Team USA Challenged but Still Unbeatable

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Thanks to everyone who tuned in over the last couple of weeks for our coverage from Glasgow! We hope you enjoyed the live blogs and found it fun to follow along. Now that things are winding down and we’ve had time to think about everything and react like rational humans instead of squealing gym nerds, we’re going to be bringing some of our analysis through country-by-country looks at each of the teams (as well as many of the athletes).

I think it’s a safe bet to start with the United States. The team didn’t look their best coming in from qualifications, and don’t get me wrong – they still kicked butt and were the strongest by a long shot, but things like uncharacteristic falls and other nervous mistakes made them seem human after the past four years of utter domination.

By the time team finals rolled around, Martha Karolyi had cut Brenna Dowell from the team, as she was expected to compete only on bars but wasn’t given another chance after her qualifications performance. The team pulled up for finals with just five members, reminiscent of their dominant win in 2011 …and what do you know, two of the five from that team helped make magic again.

The decision to remove Dowell from the team and the floor completely somewhat irks me…of the eight teams in the final, half used only five of their allotted six gymnasts, but unlike the U.S., gymnasts from the other teams (including the alternate in Great Britain’s case) were on the floor. It’s odd, because you’d think any sort of disruption in the team vibe wouldn’t be welcome, which is likely why they kept Anna Li on the floor in 2011 despite not using her. Li was a great cheerleader and provided a good deal of leadership and moral support, so to me, it was disheartening to see this team broken up.

When all was said and done, however, the U.S. women walked away with a 5.17 lead over second place China, an excellent margin even if China did manage to narrow the gap quite a bit compared to 2014 thanks to an incredible day of their own (and that was without leader Yao Jinnan).

As a side note, and I’ll get into this a bit more later on, that lead would’ve narrowed considerably if Simone Biles couldn’t compete for some reason and had to be replaced by an alternate, so while this team is fantastic, they’re really not as infallible as the numbers would have us believe. Without Biles, a comfortable lead turns into “one fall, and we’re on thin ice” but Biles is another story for another day.

What was key in the team’s win was their consistency and cleanliness once again. The U.S. women had zero mistakes in their performance, and they were technically perfect, averaging an 8.861 in execution across the board. If beam didn’t exist, they’d average over a 9.0, which is a huge testament to how hard this team works when it comes to focusing on the details.

We do need to talk about beam, however. But first, the good news…bars. Wasn’t it only last quad when gym fans worried the U.S. wouldn’t fare so well at the Olympic Games because bars were soooooo terrible? Never mind that they were able to put up three solid scores in the team final; their bars were still ridiculed for not looking as polished or pretty as those from Russia or China.

It’s funny, because at this year’s World Championships, bars was the only event where the team score was actually higher than it was at the Olympic Games. There has been a slight decline everywhere else – normal for middle quad years – but with the crisp work from Gabby Douglas, Madison Kocian (who is absolutely robotic in her perfection on this event, like Kyla Ross in the good old days), and Maggie Nichols, the team’s score reached a 45.433, just two tenths behind China (and had Viktoria Komova hit her routine, the U.S. still would’ve been ahead of Russia on the event).

This improvement is excellent, especially when there are still so many other bar workers in the country that could add to this. They’re not putting all of their eggs into one basket, and as a whole, the country has made great strides in just three years on the event that was once considered their downfall.

But is it at the expense of beam? This year’s team had the weakest beam lineup in recent history, Biles aside. Even last year’s rotation was stronger, despite the team being weaker overall; both Kyla Ross and Alyssa Baumann in 2014 were clean, for the most part, earning e-scores in the 8.5+ range as opposed to this year’s dismal 8.2s.

