This was perhaps the most exciting senior field at a U.S. Classic event in years. Back-to-back world champion competing against the reigning Olympic champion? At a domestic practice meet before nationals? In addition to a ton of other World and Olympic medalists? U.S. fans are SO spoiled right now, and the 2015 Secret U.S. Classic in Hoffman Estates, Ill., last weekend was just the beginning.
We have to start with Simone Biles, champion once again, undefeated since nationals two years ago, and likely undefeated until someone can catch up to her which at this point is almost impossible because she just keeps on upgrading like she’s not already a thousand miles ahead of the game.
Biles won the all-around – naturally – and every event but bars, where she placed fourth. She looked about how you’d expect her to look, which is almost flawless. Her only faults are things like the occasional hop on a landing or a slight wobble on beam, but for the post part she was in complete control over her performance.
Her Amanar was huge and her Lopez was the best I’ve seen her do. On beam there was a big wobble on her front aerial but she fought for it and finished with a near-stuck full-in. And then floor…with her new and exciting routine, she hit a double layout full, a Biles to split jump, a double double with a slight bounce, and a stuck full-in. The crowd lost their minds and who wouldn’t? We’re watching history with Biles and it never gets old.
Just under two points behind Biles in the all-around was Gabby Douglas with a super impressive 60.5, up quite a bit from her all-around set in Italy a few months earlier. Beginning on bars, she looked almost like her 2012 self, showing an inbar full to huge piked Tkatchev to pak, a gorgeous inbar to inbar half to Endo half to Chow combination, and a double layout with just a step for a 15.4. Her beam was absolutely solid, her tumbling on floor was excellent, and she nailed her DTY for a 15.2.
I loved seeing her totally kill it because in training, she totally was not giving it even close to her all. She’d take steps out of skills on beam, wouldn’t follow through on many movements, and wasn’t working on controlling landings at all, so it was incredible to see her totally come in strong during the meet itself. That’s probably her game plan – save your best work for the meet. Either way, I was very happy to see just how good she managed to compete. This is the best comeback year ever.
Maggie Nichols secured the bronze medal with an even 60, her highest all-around score to date. With her new Amanar earning a 15.8, Nichols set herself up for an incredible night, moving on to a 14.95 on bars, where her opening combo – a toe full to Maloney to pak to van Leeuwen – looked especially sweet. Compared to her other events, she’s a bit underwhelming on beam though competed all of her skills with ease, and then finished up on floor debuting her excellent double double and finishing with a 14.8.
She’s just SO good now, it’s hard to tell where exactly she came from. She reminds me a lot of Aly Raisman in that she is blossoming a bit older than most gymnasts, as a senior rather than when she was in the junior ranks. But she’s SO good now, and improves a little more each year, making her rise so much fun to watch.
It’s fitting that she would defeat Raisman here after Raisman struggled with her Amanar and sat the punch front tuck out of her Dos Santos on floor. Not the perfect start to the season, but again, that’s why this meet exists. On beam, she earned a 15.1 for a routine with a couple of slow connections and little wobbles, and then bars was shockingly her steadiest outing, earning a 14.2 after she hit her toe full to Maloney to Tkatchev and double front with a hop.
Raisman ended up in fifth place with a 59.05, great considering the fall. Just a step above her was new senior Bailie Key, who was clean and precise pretty much everywhere. She began on beam, where I loved her super quick punch front to sissone connection, and then on floor, she nailed her double layout, double Arabian to stag, 1.5 to triple full, and double pike for a 14.8. Her DTY wasn’t bad, and she showed clean and impressive work on bars, aside from a few minor issues.
It’s a bummer that her senior debut is being somewhat overshadowed by the comebacks of returning Olympians, but she is still very impressive in her own right and said she was very proud of how she competed, even though she noted there were a few things she’d like to work on before nationals – including potentially bringing her Amanar into competition. Honestly, it’s probably better for her to be out of the limelight at this point in her career…it’ll keep expectations realistic instead of thrusting her into the scary spotlight the media put over Rebecca Bross and Jordyn Wieber last quad before either was truly at their prime. Now it will be a happy surprise if Key remains one of the front runners for 2016 rather than disappointment if she doesn’t live up to the expectations of others.
