Now that we’ve had some time to process last Saturday’s junior meet at the 2015 Secret U.S. Classic, I think I’m ready to talk about what an exciting and promising group of young ladies the U.S. has coming up.
The 2000 babies are the big deal juniors this year because they’re the ones who factor in for 2016. It’s not surprising that the podium featured three of these Olympic hopefuls, including Laurie Hernandez of MG Elite in first with a 58.45, Ragan Smith of Texas Dreams in second with a 57.7, and Jazmyn Foberg of MG Elite in third with a 57.4.
These three led the way all meet long, with Hernandez a rock from the very start, posting a 15.0 on bars. Her routine is mind-blowingly beautiful, composed nearly entirely of stalder skills, including a huge Downie, Ricna to pak, and Endo half to Ray. Her beam was mostly clean, she was a standout on floor even with an out-of-bounds on her stumbled double pike, and she landed her DTY with ease, posting the top score for the juniors on vault with a 14.9.
Smith was an absolute force in her performance. In warm-ups, I was shocked to see how incredible her bars look. By ‘incredible’ I mean ‘incredible for her‘ because she’s definitely still nowhere near what you’d call a bars gymnast, but even between Jesolo and now, her skills look sharper and cleaner, and she doesn’t look half as nervous or headcase-y as she did a year ago. Totally impressed with the work they’ve done with her there, and her competition routine wasn’t even without fault and yet was still miles ahead of where she’s been in the past. She’s basically a teeny tiny Aly Raisman, knowing there are weaknesses but working her butt off to make as much headway as she can to ensure she’s competing at the best of her ability.
Bars aside, she nailed her DTY with a hop forward, showed some wobbles and some good fights on beam (getting a 14.1, which she can totally improve on by quite a bit before nationals), and then dominating floor, where her West Side Story routine is absolutely the most fun to watch. That, and her tumbling is bananas, with a beautiful double layout, a 1.5 to triple full, and double arabian in the third pass. She’s SO good here that the 15.0 she earned would’ve tied her for the silver medal in the senior competition.
Last year’s national champion Foberg had a good day, though admittedly not her best. Some small mistakes on bars got her just a 14.1 to start there, but then she went on to win beam with a 14.65. On floor, she had some struggles with her ginormous tumbling, taking her full-twisting double layout out-of-bounds and under-rotating her tucked full-in, though she nailed her new double double pass and brought in a 13.85 before finishing with a 14.8 for her DTY on vault. With some cleanup, she can definitely challenge for a repeat title this August, though her teammate is going to be a tough one to beat.
Sydney Johnson-Scharpf and Christina Desiderio were the other 15-year-olds (well, they’re close – both turn 15 in August) rounding out the top 10. I have to say I was blown away by Johnson-Scharpf this year. She didn’t even reach her nationals qualifying score at the 2014 U.S. Classic, getting in thanks to her score at the American Classic instead. Once at nationals, she struggled immensely on bars and didn’t really show strong enough difficulty to earn top scores, placing 25th out of 32 in the all-around.
This year she has a brand new DTY in addition to solid routines on her other three events. Like Smith, she’s not what you’d call a natural on bars, but they’re SO much improved, and she just looks super solid on beam and floor as well. Her 55.15 is a major improvement and after all of the hype about her fun and spunky floor last year, it looks like she should now be deserving of hype for her overall talents as a gymnast as well.
I’m obsessed with Desiderio on beam and floor, even though her beam didn’t work out quite as well as she’d hoped. She had some form issues in competition and stumbled off the mat on her dismount for just a 13.35, but when she hits, she’s capable of a huge score and is easily the favorite to win the title there at nationals. Her floor, meanwhile, earned a 14.85 for her huge tumbling, including a stuck double layout as her third pass. She is a force, and so much calmer compared to last year. Her bars definitely need a lot of work, but last summer you could tell they stressed her out whereas now, she just kind of brushes them off as a necessary evil, maintaining a good competition head overall and that’s a major improvement.
