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The Breakout Stars of 2022

Miyata Shoko

Every year, I love watching the rise of gymnasts who are either totally new to the international elite scene and are already making waves, as well as those who have worked for years climbing the ranks to finally get the widespread fan (and judge!) recognition that’s been long-deserved.

This group of athletes is always impossible for me to narrow down, and there are so many others that absolutely fit in here, but I ultimately went with those that continuously made impressions for me personally all season long.

Miyata Shoko, Japan

In her first two years at the senior level, Japan’s newest star wasn’t able to break into the top group contending for the Olympic team, but with tons of retirements after the Tokyo Games, Miyata quickly became the one to watch. After coming in second place at nationals this year, the 18-year-old earned the all-around title at the NHK Trophy, where she finished second on every event but beam, and she went on to win silver medals on vault and floor at the Asian Championships a month later.

But it wasn’t until World Championships that Miyata would truly shine, showing her infectious joy for the sport as she led her team to the final – and almost a medal – in a rebuilding year where Japan really wasn’t expected to contend. She went on to win the bronze on beam, set the record for the country’s best-ever performance on vault with her fifth-place finish, and placed eighth in the all-around and on floor.

Lisa Vaelen, Belgium

As one of the younger and less experienced Belgian seniors in 2021 from a club outside of the national team system, it was a treat to see Vaelen make the Olympic team, where she surprised with a rudi on vault and a huge bars set in the team final. This year, 18-year-old Vaelen has continued to up the ante, winning her first senior national all-around title in May before making history at Euros both individually with a fifth-place all-around finish as well as with her team, which also ended up in fifth.

Vaelen also finished fourth on vault at Euros, coming within about a hundredth of winning the bronze medal, and her equally strong vault performance at World Championships put her in sixth place, the best ever on this event for Belgium at this level.

Shilese Jones, United States

It sounds wild, but I and many other gym fans have been paying close attention to Jones for a whole decade, beginning with her Hopes-qualifying performance in 2013 – where she nearly swept the 10-11 division – and following through to her junior debut a year later, her first national medals in 2016, her international debut in her first year as a senior at Pan Ams in 2018, and her performance at Olympic trials in 2021.

Despite her talent level, a ton of U.S. depth kept her on the second string for the majority of her early career, but this year we finally got to see her burst into the spotlight in the most epic way. After winning bars silver and beam bronze in Jesolo, the 20-year-old returned in the summer to win the bars title at classics, followed by the bars and floor titles at nationals, and she also won all-around silver at both. In September, Jones defeated some super talented international standouts to take the gold on bars while also picking up a silver on floor, and she won the all-around title at worlds trials a month later, finishing first on vault and bars and second on beam and floor. All of her success in 2022 pointed towards a successful World Championships, and Jones absolutely delivered, competing not even one remotely flawed routine to walk away with silver medals in the all-around and on bars in addition to contributing on three events in the team final to become a world champion.

Laura Casabuena, Spain

It’s rare to come across a gymnast with a rise as meteoric as Casabuena’s was this year. The 17-year-old didn’t compete at the elite level at nationals until December 2020, where she finished fifth in her final year as a junior with a 43.100. In her senior national debut a year later, Casabuena ended up in sixth overall and third on floor, and she earned an opportunity to make her international debut at the Koper Challenge Cup in June of 2022, where she landed in the bars and floor finals.

The next six months were jam-packed as she quickly became one of Spain’s strongest talents – Casabuena made the all-around, beam, and floor finals at the Mediterranean Games, took silver in the all-around at nationals, had a strong performance in the all-around and team competitions at Euros, reached the floor final at the Paris Challenge Cup, and then finished third at the Joaquim Blume Memorial before competing at worlds, where she was a leader for the Spanish team in qualifications with the best all-around score of her career – a 52.032, nearly 10 points higher than the score from her national debut less than two years earlier – to reach her first worlds final.

Sydney Turner, Canada

Turner, 17, wasn’t one of those juniors you could easily point to as being a future star, yet this season she quickly became one of the most reliable competitors and engaging performers in Canada. She had her moments in the earlier part of her career, but was often a bit inconsistent, and never topped any of the leaderboards. Things started looking up for her at the start of 2020, with her performance at Gymnix one of the best in her career, but just days later the world shut down due to the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The first year of her senior career had some solid building blocks between Canada’s virtual meets and a couple of smaller international competitions, and then something clicked right away in 2022, where Turner finished third all-around, second on bars, and third on beam at Elite Canada followed by a silver medal on bars at nationals. Heads turned with her major international debut at Pan Ams over the summer, where she had one of the biggest surprise performances to win the bronze on bars, and she then picked up two silver medals and a bronze at the Szombathely Challenge Cup, where her super solid routines made it clear she would absolutely be on the worlds team. In Liverpool, Turner contributed three events to the team in both qualifications and the final, where her consistent and clean work on bars, beam, and floor were integral to Canada taking its first team medal in history.