I don’t think Martha Karolyi was expecting the painfully low scores from Aly Raisman in particular, as she was rewarded with d-scores of 6.4-6.6 for hit routines at home this summer as opposed to 5.8-6.0 for hit routines at worlds (similarly, e-scores for hit routines at home were around 8.5 as opposed to 8.2 in Glasgow). Close comparison of routines doesn’t show much of a difference, and she’s not the only one who was low-balled…Nichols’ d-scores were about two tenths higher at home (not including her routine with the full-in dismount), and her e-scores were between 3 and 5 tenths higher, while even Biles saw a pretty serious discrepancy in domestic vs. international competition.

No other country had beam scores for hit routines that differed this drastically compared to at home, so you can’t really blame the new seating arrangement for the judges. The execution wasn’t a huge problem, but what is concerning is how lenient the U.S. judges seem to be with rewarding full difficulty even when gymnasts don’t necessarily hit it.

Connections on beam can be difficult to judge, as no one’s really counting to a magic number between skills to determine if it was a connection or not. Fluid for one judge is a pause for another, so occasional questionable scores are expected, but when it’s this much of a difference for every single routine, clearly it’s time to look into the reason for the differences.

It didn’t really matter this year, because whether they scored a 45 on beam or the 43.432 they actually received, they were still a long ways ahead of anyone else, and thanks to falls and the relative weakness from other nations, they still had the highest event score by about a point. But next year, this could very well be an issue, just as it was in 2012 when Jordyn Wieber was handed d-scores of 6.2-6.4 at home and just a 6.0 at the Olympics, pretty much the exact difference by which she missed the all-around final.

The U.S. is still pretty safe, especially because they have so much else going for them on other events, but it must be disheartening to show up at Worlds expecting to make the beam final only to end up with a total score nearly a point lower than you were getting for hit routines at home. Hopefully this is something the U.S. can combat in the next year, just to keep expectations accurate…overall I think the U.S. judges do a pretty fair job, but beam has been an issue for too long at this point and greater accuracy at home could help gymnasts figure out why they’re not getting credited so they can work on making it happen in the future.

Judging issues aside, beam is still the weakest event for the team, and whether that’s because the focus has shifted elsewhere or because it’s too difficult within the current code for any gymnast to maximize her potential is unclear. Because high scores on this event seem to be a worldwide problem, I’ll go with the latter, but I do think there is great potential for multiple 15+ sets in the U.S. so I’d like to see this figured out before Rio.

While not necessarily disappointing, vault was also a bit weaker than we expected going in, especially with vault after seeing the whole “U.S. of Amanar” parade in podium training with five gymnasts hitting relatively solid attempts. With one of these gymnasts relegated to the role of alternate, another forced to downgrade to a DTY after sitting hers in practice, and Raisman getting heavy deductions for a poor landing in qualifications, five Amanars became two in team finals, and even there Nichols was docked quite a bit in her execution.

The team was, somewhat surprisingly, less than a point ahead of Russia on this event, and Russia only had one Amanar in the mix, nowhere near as good as Biles’. But this is something I’m sure will see more attention in the next year, especially because it’s likely Douglas and Raisman were too optimistic to bring theirs back just six months into their competitive comebacks.

On floor, Biles performed brilliantly and explosively in the team final, and the judges in Glasgow absolutely loved Nichols on the event, appreciating her execution much more than any U.S. judge ever has. Raisman did manage to squeak ahead of her in the team final by a tiny 0.075 (bittersweet knowing if only she had hit in qualifications, the event finals spot would’ve been hers) and it was pretty epic to have three 15+ routines capping off their day.

I do have to throw an aside to Nichols, because while she may not have had the best attempts on vault or beam, she went out there and did her job with a huge smile on her face. The judges and fans fell in love with her, and she absolutely slayed at her major international debut, performing better in Glasgow than she did all summer and exceeding just about everyone’s wildest expectations after sitting out several months due to injury.

It’s true that had she gone up on bars over Dowell in qualifications, she would’ve been the second all-arounder behind Biles after Douglas and Raisman both counted falls, and the conspiracy theorist in me can’t help but wonder if this is why they opted to go this route…similar political decisions have happened before, and when you have two Olympians in the all-around mix scoring almost identically to the girl without any big credentials, it’s clear why they made the decision. But Nichols handled the outcome like a pro and was a team player from start to finish, giving her all to Team USA and putting her own individual desires second.

