This year’s U.S. junior national title battle was a back-and-forth drama between defending national champion Jazmyn Foberg and this year’s U.S. Classic champion Laurie Hernandez, both of whom train at MG Elite in New Jersey.
In the end, it was Hernandez who was able to come out on top, finishing exactly one tenth ahead of her teammate after an exemplary performance in the second day of competition. That’s not to say her first day wasn’t strong…but a rough warm-up was followed by minor glitches throughout, putting her at a 57.95 for the day when we knew she was capable of so much more.
Beginning on floor, she made none of the mistakes that plagued her in warm-ups, especially on her double arabian to stag, which she hit perfectly. Full of energy and sass, it was a clear highlight of the day. Moving to vault, there was a bit of a question as to whether or not she was going to attempt an Amanar after it looked like she sat one in warm-ups…turns out she accidentally did a 1.5 instead of a double! She hit her DTY with a hop over and out-of-bounds, but still put up a decent score considering the error.
Bars was her best event of the day, showing only minor form issues and a little bounce out of her full-in. The Queen of Stalders always eases her way through her beautifully constructed routine, and this was no different. Finishing on beam, undoubtedly her weakest event, she had a couple of minor wobbles and managed a 14.15.
Her teammate actually led the pack after the first day, finishing about four tenths higher than Hernandez with a 58.35. Foberg got a decent start on floor with two big new tumbling passes, the double layout with a full twist and the double double, and then hit a solid DTY for an even 15 to get off to a great start. The DTY is actually what fully set her apart from her teammate; had Hernandez hit hers, she likely would’ve been the one to be a few tenths ahead. Foberg’s bars were also excellent, aside from handstands being just a hair off, and she finished with a clean beam for a 14.35.
On day two, both Hernandez and Foberg were on fire, but it was Hernandez who shined slightly brighter, both making up for the missing tenths from prelims and then adding the final tenth needed to outscore reigning national champion Foberg to take the title.
Hernandez’s day two score of 59.55 was the best junior score of the weekend. She kicked off her fight with a DTY that showed somewhat loose form and a sizable bounce back, but the 15.1 she was handed really helped her begin her challenge. Foberg, however, was just a tiny bit stronger, taking just a step to the side on her landing for a 15.2.
On bars, Hernandez notched a 15.2 of her own after showing off a big Downie and a stuck full-in…definitely a worthy score, as the only real issue was the leg separation on her stalder full. She’s truly beautiful there. Foberg, who had some drama with falls in warm-ups, wasn’t quite at Hernandez’s level but did some great work of her own, especially with her Maloney to Gienger and a sky-high nearly stuck full-in for a 14.65.
Bars pushed Hernandez ahead by just five hundredths of a point going into the second to last rotation. They seemed to know it, too, as they both hit what were probably their best beam sets ever as elites. Foberg went first, hitting a clean double wolf turn, a great flight series, and a double tuck with a hop while Hernandez included solid connections, great height on her sheep jump, and excellent amplitude on her leaps.
With both MG Elite ladies picking up scores of 14.7 there, Hernandez maintained her five-hundredths lead going into floor, the final rotation, where both were expected to shine. Everything started out well for Foberg, who hit one of her better full-twisting double layouts of the week. But then her foot went out-of-bounds on her double double, something she struggled with occasionally in training all week. It’s okay, just a tenth, but then she stepped out on her final pass, the double pike. She couldn’t hold on, and then stepped out again.
There were no problems for Hernandez there. The double arabian to stag was great, as were the front layout to front double full to front tuck, the double tuck (with a slight bounce), and the double pike. Difficulty-wise, it’s a much weaker routine than Foberg’s, but her 14.55 trumped Foberg’s 14.5, putting Hernandez a tenth ahead to earn her first junior national title after a narrow miss in 2013 and an injury last year.
It was a great moment for these two athletes to see that they not only went one-two on a national podium but that they did it by such a close margin, posting combined scores of 117.5 and 117.4. It must have been a bit of a bummer for Foberg, who likely realized that her two out-of-bounds issues on floor made all the difference. Obviously a tenth can come from anywhere, but had she not stepped out the first time, she and Hernandez would have tied, and had she not stepped out the second time, she would have won. It’s hard not to think about something like that, but at the same time, Foberg seemed ecstatic to get silver and to see that at least if she couldn’t win, her teammate could.
