solid. Front tuck. Switch to switch half to back tuck, well done. Really no wobbles in this so far. Side aerial. Side somie. Almost comes off on switch side, which incites a flurry of correction from Martha. Double pike dismount with a step back.
Well, like bars, it's not a routine that's going to make her famous, but it's serviceable. But will they let her compete it?
Dowell goes up right after her. Punch front mount to scissone. Front aerial. Small wobble. Pause. Switch to full twisting bhs. Bhs, layout, small wobble. Split, straddle jumps. Switch half. Some of her jumps lack a bit of amplitude, like she's being a tad cautious. Side somie. Bhs, bhs, double tuck, a little low.
Biles's two bhs to full twisting double tuck dismount is just a thing of beauty. Amazing.
Maroney goes up and does another full routine, just as solid as the first, but with a wobble this time on her side somie. Maybe this is how the Americans will decide who competes beam: Maroney and Dowell will just keep doing full routines one after another until someone falls. The winner gets to compete beam.
Maroney gets up on beam one more time and does about five switch sides, each one perfect.
12:52 p.m.: Who needs mats? The uber-disciplined Chinese, in bright yellow Li Ning t-shirts and purple leotards, are awaiting the beginning of their training session by conditioning just off the floor, walking around on their hands and doing press ups and handstand pushups with the help of a coach.
Loving the floor music of the two Egyptians, who have opted for big Arabian/Indian beats, the stuff that makes you move around in your seat as you listen to it.
Over on beam, the Ukrainains are looking like...Ukrainians on beam. Krystyna Sankova and Olena Vasilyeva are two new seniors with elegance to spare and plenty of potential, but, well, a fair number of falls from the little I saw. Angelina Kysla, the veteran, looked more controlled.
1:01 p.m.: In her white sweater with "Russia" written on it and hair tied up in a neat bun, 2010 World champion Aliya Mustafina is beginning her general stretch in the warmup hall. She looks like she means business. This should be fun...
On beam, Brazil's Costa is working a standing Arabian. There was a quad when that skill was everywhere, but it's much more rare now.
1:11 p.m.: Something is always happening to Tatiana Nabieva! She was just surrounded by her teammates and a couple of coaches out at the edge of the floor. They were holding team jackets spread out around her while she stood there fidgeting. I think maybe she was changing her leotard and this was the Russian way of making sure she wasn't changing in front of everyone?
Spotted in the corridor outside the training hall: Russian national team coordinator Andrei Rodionenko.
1:20 p.m.: It takes the Russians awhile to get going on bars. There's a lot of chalking, a lot of spraying the bars, a lot of Shaposhnikovas to bent legs to jumping down. If they make a mistake, even a small one that could be easily covered, they jump off. But this is the Russian way, has been the Russian way for at least the past few years, and has never really hindered their results (at least, not on bars.)
Unlike the Americans, there seems to be no possibility for discussion about who will do what on bars -- Maria Paseka is not training them, while Anna Rodionova is going on them fairly hard in this session compared to Mustafina and Nabieva (a minute ago, young Rodionova got through half a routine.)
But for all that, Nabieva does have great swing, and so does Mustafina. Don't stress, Russian fans -- they should be fine.
1:42 p.m.: Just in case anyone was wondering, Yao Jinnan is serious about doing the Mo salto in competition -- the Chinese are on bars, they are fabulous, and Yao just did a full routine that included the Mo. It was pretty breathtaking as a skill, thrown casually in with a whole lot of other hard skills.
1:48 p.m.: Every single Chinese gymnast is just exquisite to watch on bars and beam. Every single one seems capable of winning either title here. Lovely moment on beam just now from Zeng Siqi -- right before her dismount, she seems to blow a kiss to the crowd (and, ostensibly, the judges.)
1:54 p.m.: Russians on beam: Like Russians on bars, a lot of single skills, a lot of pausing and thinking and then going again. Call it the minimalist training style: You take fewer turns, but you give your max on each one.
2:04 p.m.: And yet, when the Russians do good things, they are just stunningly beautiful. Like the picture perfect switch half to Onodi to double turn that Mustafina executed just now. You can do a skill a thousand times, and maybe it becomes second nature after awhile, but to make it look like that is worth it even if you can't do it all the time.