These top five will without a doubt go to Worlds, barring injury or other disaster. Not only are they the best all-arounders in the country, but they also happen to complement each other very well, and would absolutely destroy anyone else in the world even without a sixth member. It’s an Olympic caliber team a year before the Games, so rare and so incredible to watch.
Someone who maybe should have fit into that top group but didn’t was Kyla Ross, who first backed out of the all-around due to heel pain, and then fell twice on bars. The first fall came on her Bhardwaj, the full-twisting pak salto brand new to her routine. She does it in combination with a Chow, and just seemed to miscalculate the catch, landing with her armpits on the bar. The second fall came on her toe full of all things, and it looked like maybe her grip was loose, which could explain the bizarre error. Finally, it looked like her foot hit the low bar on the front giant before her dismount, putting her at just a 12.25 for what should definitely be a 15+ routine. She’ll get the Bhardwaj by nationals, I can feel it, and if she doesn’t she can always bring back her heavenly bail. I don’t think anyone would complain.
On beam, the routine missed a couple of connections and had some minor wobbles for a 14.55. It’s definitely too early to judge her Worlds potential because she always tends to make mistakes at this meet, but judging on the attention she got from both Martha Karolyi and Rhonda Faehn, it seems they really want her to succeed and are trying to keep her head in the right place. Just remember 2011 when Douglas fell three times on beam at nationals only to kill it at the selection camp and earn the spot that would change her life! Nothing’s determined by a single meet, and this is no exception. Nationals is another day, another meet, and she has the whole staff on her side.
Aside from Biles and Ross, the other four 2014 Worlds team gold medalists were also in attendance with Alyssa Baumann and MyKayla Skinner placing sixth and seventh in the all-around, respectively. Baumann earned a 56.95 after a weak DTY, one of the strongest bars sets I’ve seen her do, a fall on her switch ring in an otherwise lovely beam, and a decent floor routine, though I was sad to see her not attempt her quad spin, something she had been working on in training and at warm-ups.
Skinner, meanwhile, earned a 55.5 after a rough block on her Cheng left her a bit short there, a fall on her bhs tuck full on beam (where she also had some sketchy connections and a 90 degree switch half), and a fall forward on her double tuck on floor, though her layout position on her Moors looked MUCH improved, so I’ll give her that! Like Raisman, bars was pretty much her strongest event of the day, hilariously enough! She got a 14.1 there after showing some messy form on her van Leeuwen but otherwise looking solid, including getting nice height on her Tkatchev and sticking her full-in.
Madison Kocian competed just on bars and beam, and her bars routine was a dream. She earned a 15.6 for her Komova II to pak to Chow half, inbar to inbar half to Jaeger, stalder to stalder full right on the bar directly into her full-out dismount. It was a SUPER Russian routine in both its construction and the look, though I don’t think international judges will favor it with a 9.1 e-score the way U.S. judges did, just based on a combination of little things like inbar position (and those flexed feet!), leg form on several skills, and the hop on the landing. I can see something similar happening with this routine that happened with Ashton Locklear last year, where she’s given very high scores at home and it ends up being a fantasy score internationally…but it was a very lovely routine, and on beam, she had a mostly decent set for a 13.85.
Speaking of Locklear, she didn’t technically compete, but showed exhibition routines to give examples of her progress. She wasn’t judged, and didn’t really do dismounts, showing just a layout on beam and being spotted through a full-in off bars, but even so her routines were clean and strong. Her beam was especially solid and clean, showing not even the slightest sign of nerves, and her bars looked almost fully back, including a toe-on to toe full to Chow to pak to Maloney to bail to Ray opening sequence, a very strong effort. She looked almost fully back, dismounts aside, so we should be able to see her hit for real at nationals.
In her first competition back since last season, Nia Dennis competed three events very well despite a last-minute gym change the week before Classics. Her DTY earned a 15.0, she showed her typical sky-high Tkatchev work on bars though her form was often a little wild there, earning a 14.5, and on beam, she took out the standing Arabian (likely because it was giving her trouble), but otherwise looked okay despite a missed connection from her front aerial to side somi and a stumble on her double pike for a 14.2.