While MG Elite was the big talk of the day, Ragan Smith deserves a nod for her incredible turnaround over the past year. Last year, Smith won beam and floor, but struggled so much on bars, she placed just 7th overall and wasn’t added back to the national team until a training camp later in the year. Now, even though her bars might not be considered a top routine, she is SO tidy and precise in her work, it’s like watching a totally different gymnast.
That’s where she got her start on day one, and if that’s not nerve-wracking enough, she missed a release in warm-ups which is always a rough predicament. She had no problems for the majority of her routine (and has one of the best pak saltos among any junior) but did go over in a handstand on the low bar. However, while that may have thrown her off a year ago, this time it was no problem. She kept her cool and made it through, earning a 13.65 with the mistake.
The rest of the day was pretty easy for her. She hit beam for a 14.5, nailed her awesome floor routine – including a fantastic 1.5 through to triple full – for a 14.55, and then hit her DTY – just a tad off-center – for a 14.7 to end the day in third place with a 57.4.
In finals, everything clicked, beginning with her brilliant beam set. She earned a 15.2 there after nailing her bhs layout, punch front to sissone, and double pike, easily securing the title her second year in a row. Her floor, which earned a 14.65, was equally excellent, showcasing a big double layout, 1.5 to triple, double arabian, and a stuck double pike to finish with a bang (she added another gold medal here). On vault, the DTY was the strongest I’ve seen her do, and she grabbed a big 14.9 for her effort.
Smith had bars as her final test, and with just over half a point separating her from the top two, it didn’t seem likely she’d pull off a win. But she had a full five points over fourth place Jordan Chiles, so she really had nothing to lose. And she truly delivered, performing the best bar routine I’ve ever seen her do for a 14.3, a fantastic score considering her difficulty. She was SO clean, performed her stalder full right on top of the bar, and nearly stuck her full-in to finish her day with a 59.05, the best all-around score of her career by over a point.
Hernandez, Foberg, and Smith are clearly the three juniors with the biggest potential as senior competitors as we get closer to 2016 (I’d include Norah Flatley in this group as well, but with her foot injury keeping her out this year, it’s hard to judge her current ability against those we saw this summer). All three showed that they have the potential to contend with the current seniors for different reasons – Hernandez with her gorgeous bars and room for upgrades (she was pretty heavily downgraded this year, especially on floor), Foberg with her calm consistency and quiet lethality, and Smith with her incredible talent on beam and floor. It’s going to be fun to see who among this group really pushes the envelope next year and I seriously can’t wait to see what happens.
Jordan Chiles, who finished 4th, didn’t have the most solid meet, with some big bounces out of passes on floor and a fall on beam during day two. However, she recovered well whenever there was an issue, showing a great head for competition and putting up some very strong routines, especially bars in prelims (where her Tkatchev to bail, toe full to Gienger, and stuck full-in were all excellent, earning a 14.55) and with her DTY on both days. After attempting an Amanar at Classics, she played it safe in Indianapolis and it was SO worth it, especially in finals when she earned the highest junior score of the competition of 15.5 after sticking the huge vault. She finished with all-around scores of 56.7 and 56.0, great considering the mistakes and the fact that she’s still only 14.
I personally felt really happy for the 5th and 6th place juniors, Christina Desiderio and Sydney Johnson-Scharpf, both of whom are in their final year at this level and have finally earned spots on the junior national team. With Desiderio, she came SO close last year but a blowout on bars – her last event in finals – kept her from going all the way, and with Johnson-Scharpf, she’s always shown great talent and her expert ability to perform on floor, but just didn’t have the skills or experience to be a top contender.
Both have come leaps and bounds since 2014. With Desiderio, it’s all in her ability to compete. Like Smith, she might not be the best bar worker, but she now knows how to get through a set with no problems. She has also learned to not let a previous error – like grabbing the beam on her double wolf turn and then sitting her dismount on day one – carry over into the next routine.
Desiderio continues to stand out on beam and floor, and with hit sets, shows a lot of promise on both. Her floor on day two was especially great, featuring a big double double, a 1.5 through to double tuck, and a double layout for a 14.55 to secure the event bronze and a spot on the national team. In the all-around, she earned a 54.65 after her rough day one, but with strong sets on day two, pulled through with a 56.8, an awesome finish. My only critique right now is her vault…the DTY looks a little rough, just as it did last year. A cleaner set could really improve her overall scores…but at least she’s not sitting it!