Selina Kickinger, Austria

There have been a number of talented Austrian all-arounders to keep an eye on over the years, but Kickinger has largely been in the background throughout her senior career, finally making her worlds debut last year at age 20 after a few veterans went on hiatus. Now a year older, Kickinger is following the trend of Austrians getting better with age, winning bronze medals on bars and floor at nationals this summer to earn spots on both the Euros and worlds teams.

At Euros, Kickinger finished 23rd with the best score of her career, surprising to come ahead of veteran Jasmin Mader and German transplant Carina Kröll, and her performance pushed the Austrian team to its best finish ever as they landed in 11th place to secure a spot at worlds. In Liverpool, Kickinger again topped the all-around rankings for the Austrians, finishing 44th, and she also added a tenth over her career-best score from just two months earlier, proving herself as a solid Olympic contender for 2024.

Maisa Kuusikko, Finland

Kuusikko is an athlete I’ve been watching since the second she made her stunning junior debut in 2018, and though she’s been on my radar for a while and made great waves in her first year as a senior in 2021, I think this year was truly a game-changer for the 17-year-old as she broke multiple records for her country and showed a level of gymnastics never before seen in Finland.

Though she skipped out on nationals due to an illness, Kuusikko was otherwise healthy and strong this season, not missing a beat at a single competition – she made the vault and floor finals at the Baku World Cup, won the bronze on vault and silver on beam at the Varna Challenge Cup two months later, made history at Euros by finishing 13th on bars, 15th on floor, and 10th with her team in qualifications, where she put up the best all-around score of her career, won gold on beam at the Szombathely Challenge Cup, and then ended up getting a spot in the all-around final at worlds, where her 13th-place finish was the best ever for a gymnast from Finland.

Greta Mayer, Hungary

Mayer, who turned 16 in September, had one of my favorite first-year senior debuts in 2022. With a super steady junior career that saw her win medal after medal – including silver on beam and bronze on floor at Euros in 2020 – she stepped onto the Hungarian senior team as one of the most promising new seniors in years, and she was a steady and consistent presence all year with big accomplishments both individually and with her team.

In addition to earning a number of national titles – including the beam and floor golds in July, vault and beam gold at the apparatus championships in October, and then the all-around and vault golds at the masters championships in November – Mayer won six challenge cup medals throughout her busy season, she took the bronze all-around and vault titles at Gymnasiade, she finished 18th in the all-around at Euros (where she also contributed on three events in the final to help her team place seventh), and she was 38th in all-around qualifications at worlds, narrowly missing the final, but her performance was superb and helped the Hungarian team to its best finish since 1997.

Watanabe Hazuki, Japan

One of the biggest and most exciting fairy tale moments of the year was Watanabe becoming the world champion on beam, an inspirational feat after she initially wasn’t even named to the team. Once one of the steadiest juniors in the country, Watanabe attended junior worlds in 2019, but she was never a superstar standout on any event, and she didn’t get any international experience in her first two years at the senior level.

This year, the 18-year-old finished fourth all-around at nationals, and then she repeated this at the NHK Trophy a month later. But with only the top three all-arounders at NHK earning worlds berths, and without any clear standout apparatuses after she missed the beam final at Asian Championships, she was named the alternate for Liverpool. When national champion Kasahara Arisa was injured, though, Watanabe would ultimately step up and compete three events in qualifications. Simply qualifying fifth into the beam final was a surprise in its own right, and then while others faltered in the final, Watanabe stealthily put up one of the strongest performances of her career to become the fourth world champion in Japan’s history.

Jordan Chiles, United States

Much like her teammate Shilese Jones, I can’t remember a time in the sport where Chiles wasn’t competing (both of their elite careers are older than this website!). From the second she stepped onto the scene in 2013, winning the all-around bronze at the American Classic and then placing 11th at her first junior national championships at just 12 years old, it was clear she was going to be something special. Unfortunately, she wasn’t in the best gym situation, which created some problems with her consistency in the first few years of her senior career, but while she ended up missing out on making a series of worlds teams, a switch to WCC brought out a whole new Chiles in 2021, when she became one of the most consistent and solid U.S. gymnasts to make the Olympic team.

