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Russian gymnasts add an American twist as they seek to defend their team title

When it comes to team consistency, the Russian women have an exemplary record in recent European championships – they are the only nation to have won a medal in every European team championship this century – a total of nine medals, four of them gold.

At Glasgow 2018, they are the defending champions, but with only one returning team member from two years ago -18-year-old Angelina MELNIKOVA – they are a young and relatively untested squad. As the senior member of the team, MELNIKOVA admits the title is by no means a certainty.

“We have an entirely new team,” she says, “so it’s very difficult to predict anything because there are many new young athletes. They only came up [from the junior ranks] this year, so it’s the first time to test themselves at senior level.”

When asked about Russia’s strongest opponents, MELNIKOVA takes the diplomatic approach. “In Europe every team has some strengths, so I think that the chances are equal for all the teams.”

While her team-mates Angelina SIMAKOVA, Uliana PEREBINOSOVA and Liliia AKHAIMOVA have risen through the Russian junior ranks, one team member has come via a less conventional route – the United States.

Moscow-born Irina ALEXEEVA left the country as a seven-year-old when her family moved to Texas, USA. She had already started gymnastics in Russia and continued training at a club in Texas run by the former Soviet gymnastics star Valeri LIUKIN. He coached his daughter Nastia LIUKIN (USA) who became Olympic all-around champion in 2008.

“I’m kind of half and half right now,” ALEXEEVA says of her current living arrangements. She has been staying at the Russian national gymnastics training centre just outside Moscow for a few months now.

“I’ve been there over the summer and I’ve been practising at the gym so it feels pretty normal,” says the 16-year-old. “It took a little bit of getting used to but then it was good. They [her Russian team-mates] are all really nice.”

The decision to relocate back to Moscow from Texas paid off when she was selected for the Russian European championships team in July. It has also given her a chance to catch up with relatives. “I’ve been able to see some of my family that still lives here, my grandparents and cousins.”

For now, she is focussed on helping her native country retain the gymnastics team title in Glasgow. “”I just hope we all do our best, and we’ll see.”

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