With Johnson-Scharpf, I was just SO happy to see how much improvement she’s made in the past year in terms of her skill level and ability. In 2014, she placed 25th in the all-around with a couple of falls and her highest D score a 5.6 on beam. Her climb to 6th place is partly thanks to the addition of nearly two points to her start values (thanks largely to the DTY and her big awesome Dos Santos on floor). While she still needs some work with hitting everything cleanly, she is so impressive now and even with mistakes, managed all-around scores of 55.6 and 55.3 over the weekend.
These six were the automatic national team qualifiers, and as has been customary these past few years, no juniors beyond that mark were named to the team. But because five of these six will go on to the senior ranks in 2016, you can be sure Martha Karolyi will add quite a few born in 2001 or later between November and March.
Two of these with the national team in their future are Gabby Perea and Morgan Hurd. Perea actually seemed like she was going to make the team, but had an unfortunate fall in finals that knocked 1.3 points off of her start value and led to just a 12.1, over two points lower than her prelims score. After a 55.95 on day one (superb considering she only vaults an FTY!), she managed just a 53.9 on day two, taking her out of contention in favor of Johnson-Scharpf.
Overall, Perea is a beautiful gymnast with super clean work on bars when she hits and a beam routine that’s jaw-dropping for someone just 13 years old…her front aerial to sissone to split jump is so well-connected, her bhs bhs layout series is stellar, and she gets great height on her switch ring.
Hurd has made tremendous strides in her second year as an elite, and like Perea would’ve challenged for the national team had she not fallen on beam on day one. But also like Perea, she has time, and should without a doubt be added in the coming year. She’s another fantastic bars and beam gymnast, and she makes every movement precise. Watch her practice landings during podium training…it’s no surprise she stuck a perfect 2.5 beam dismount just seconds after missing her sissone to side aerial! Nothing phases her. She just goes with the flow and a fall isn’t the end of the world.
Her bar work is what kills me…the inbar full to Tkatchev is lovely, she has a great toe-on to Ray, and then she does a stalder full right on top of the bar straight into her full-in dismount with zero problems, getting a 14.5 for this routine on day two. She’s not such a high earner on floor due to lower difficulty, but her routine is breathtakingly beautiful and SO good in terms of form (which is why she notched the highest execution out of any junior on the event all week), especially on her front full to front double full to stag.
My other favorites of the meet? A big one is Emily Gaskins looking slightly more in shape than she did at Classics, placing 12th and earning the bronze for her great DTYs. There’s a lot of room for improvement still, especially on bars where she has lost so much difficulty, but she seemed happy and it looked like she gelled nicely with new coach Steve Nunno.
I also died over Alyona Shchennikova’s bars. Her flexed feet and some other form problems need desperate help, but the routine itself is killer. At 14, her difficulty of 6.5 fits her right in with the top senior bar workers (she matches Madison Kocian and Rachel Gowey, though Brenna Dowell’s 6.7 is the highest) and the closest junior is three tenths behind. Her ballsy opening combination includes an inbar full to Komova II to piked Tkatchev to pak salto (!!!) and then she goes for a Chow to inbar half to stalder half to front giant half before tossing her beautiful double layout. SUCH a good routine, and with experience and attention to detail, I can absolutely see her eyeing a spot for 2020.
Grace Quinn impressed me with her quick turnaround from Classics, where she had lots of mistakes; she placed 9th in Indianapolis and had one of the strongest DTYs among juniors. The Buckeye girls – Shilese Jones and Shania Adams – got me really excited about their future, especially on floor, and Deanne Soza’s perfection in everything she does had me melting (she’s going to be SO GOOD once she figures out how to compete the skills she does so well in training!).
Finally, 12-year-old Emma Malabuyo broke my heart with her multiple falls on bars in her very first nationals routine ever, earning just a 10.1. Then she fell on beam, and her day one all-around score was just a 50.25. But in finals, she came back strong, hitting every routine extremely well and posting a 55.05, a full five points higher than she managed two days earlier. It takes a VERY strong kid to do something like that, and had she hit to the best of her ability on both days, she would’ve been right up there with Perea and Hurd as one of the top ‘baby juniors’ fighting for a national team spot. I’d say she’ll be one of the girls added for Jesolo next year for sure, and with a fully hit meet, she’s easily someone to watch for the next quad.
Whew. There we have it. Nearly 3000 words on the junior women, two weeks after the meet but let’s be real – after that weekend, I needed seven days to sleep and the other seven to become emotionally stable enough to use my words (you know, instead of just screaming in all caps and using 8 billion exclamation marks).
Article by Lauren Hopkins