As for the super juniors, those too young to factor in next year but who need a close eye on them, I’d say Deanne Soza is a treasure. Watch her. After battling an eye disease last year and nearly losing her sight, she is back in full force and looks better than ever. Had she hit bars, she easily would’ve been on the podium, a huge accomplishment considering how much time she was forced to spend out of the gym in the latter half of 2014.
Her bars are gorgeous when hit, which she does every single time in training. She seems to doubt herself there a bit in competition, which is what seems to have happened on Saturday, when she caught a huge Ray before her toe half to Ezhova, which she caught hitting her feet on the floor after nailing it all morning in warm-ups. Everything else looked great, and then she put her hands down on her full-twisting double layout, another skill that gave her no trouble before the competition. It’s one of the best junior bar routines when hit, so I’m already crossing every finger and toe for no problems at nationals.
Those beginning-of-the-day nerves aside, Soza had an excellent performance, nailing beam for a 14.5 (and the silver medal), earning the bronze on floor after hitting solid tumbling, and finishing strong on vault with a 14.6 for her DTY. She’s still only 13, turning senior in 2017, and has tremendous potential to be one of the stars of the new quad if she continues progressing this well.
Last year’s U.S. Classic champion, Jordan Chiles, didn’t have the best day but showed lots of strength in her resolve to come back strong. It was a big meet for the 14-year-old who debuted her Amanar, making her the only junior competing the big vault at the moment. It looked good in warm-ups for the most part, though she landed a bit too far back in the meet, earning just a 14.6.
This didn’t get her down, however, as she went on to hit a beautiful bar routine for a 14.1, earning the bronze medal. Despite a fall on her great switch to switch half to back tuck combo on beam, the rest of her routine there was excellent, and she had the arena to herself for her floor routine, though unfortunately somersaulted out-of-bounds after attempting a punch out of her 1.5 to 2.5. The rest was strong, however, including her sky-high double arabian and front double full to punch front tuck.
So while she showed errors and issues, it was her attitude that impressed, and with some work she could definitely find herself a podium contender at nationals.
One of my favorites to watch was Morgan Hurd, who is top-notch on bars and beam. Hurd’s bars have seen a major difficulty overhaul from last year, with an inbar full to Tkatchev, toe on to pak, toe on to Ray, and a stalder full right into a full-in dismount. There’s so much more potential for big connections, and it’s just a beautifully clean routine, earning the silver medal with a 14.55. Her beam had some minor issues in competition, but some little adjustments and less nerves will make her unstoppable there.
Gabby Perea, a local Illinois gal who trains at Legacy Elite and got so much applause at the Sears Center Arena, placed 4th for her remarkably steady day. She didn’t have any real standout event, but she looked mostly clean throughout and has great potential with her jam-packed beam, which included a standing full, bhs-bhs-layout, and 2.5 dismount. There were a few nervous errors there, but it’s going to be a huge routine once she calms down a bit.
The super powerful Shilese Jones had one of the best routines of the first rotation with her exciting floor, opening with her double tuck with 1.5 twists in the first rotation…always a crowd-pleaser! Her teammate Shania Adams also pulled through with a huge routine that rotation, including a nice 2.5 to front tuck. Both were very exciting to watch and I can’t wait to see more from them!
I was impressed with so many of the juniors, I’m trying to get through this without mentioning all 37 of them by name, but everything from little Anna Huber’s huge toe-on to Ray and double layout on bars (she’s now officially the youngest junior elite in the U.S.) to the gorgeous Maggie Musselman’s lines and elegance on all four events to Olivia Dunne‘s presence on floor to Elena Arena’s huge fight on beam to Chae Campbell’s awesome power…
This is a very special group of young ladies, and while there were definitely mistakes causing heartbreak and the occasional tears, I think the promise and potential overshadowed any of the negative, and I loved seeing the support everyone showed for one another, teammates or not. The fact that the six just off the podium were all within half a point of one another is incredible, as is the fact that 12 of these young ladies would’ve gotten their senior qualification scores. There’s just so much talent, and I can’t wait to see how it all plays out for them at nationals in less than two weeks.
Article by Lauren Hopkins