Romania leads after qualifying round at European gymnastics champs
After a long injury layoff, the European Championship was supposed to vault Russia's Aliya Mustafina back among the outstanding favorites for gold at the London Olympics.
Instead, Thursday's team qualifying left her distraught and suddenly looking like a fallible teenager where she once seemed poised for perfection.
In a half-empty Heysel hall in the morning session, Mustafina opened on the floor and it took her exactly 17 seconds to lose the poise and confidence she had always shown since winning the 2010 world all-around title as a 16-year-old. She emerged from a swirl of high-jumping moves only to come up just short on her landing. She fell back on her behind, the most ungraceful move of her routine.
In the team standings, Romania scored 177.472 points to lead second-place Russia by 4.910 points.
Throughout the two-hour session, Mustafina never fully recovered. She botched two moves on the uneven bars, where she was the silver medalist at the 2010 world championships, and landed less than perfect on her vault. When it was over, teammates smothered her with sympathy before she walked past reporters, stony-faced and pale.
Instead of dominating the closing weekend, the best she can do now is boost the Russian effort to overcome a surprisingly strong Romania for the team title on Saturday. There is no all-around title at stake, and Mustafina failed to qualify for any of the apparatus finals on Sunday. That's in stark contrast to the 2010 world championships, where she made all four event finals after winning gold in the team competition and all-around.
Instead of leading her country, Mustafina was the third-best Russian on the uneven bars and on the floor - an event where none of her compatriots made the final.
But Romanian coach Octavian Belu didn't want to read too much into Thursday's performance.
"Russia is Russia," Belu said. "We know what they are able to do when they are in big form."
Now the question is when that good form will come back for Mustafina.
She blazed onto the world scene two years ago, blowing away opposition with a rare combination of power, elevation and elegance that had shades of the great Svetlana Khorkina. At the 2010 world championships, she almost singlehandedly took Russia to its first team title at a major event since the Unified Team won the 1992 Olympics and walked off with four other medals.
But at last year's European Championships, she tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee and needed surgery. That left less than 18 months before the London Olympics, so the timetable was tight. But it was thought Mustafina's youth and vigor would easily overcome the setback, and she was back competing before the end of the year.
On Thursday, perhaps out of sheer nerves, she kept working and turning her left knee much more than her right during warmups. No single error, though, could be clearly contributed to the former injury.
It's too early to write off Mustafina for London, but she did show frailty for the first time. American Jordyn Wieber won the world title without competing against Mustafina last year, and their face-off could become one of the highlights of the games.
Wieber upstaged Mustafina at the 2011 American Cup, Mustafina's first meet as the world champion and Wieber's first at the senior level.