Overall, the team performed perhaps not to the standard fans may have expected, especially after some of the mega scores that came in over the summer, but they still did their jobs, performed consistently and cleanly, and showed that they’re going to be incredibly difficult to beat once again next year when they’re aiming to peak, reaching even higher levels of excellence.

At the same time, you can’t ignore the fact that Biles is the reason why this team is so far ahead of the game. Without her in the team final, the U.S. would’ve lost about half a point on vault, a full point on beam, and over a point on floor using the next best alternative on each, and had China fully hit their routines, the gap between the two rivals wouldn’t have been enough to make this team a lock the way they are with Biles.

Between 2014 and 2015, the U.S. team improved their finals score by about two points. Of these two points, seven tenths came from Biles with the other 1.3 divided among the other four gymnasts. They’re still in a great position going into the Olympic year and any other team would envy their strength, and while Biles carries the team, they could survive without her (albeit at a narrower margin). But I can’t help feeling that with a team this strong on paper, my expectations were very high for good reason, and I can only hope that some of the issues in Glasgow – namely, relatively weak performances on vault and beam – are corrected in the next nine months.

Many fans have been a bit complacent about this, responding with “Who cares? They’ll win anyway!” and that’s right – whether they win by five points or eight points, gold is gold. And perhaps they did have it in them to go that extra mile, but are choosing to save it for next year when the gold on the table is Olympic gold. But coming from the perspective of a fan used to watching this team show so much heart, it felt like this year, something was missing, and I can only blame their relative ease at capturing the title.

Last quad, there was something incredible about seeing a team of five internationally inexperienced gymnasts all 17 and younger run the show in Tokyo, defeating the previous year’s champions by over four points despite losing one of their most valuable members earlier in the week. This year, while the team still performed very well, it wasn’t quite as uplifting watching a vastly more talented group of mostly seasoned veterans struggle with nerves and minor mistakes.

There’s still the fact that the U.S. is going into the Olympic year as the best in the world, but I can’t help missing that “little team that could” vibe. Alternatively, this team is “the big team that should and will even with multiple falls,” so a margin similar to that 2011 team’s win over Russia is slightly disappointing, even if the team did perform well.

This probably sounds more negative than I mean it to, and there was definitely way more good to take away than anything else. Again, Biles is a living legend and brings so much life and energy into her every step, Douglas and Raisman reaching close to their previous quad potential on all four events is unheard of in the U.S. and is incredibly admirable, Kocian is rare perfection breathing new life into bars with her tricky set, and Nichols is an unlikely superstar in her consistency, performance, and sportsmanship.

As a team, they are fantastic, and it’s only my comparisons to other situations and contexts that make me think any less. But in thinking about the dominance we’ve come to expect from Team USA in the past four years, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that relative to recent victories in 2011, 2012, and 2014, this year’s wasn’t quite as sweet.

Article by Lauren Hopkins

29 thoughts on “Team USA Challenged but Still Unbeatable

  1. Thanks for the article – a very insightful perspective and I agree with all your points. I didn’t get as excited this year watching them and it seemed really anti-climatic to watch them hold hands staring at the scoreboard after Bile’s floor routine when as a fan you know it’s not even close. I love and appreciate all the athletes on this team, but I didn’t love them as a team if that makes sense. That’s in no way to put down this team – it’s just a personal affection difference.

    Also, TOTALLY agree on beam. You called it and a write on The Couch Gymnast did too, but very few others commented on it before Worlds. I wondered when the list was named but thought “Oh, Biles and Rasiman will carry them even if the 3rd is a bit weak,” but it was even weak for Simone and Aly. The beam scores DO add an interesting element to who will be on the Olympic team though and that is exciting! I’m still hoping that Kyla comes back strong, but there are a number of other beamers who I could get excited for including Regan and Norah.