Rodionova has a nice bhs, Arabian combination on beam also. As for Nabieva, she is giving more shrift to her dance and presentation than she did a few years ago when she practically rolled her eyes while waving her arms about and waiting to do the next acrobatic trick. Nowadays, at least she seems to see its merit as an opportunity to breathe between skills.
2:14 p.m.: New floor routine for Nabieva since the Universiade, I believe. It starts out a bit dark and becomes a bit flowery -- there's even a part with a xylophone! Then becomes lyrical with a violin. It's certainly a piece of music that tells a story. Much, much improved choreo/expression, too. Tumbling passes: Triple full (some leg form, not nearly as bad as Mustafina's), 2.5 to front layout half and double pike. And she did all of them well! She looks happy and animated after, chatting with her coach, doing a Memmel turn and smiling brightly as she turns back to him, as though to say: "See? I can so do it!"
2:16 p.m.: Mustafina's music begins, she tumbles two whips to double Arabian! Hello, Aliya 2013! Second pass is 2.5 to punch front. Well! Also a new routine for her, music is something like Nabieva's, but with more choral humming, slower and y'know, all epic. Triple full, messy legs. Double tuck to end. After, Mustafina does another, better triple full. Her coach may have been reminding her to straighten her legs a bit.
Anna Rodionova floor: Full in tuck. 1.5 to double full. Kind of a fast-paced gypsy tango, Russian style. As a gymnast, she's an interesting mix: the blondness of Nastia Liukin, the way of moving of Viktoria Komova, a bit of Maria Paseka in there as well. Coach steps in to spot her fourth pass, a double tuck.
2:21 p.m.: Speaking of Maria Paseka, she's dyed her hair dark brown. And from a distance, it makes her look exactly like Catalina Ponor.
2:45 p.m.: Took a brief time out to enjoy the Chinese on floor. Zeng Siqi, Yao Jinnan and Huang Huidan all did dance throughs (jazzy and kind of modern for Yao, a slightly Arabian flavored piece punctuated with lots of drumming for Huang and a lovely, unusually light "Scent of a Woman" for Zeng). Although she did not do any dance throughs at all, Shang Chunsong outtumbled everyone, showing her 1.5 to triple full to immediate punch front twice.
2:50 p.m.: The foray into the other training hall was also a chance to look at the four Canadians (Kaitlyn Hofland, Ellie Black, Victoria Moors and Maegan Chant). They were on beam, and while there was some nervousness (and some falls) everyone seemed very collected. The standout for me was Hofland, who has eye-catching choreography and performs it well. She's also upgraded her dismount, and is now doing a gainer full off the end of the beam, a skill that was named for Switzerland's Guilia Steingruber a couple of years ago.
3:32 p.m.: Halfway through the first day of training. So, at this point everyone has been in the gym once today (and everyone will go twice.) Here are a couple of highlights of what's been viewed so far, with much more still to come:
1. Yao Jinnan's Mo salto. It exists! And yes, it looks like she's planning to throw it here. If she does, it will be the first time anyone has done it in World or Olympic competition since 1996.
2. Aliya Mustafina ups the ante on floor. We won't get to see the excellent Ksenia Afanasyeva here at Worlds this year, but Musatfina has taken a trick from Afan's book by adding two whips before her Arabian double front on her new floor routine.
3. Veterans behaving like veterans. Clean and sharp training this morning from Vanessa Ferrari and Jessica Lopez, both of whom look at the top of their game here.
3:41 p.m.: So, we re-commence with the Romanians, who are warming up near the beam. Sandra Izbasa, who sat out of this morning's session (as far as I saw), looks like she will participate here. Izbasa bounds down the floor and does a front handspring, then bounds up in the air and does what for all the world looks like a karate kick, just for fun. The day's best "hehe" moment so far.
3:48 p.m.: Octavian Bellu steps in to spot Larisa Iordache on her double double tuck on floor. Iordache's tumbling seems set: Double double mount, full in tuck follow up, terrific triple twist that puts the Russians to shame. Strong stuff.
Stefania Stanila has a pretty good triple full herself. She's also working 2.5 to punch front, double pike and double tuck. By the Romanian standards, her start values at their National championships were a tad low by international standards, but the Romanians (unlike the French and the Australians) seem to think that giving a gymnast the experience of a World Championships is never a bad idea.
3:52 p.m.: Noting Iordache's floor routine: 1. It's odd to see her not dancing to Spanish music. 2. She's quite talented at sticking her tumbling passes, putting those feet down and not moving. 3. She's attempting a quad turn and getting about 3.25 rotations in.
