How’s this for a Throwback Thursday? In honor of the Secret U.S. Classic taking place in Hoffman Estates, Ill., this weekend, we’ve gone way back in time – okay, between two to seven years back – to show you glimpses of your favorite senior elites in their very first U.S. Classic performances.
I think my very favorite thing about putting this together has to be the lesson that it doesn’t matter where you place at the first big elite meet of your career because the girl in 45th place one year could very well be a World gold medalist five years later…shoutout to MyKayla Skinner, winner of The Gymternet’s most-improved award by a mile.
Of the 44 gymnasts who placed above Skinner in 2009, there are many whose names you’ve probably never heard. Sure, some went on to become Olympians – including 12th place Aly Raisman – but most retired from elite shortly after and either moved on to successful NCAA careers or left the sport entirely. But 45th place Skinner stuck to her dream, became a better gymnast, and last summer on her 5th anniversary of her elite debut, she placed 5th all-around with a score nearly ten points higher than in her first outing.
You hear that, newbie junior elites terrified of stepping out onto the podium for the very first time? You probably won’t win the gold medal and become an overnight sensation. Unless you’re Kyla Ross, in which case you clearly are not human. You might not even make it to nationals. But you could show up in 2020 with a legitimate shot at making the Olympic team. So hang in there, have fun, and enjoy the experience.
Note: Due to the lack of availability of Classics videos from 2008-2011, we were unable to find Classics routines for everyone on this list, so we shared either nationals routines or other routines from the same season in the case that no Classics videos were available. Enjoy!
Sabrina Vega, 55.450, 7th place
Even at 13, you could see there was something special about Sabrina. Her beam and floor have always had a magical quality to them, her tumbling on floor was big and controlled, and her execution was always one of her strongest points even though her difficulty paled in comparison to the other top juniors in the country. But she got better with age, and in 2011 helped the U.S. earn their first team gold medal at Worlds in four years, and seven years after her debut she’s back at the sport’s highest level. Who knew she’d be the one to outlast nearly every other junior at this meet?!
Gabby Douglas, 54.350, 10th place
Four years before winning her Olympic all-around gold medal in London, 12-year-old Gabby tied a gymnast named Desi Borgese for 10th place. Their paths would greatly diverge from there, showing just how much can change for a gymnast from one year to the next. At her first elite meet, Gabby showed tons of promise with her great execution, but her difficulty – all bettween 5.0 and 5.2 – just wasn’t high enough to set her apart from others working routines in the 6.0 range. That’s okay – it all worked out in the end for her!
Kyla Ross, 57.000, 1st place
Most gymnasts don’t mark their elite debuts with a win, but I think we know by now – Kyla isn’t most gymnasts. Even her DTY was about as perfect then as it is now…some things never change! What DID change was Kyla’s ability to add big skills across her other three events. At 12, Kyla had just a 4.9 start value on bars…a far cry from the difficulty she added to help her win the World silver medal in 2013. The Olympic gold medalist hasn’t missed a U.S. Classic since her debut, making this Saturday’s competition her 7th in a row.
Aly Raisman, 54.050, 12th place
Aly was a bit of a late bloomer, making her first appearance in elite when she was 15 and not really looking like someone who was setting herself up for two Olympic gold medals. Like Simone, she was good but not great, showing just moderate difficulty even on her best two events. You could tell she had a ton of power, but she was definitely a diamond on the rough…though she was already working on her Olympic tumbling, showing a 1.5 through to double arabian and triple full in her routine! Thankfully she got some polish over her next three years in the sport and became the USA’s most dependable team player
Brenna Dowell, 53.150, 16th place
At 13, Brenna’s biggest skill was a Yurchenko 1.5…quite a change from the girl we saw as a senior with a powerful Amanar and the edgiest bar routine in the country! Her work on bars back then was easy, with a start value of just 4.4 making it impossible for her to finish higher than 24th on the event. Now her elite skills include a Church, Tweddle, Ezhova, and full-twisting double layout and she earned a career-high 10.0 on the event as a freshman at Oklahoma this year.