In 2022, Chiles – now 21 – kicked off her collegiate career at UCLA, and then stunned with her elite comeback in August, where she won the bronze medals in the all-around and on bars and floor after more than a year away. Her international return came a month later, with excellent performances to make all three finals she attempted, and she walked away with the silver on vault and gold on floor, giving her a big boost in confidence as she headed to World Championships. Despite missing the all-around final at worlds after a rough beam performance in qualifications, Chiles bounced back to lead the U.S. team to its sixth-straight gold with top-two routines on all four events, and she picked up silver medals on vault and floor in the apparatus finals to cap off her worlds debut on an exemplary note.

Sanna Veerman, Netherlands

As a junior, everything about the super talented Veerman pointed to a potential new star for the Dutch team. A national champion and an individual finalist at both Euros in 2016 and then EYOF a year later, Veerman initially found it difficult to break into the depth of the senior team, missing her first two attempts at worlds as well as a spot on the Olympic team in 2021. Both a strong all-arounder and a standout on bars, the 20-year-old was capable of massive difficulty on her top event, but it never seemed to come together in competition – until 2022.

There were still some struggles this year, especially in finals, but she was at least starting to consistently reach finals, including at the Cottbus World Cup (she won the silver there), the DTB Pokal Team Challenge, and the Varna Challenge Cup. It seemed like something clicked for Veerman at worlds – despite suffering an injury just weeks earlier that would keep her limited to only one apparatus, she put up a stellar routine in qualifications to earn the top score of her career, and she followed it up with another strong set in the final, finishing fifth in a ridiculously talented field.

Maria Tronrud, Norway

Throughout the majority of her career, Tronrud is someone I mostly saw as solid and clean, but not as a potential leader of the program. She wasn’t a standout junior, and really didn’t start making waves in the program until her second year as a senior in 2019, though that progress was cut short once Covid hit.

In 2022, the 20-year-old began rising the ranks yet again, finishing second all-around and first on bars and beam at nationals to earn a number of international opportunities, where her work on beam was always especially notable. She reached the final on this event at the Osijek Challenge Cup, and finished 15th in qualifications there at Euros, the best beam performance ever for a Norwegian gymnast at this level. At worlds, she was Norway’s top all-arounder, finishing 55th despite a fall on her best event (though she still finished in the top third of competitors on that event in 57th place), and just a few weeks after returning from Liverpool, she won the all-around and floor silver medals at Northern Euros.

Lucija Hribar, Slovenia

I feel like I consider Hribar for my breakout performances list every year and ultimately save her for the future, always assuming she’s going to keep upping the game, which she does! Since her senior debut in 2017, Hribar has consistently been one of the busiest gymnasts in the world, showing up at 11 international meets in 2022 alone.

The 21-year-old made apparatus finals at three world cups and three challenge cups this season, finished an incredible fourth place in the all-around final and on bars at the Mediterranean Games, ended up 29th all-around at Euros (where she also helped her team to a best-ever 17th place finish, matching what she and her teammates also accomplished in 2018), and then had her and Slovenia’s best-ever showing at worlds in her fourth championships, finishing 36th all-around and missing the final by just a few tenths to cement herself as a true Olympic qualifying contender for Paris 2024, much-deserved after she was unable to fully come back from an injury in 2019 to keep her from challenging for Tokyo.

Honorable Mention

I’ve included most of the British gymnasts who were so successful this year on breakout lists in the past, but for so many of them, 2022 was like a super-breakout year! It’s not easy to top the level of success the Brits had in 2021, when they won the program’s first Olympic team medal since 1928 on top of tremendous individual success throughout the year, especially as Jessica Gadirova became an almost instant legend in her first senior season.

But things did not slow for the women as they continued into this most recent season, which included the team gold for England at the Commonwealth Games, team silver at European Championships, and another team silver at World Championships. Along the way, the women ticked off a bounty of individual successes, including Gadirova’s gold medals on floor at both Euros and worlds on top of an all-around bronze at worlds (the best-ever finish for a British gymnast in history), Alice Kinsella‘s floor title at the Commonwealth Games, all-around silver at Euros, and fourth-place all-around finish at worlds, Ondine Achampong‘s silver all-around and floor medals at the Commonwealth Games followed by silver on beam at Euros, Georgia-Mae Fenton‘s bars title at the Commonwealth Games followed by a finals appearance on the apparatus at Euros, and Jennifer Gadirova making the floor final with great performances at both Euros and worlds (an injury this year held her back a bit, but she nonetheless proved herself super reliable across multiple major events).

Article by Lauren Hopkins

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