    We’re less than a year from the Olympics!

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  2. Excellent article and worth the wait! You captured my feelings about Worlds very well– fabulous gymnastics and superb efforts from the athletes, but a bit of a different vibe from the American team this year–jittery and less cohesive. Agree that Brenna’s disappearance was silly and a shame. So her floor music didn’t play and she missed her big moment on bars, but she was there, doing her best. Many others had mistakes but still were part of their team(s). The roads these athletes travel to this level…I feel for them when misfortune strikes. And Simone, what a superstar! Top-o-the world! May the magic ride continue through Rio!

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    • It’s especially disappointing that Brenna was left off the final for her bars when she performed SO WELL during the floor kerfluffle. That kind of error would’ve rattled many gymnasts but she went out there and hit (although it may have contributed to her falls on bars). Anyway, she’s still amazing. I doubt she has a chance for Rio but really, she should–Marta didn’t seem to hold ASac’s Beijing performance against her 3 years later.

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  3. Yeah, Worlds this year was BLAH, I didn’t even watch a full competition nor watched it when it aired on NBC. All I did was read score results then watched a few individual routines on You Tube and I called it a day. So boring this year. 😦

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  4. I’m so glad someone feels the same way I do about these worlds!! Something about this team didn’t have that spark to me. But it looks like there could be a greater need next year for a bars/beam specialist. Kyla is my favorite and I would love for her to find her old consistency and make it to Rio!!

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  5. In total agreement when it comes to beam. Going into this Worlds, I figured that Gabby, Aly and Simone would perform really well and become basically locks for the Olympic team but I would say that it’s just Simone that is. Gabby performed well, but her difficulty was pretty low for the USA. I’ll always think she shouldn’t have done AA in qualifications, though I understand because she’s the olympic champion she got the chance. But this will make things rather interesting for next year with Ragan, Bailie, Laurie and Norah coming up who all are pretty strong on beam. Laurie and Bailie remind me a lot of Kyla on beam where they hit with really good form and execution and rhythm basically every time, Norah is the god of the beam and Ragan is absolutely stunning. Seeing Aly and Gabby struggle on beam is really going to open the door for them to make it a huge fight, especially considering that USA doesn’t necessarily need Gabby’s bars anymore. Weird to think that if Simone hadn’t missed her foot on her transition back up to the high bar in qualifications that she probably would have made the bars final over Gabby too.

    I agree with thinking that this team felt a little off. They did well and the USA has a system that churns out successful teams while the rest of the world is struggling to find quality teams to compete, but it just felt weird. They never really settled.

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    • Norah, the god of beam? Sorry but I still can’t see it when I watch all her past routines. Seems like many are hyping Norah for next year.

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  6. I’d love to see a feature on the girls who are turning senior in January and how they might figure into the Rio picture. Kept thinking about how many of the girls on this year’s U.S. Worlds team might have reason to worry come New Year’s Day.

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  7. In some ways, I think this was the first Worlds where the US team knew beyond a doubt that they were going to win. In 2011, they hadn’t won the previous year, plus they lost Sacramone. In 2012, they expected a close battle with Russia, especially since Mustafina was back. In 2014, so many strong contenders were out of the picture due to injuries, then Price retired, and Ross was held together with tape. (They were still obviously going to win, but it was the first Worlds for 5 out of the 7, and the first major team competition for everyone except Ross, and so they did have some of that fun “little team that could” vibe.)

    This year, not so much. The resumes on this team were incredible and they were winning unless they didn’t show up. So I think it became more about each individual making her case for Rio rather than everyone coming together as a team? (And in fact, every US gymnast who made an individual final went on to win a medal.)