Stanila's music is a Mexican piece, with very typical Romanian choreography.
Oooh, gorgey floated 2.5 to front layout full just now from Izbasa. She seemed to hang in the air for about half an hour on that last skill. Perhaps after the Olympic event final she went and did that pass 500 times in a row. Her 1.5 to triple full to bouncy single stag is all there, too. Great stuff.
Izabasa's floor set is just as good. The music is not hyper fast, but it makes you want to look at the gymnast who's dancing to it. Watching Izbasa is like watching experience. She knows what she needs to do to be successful during the competition, but at the same time, she looks so relaxed talking with Bellu, making her points. She's got nothing left to prove. She's completely at ease.
4:10 p.m.: Oh, didn't see this this morning, but it's AWESOME. Mustafina is bringing it at this World Championships. Check out her new skill on bars (Maloney with a full twist to mixed grip!) Eeeeee! Watch it here, captured by Gymnastike. Wow, right?
4:26 p.m.: Over in the second training hall, North Korea's Hong Un Jong is grinding out the Amanars on vault. Her Amanar looks strong, especially given that she is doing that off a podium, on concrete with a thin runway mat over it. Hong is having a bit more trouble with her Cheng (roundoff, half on, front layout 1.5 twist off) -- for that one, her coach stands on a tall block and spots her, giving her a bit of a boost on height as she comes off the horse.
It's incredible, just incredible, that Hong won the Olympic gold medal on vault five years ago...and is still doing the same two vaults well today.
4:30 p.m.: Had a nice chat with one of the Icelandic coaches, who told me a bit about their team. Gymnastics is quite popular in Iceland, she explained, but many desert artistic gymnastics for Team Gym, where routines are performed in groups. (Team Gym is especially popular in Northern Europe.) Team Gym's also got a reputation for being easier than artistic gymnastics -- but then again, most things are easier than artistic gymnastics.
Iceland's gymnasts in Antwerp are Worlds veteran Agnes Suto and newcomers Norma Robertsdottir and Tinna Odinsdottir.
4:45 p.m.: Hungary's Noemi Makra, who will make her Worlds debut here, is in a very pretty sparkly purple competition leo and showing off her good technique all over the floor (excellent leaps). Makra is working on adding a quad turn to her routine here. Meanwhile, the U.S. women are back in the gym, warming up.
Over on beam, Iordache is working on her routine with the two full twists (bhs to tucked full and then roundoff to layout full). She showed that routine at a World Cup in the spring to prove that she could do it, then played it safer a the European Championships and took out the layout full. Looks like she'll throw it here. It's been awhile since there's been a layout full at Worlds...
4:50 p.m.: Meanwhile, the floor goddess who is Vasiliki Millousi of Greece is showing off her new routine, a soft, extremely elegant piece with bolero music and female vocals that is sheer pleasure to watch. Just lovely work.
5:04 p.m.: Just told Uncle Tim that I'll shave my head if Aliya Mustafina attempts a triple-twisting Yurchenko here. (There were some rumors that she might.) Didn't see the Russians vault yet, but...yeah. McKayla Maroney seems to be the only person who looks capable of it.
5:13 p.m.: Just in case you were wondering, Simone Biles does her Amanar just as easily off a podium as she does on one. So does Maroney. Kyla Ross, who did compete Amanars in 2011, is sticking with the DTY, which she does just about a well as it can be done. But the bigger battle for the U.S. women comes on the second vault. Maroney never rips off a roundoff, half on, front layout full off -- she works up to it in stages. Biles has not shown a Cheng either.
Another person who's just cranking out the Amanars is Brenna Dowell, who just made her third one in a row. They were all identical.
Over on bars, Jessica Lopez's pike Tkatchev to Pak is looking great.
Italy's Francesca Deagostini put forth a solid beam set capped with a double pike. Deagostini always excelled on beam, but had a knee operation that kept her out of training for 15 months. She's returned to the sport at least six inches taller. It does look like the growth has given her a bit more power, actually.
All warmed up, McKayla Maroney just nailed her second vault. Stuck cold. Wow!
5:31 p.m.: How do you train a full twisting double tuck to immediate back tuck, anyway? The Vanessa Ferrari method: Put a springboard in the middle of the floor. Do a handstand on it, then do snapdown to back tuck full to back tuck.