Madison Kocian, 52.900, 18th place
When Madison was 12, she already showed the classic WOGA lines and elegance that got people calling her a young Nastia. It’s no surprise she ended up representing the USA on bars at World Championships! Though her difficulty was a bit low in 2009, her execution was unmatched by anyone but Kyla Ross and of course, several of her equally bars-savvy WOGA teammates.
MyKayla Skinner, 47.550, 45th place
I have to admit, seeing this result made me gasp and then laugh. MyKayla absolutely wins the prize for most-improved, bringing her all-around score up over ten points since 2009, going from 45th in her elite debut to becoming the Pan American all-around champion and a two-time World medalist just five years later. At 12, MyKayla was all over the place with super low difficulty everywhere but vault, where her DTY was anything but solid. She has clearly put in the hours over the years to bring her routines to a high standard, competing some of the most difficult skills in the world on both vault and floor.
Alyssa Baumann, 25.800, 43rd place
Going from level 9 straight into elite isn’t easy, but Alyssa did a great job with the transition at just 12 years old, already showing her incredible promise with a 5.5 start value on beam. She competed only there and on bars at the U.S. Classic, having already earned her nationals qualification. She did struggle with falls when she got to nationals and perhaps wasn’t quite mature enough to take on the elite scene, but she became a World gold medalist just four years later, so I think it all worked out in the end.
Bailie Key, 54.400, 7th place
The gym world had Bailie on the radar before she even stepped foot into the arena in 2011, knowing the 12-year-old came with a top-notch beam and clean work on all four events. She didn’t have the best meet in Chicago that summer, and competing just an FTY on vault held her back a bit, but for a first-year junior she had quite a remarkable finish, defeating all of her fellow Texas Dreams junior teammates in the process.
Simone Biles, 50.600, 20th place
Four years ago, a 14-year-old Simone showed a glimpse into her future as the most powerful gymnast in the world, opening her floor routine with a double layout and vaulting a DTY. Otherwise, I don’t think there was anyone who could’ve guessed that this pint-sized future queen would one day be a back-to-back world champion! Her routines were good, but nothing out-of-this-world, and she posted just an 8.75 on what was a disastrous bar routine…but it’s okay. She won the junior title at the U.S. Classic just a year later and has absolutely dominated the international scene since her senior debut in 2013.
Nia Dennis, 50.450, 21st place
Nia actually finished right behind Simone at this meet, and like Simone, also had a bit of a bars meltdown that would cost her a higher all-around score, leaving her about two points shy of her nationals qualification score. At 12, she had a clean FTY, but couldn’t quite handle her 5.5 beam start value and had a couple of out-of-bounds issues on floor as well. She’s not the only gymnast to have a rough first outing, and her results since then – including the silver all-around medals at all four meets she attended in 2014.
Maggie Nichols, 52.400, 12th place
Maggie’s first year as an elite came three years ago at the age of 14. Like many others on this list, she didn’t burst onto the scene a superstar. She had above-average difficulty but struggled to hit it well, especially on bars, where she posted just an 11.6 her first time out. Three years later, her bar routine with numerous upgrades added over the past year could be one to put the U.S. on the map, so she’s living proof that you should never let an early disappointment rule your future.
Felicia Hano, 52.450, 20th place
It’s hard to believe Felicia has only been an elite for two years! Like Aly, she waited until her final year of junior eligibility before taking the plunge, and she showed incredible promise with her big DTY and a lovely beam set. Unfortunately, just like the majority of her national team pals here, she too struggled with first-timer nerves, counting sizable errors on bars and beam. At the end of the day, she managed to finish in the top half of the gymnast competing, not a bad result considering the lack of elite experience, and now only two years later she’s considered one of the top seniors in the U.S.
Article by Lauren Hopkins