The heartbreaker of the meet was Brenna Dowell. Returning from her super successful freshman year at Oklahoma, Dowell was expected to compete on just bars and floor initially, but at some point decided to go for beam as well, and a nasty fall there took her out of the competition on floor.
On bars, she hit an excellent Tweddle to Ezhova combination, so cool considering she’s been away from elite for so long. However, she then peeled off after her toe full to Maloney, the Maloney being a skill she can probably do in her sleep. Her Church to pak was solid, she caught the van Leeuwen without issue, and then stuck the full-twisting double layout. Aside from the weird fluke in the middle, it was an incredible routine, earning a 14.35 even with the fall.
Moving to beam, her first time competing the event since American Cup a year and a half ago, she got applause for her mount and then went on to hit every single skill very well…until the dismount. She missed her foot right before attempting a double tuck, falling directly onto her head. Thankfully, she was fine, but that was a very scary error and thankfully she was smart enough to pull out of her final event.
Her teammate Sabrina Vega, back for the first time since the 2012 Olympic Trials, also didn’t have the best meet in terms of counting a fall, but seemed to love being back on the floor after so much time away. She’s the same beautiful competitor she was last quad, competing just on beam and floor due to a continued battle with injury. Her performance value was gorgeous, though she’s definitely not quite ready for elite just yet, showing some mistakes here and there and falling short on her double pike on floor (though the rest of her tumbling was excellent). She didn’t get her nationals scores, unfortunately, though hopefully if she can stay healthy and continue making progress, she can return again next year for another shot.
I was incredibly impressed with Polina Shchennikova’s daring bars set. Her opening combo is incredibly creative and ambitious, including a Maloney to stalder full to piked Tkatchev to pak to toe-on to van Leeuwen. My mind was blown, and I couldn’t believe how fluid she made it all look. Sadly, she was a little off when she landed her full-out dismount, falling back and sitting, but this was easily a 15+ routine had she hit. Very good work, especially considering how much time she missed in the gym. She also competed on beam, but doesn’t quite have the skills back there and took some heavy deductions for wobbles and other issues throughout the routine.
New senior Lauren Navarro was also limited to bars and beam, and though she also had a fall (on her stalder to Chow half), like Shchennikova I was blown away by her opening combo…a hop to Endo half to Chow to stalder to Tkatchev to pak. Just really excellent work from these gymnasts trying to make huge strides on an event typically seen as weak for the U.S. She did hit her beam, including a solid bhs loso loso and a double pike for a 14.1.
All of these big names aside, we also saw some very nice work from the gymnasts attempting to qualify to nationals, including Lexy Ramler, Alaina Kwan, Taylor Lawson, and Kylie Dickson. Ramler stood out with her Bhardwaj and Comaneci salto on bars, Kwan had a gorgeous floor routine, Lawson struggled a bit but had some good tumbling on floor, and Dickson showed some nice promise on bars, though unfortunately had an error catching her pak. The difficulty levels for these gymnasts was somewhat low, and with errors from each, none was able to qualify to nationals but they all showed elements of greatness and I hope we see them again next summer.
If you haven’t heard, we missed out on seeing two seniors due to injury after rough landings on difficult skills. Felicia Hano‘s unfortunate injury came on her new tsuk layout full vault, which would’ve made her the third U.S. woman with a second vault, boosting her value in international competition. Marissa Oakley, known for her beautiful double double bars dismount, had an awkward landing on that skill during warm-ups prior to the competition and was taken out of the arena in a brace and wheelchair, very sad to see. We hope for speedy recoveries for both of these incredible gymnasts.
Overall, I was impressed with how everyone performed. For a meet where the gymnasts were only expected to be at 80% of their full potential, I think most gymnasts went above and beyond expectations. The U.S. senior women at 80% are stronger than most teams at their full potential, and once they clean up the early season issues that were present last weekend, they will be an unstoppable force ready to snag multiple medals – including what should be a relatively easy team gold – at this year’s World Championships.
Article by Lauren Hopkins