5:35 p.m.: Italy's Carlotta Ferlito really deserves more credit as one of the world's more solid beamers. The only thing wrong with her routine is that she bends her legs on her 2.5 twist dismount. But her on-beam work, there's nary a wobble.
5:43 p.m.: You know, for all the talk about how the U.S. is "weak" on bars, they really look quite good up there. Dowell's consistency problems with her toe Tkatchev half to bail seem to be gone, and Ross cuts a beautiful figure with her long lines and all that good form. As to whether Ross can medal against the likes of Mustafina and Yao and Nabieva and Huang Huidan and their big skills, well...
5:58 p.m.: Ferlito is at the chalk bowl near the floor when a spicy tango piece starts blaring from the other training hall (the music Shawn Johnson would have used in 2011). Ferlito does a little shimmy, because hey, it's a good piece of music, then looks around furtively to see if anybody saw her doing it.
6:09 p.m.: American training on beam is simply full routine after full routine after full routine. But if who does all-around comes down to beam (because Dowell is superior to Maroney on bars), Dowell looks like she's earning her place on beam as well. That's nothing against Maroney, who has improved on her weaker events during the past year and looks more solid in general on beam especially.
Biles has looked a little rattled on beam this evening, falling once on her layout and having a few little concentration breaks here and there. You can tell how hard she's focusing by just looking at her. But she does look a trifle nervous. Actually, after this intense two-a-day in the training hall, the Americans are starting to look a little fatigued. Biles and Dowell, up there on beam now, are probably going through what is their 10th full beam set today.
6:16 p.m.: Maroney, the team "chalkaholic," really does look like her lower body was just dipped in a big tub of chalk. Her legs are eggshell white, while her arms are sporting a decent tan.
6:36 p.m.: Over on floor, it's Brenna Dowell vs. the Full Twisting Double Layout, and sad to report it, but the FTDLO is winning. She just crashed one -- not enough juice, it's late in the day and the workout, etc. Simone Biles is doing full in tucks the way that ordinary gymnasts do regular back tucks, and McKayla Maroney is refining her double pike (the last one was stuck). Team doctor Larry Nasser is for some reason walking around with his hands plunged in sandwich bags filled with ice.
Coach Armine Fong gave Dowell an extra mat and had her do a double layout, but she fell again. She just looks exhausted. Americans are done for the day.
7:09 p.m.: With half an hour left before the next session begins, we're being treated to the Jessica Lopez Show on beam and floor. Lopez did a whole bunch of layout timers for her beam dismount before finally doing a great 2.5 twist to the delight of coach Nilson Savage, who clapped his hands in delight. She did one dance through on floor and has moved to vault now, where she's doing layout timers off a springboard
Hm. A strong Jessica Lopez in the all-around after a 10th place finish at the Rotterdam Worlds in 2010...where would you put her?
7:35 p.m.: Russia appears to be skipping their second session of the day, but in the gym right now we have France, India, Denmark and Austria. The French have a warmup "dance" that they do, which is designed not only to stretch but to promote artistry and grace and is always nice to watch. China, however, is taking full advantage of its second session of the day, with Shang Chunsong currently going through release combination after release combination (she's got a Church to Pak, if I'm not mistaken, as well as Tkatchev to Gienger).
Somewhat surprising is that Mexico has opted to send just one gymnast to Antwerp, and an unknown at that (we saw Elsa Garcia and Alexa Moreno at the Summer Universiade, but neither one is here now). The Mexican representative's name is Karla Torres Nunez, and she conforms to what we've seen from the (underrated) Mexican team during the past few years: A complete gymnast with a great deal of elegance.
7:54 p.m.: Huang Huidan's hot release sequence on bars: Stalder Shaposh to immediate Pak to immediate stalder Khorkina II. Awesome. Also, she has the very smoothest pike Jaeger ever. Ever!
8:12 p.m.: In both training halls, the evening workout has a pretty chill feel to it. Only the Chinese are drilling as hard as they did in the morning or afternoon, with everyone else focusing on conditioning and such. I watched the four from India (Dipa Karmakar, Aruna Budda Reddy, Rucha Sachin Divekar and Vandita Raval) with some attention, and partly because India is still a gymnastics country very much in development as it were. Nobody did a single real vault, but form-wise they seemed much improved from in the past.
The French duo, national champion Valentine Sabatou and 2012 Olympian Mira Boumejmajen, are working with coaches Eric and Cecile Demay on conditioning.