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  8. Thanks for all that you do, you must being doing this on top of a very busy job. I think overall beam is weak across the board and not just limited to usa . The only one who doesn’t have this problem is simone and I think she’s a superhero and using gymnastics as a way to hide her true powers LOL. She could have fallen on the beam final and still one gold. Crazy

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  10. I agree with Lauren on everything.. But I’ve been saying beam has been weak ever since 2014 Pac Rims. I said it again pre-Worlds when I said UB was going to be like vault was for us in 2012 and it turned out to be just that. Regarding this 2015 Worlds, it was very memorable overall for the following reasons:Japan MAG team (breaking China dominance), USA WAG team (3 Worlds in a row, 4 championships in a row including Olympics) , Kohei and Simone (6x and 3x Champs in a row), Manrique Larduet (first Latin American, first black MAG to make AA podium,Cuba comes back to sport after 12 years and wins 2 medals, qualifies one directly to Olympics and qualifies 2 gymnasts for test event), GBR MAG and WAG teams making podium for 1st time, Gabby Douglas winning her first individual Worlds medal (she won gold with team in 2011, and she won UB gold at 2010 Pan Ams and 2012 Pac Rims), the number of specialists qualifying directly to Olympics (8 on MAG side. Is that a record?), NED WAG qualifying a full team to Olympics, Sanne Wevers and Pauline Schaefer winning medals on balance beam, Russia WAG having second highest medal tally behind the US although they missed both the team and AA podium, Romania not making team final and not qualifying for the Olympics, Romania placing 2 women in the top 8 in the AA (Larisa Iordache -3, Laura Jurca – 8 especially after everyone’s response to Laura as a new senior had been how unremarkable she was but at this competition she was better than more than 200 other gymnasts during qualifications and better than 16 other gymnasts in the final), Mai Murakami finishing 6th in the AA when she did not even make the Japanese team initially, China looking pretty good without Yao Jinnan, China’a improvement on FX, and Shang Chungsong finishing 4th in the AA, her highest finish at World Championships, and lastly, seeing the reigning World Champion, Pan Am Champion, European Champion, and Olympic Champion finish in the top 8 AA. I sat through every qualifications and finals session MAG and WAG and I met more than 50 gymnasts. However I was not able to say it was a good day until the last day of event finals because every day was bittersweet with things to be happy about and things to lament. The only thing that could have made the last day better would have been Ellie Black hitting BB and Sae Miyakawa or Shang Chungsong winning a medal on FX.

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  11. I thought it was weird that Brenna Dowell seemed so excluded from team finals too. Reminds me of when Mattie Larson had a melt down at the 2010 world’s and it seemed like Martha was publicly and visibly shaming her to the world. She was never the same after that. I hope Brenna can find some strength, and rebound to something even better. She has some crazy good skills if she can get out of her head and just trust her body to do the work. Alas, I fear that she is the next Mattie Larson….sigh…:(

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    • I felt the same way, Mike. The whole thing is very reminiscent of Mattie in 2010. But Brenna’s been around longer than Mattie was, and Brenna’s gotten the short end of the stick many times over the last 3 years, yet seems unfazed by it all, and more determined than ever. I think Brenna will be just fine, and kicking some @ss next year, whether it’s in elite or NCAA.

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    • I don’t think Marta was publically shaming her at all. This sounds brutal but she didn’t have to after her bars routine in qualifications. She totally headcased it. You could see that she looked so scared and that Laurent was trying to calm her down before she went and it clearly didn’t work. I don’t think Marta had to say anything. She made every bars routine at camp and in training and she made her the anchor on bars which clearly put a lot of trust in her routine and how great the routine itself is. People talk like Marta hates Brenna, but before she lost her 2013 Worlds spot because of inconsistency in training at Worlds and she didn’t make the Worlds team in 2014 because of her injury and not being able to hit when it counts. It was really great to see her finally be able to do that this year, except for qualifications. I’m not saying that I liked her not being on the floor or whatever, but I don’t think it was Marta punishing her either. Brenna punished herself even more than Marta ever could after all that. All that work to get to that point and then one routine can ruin it.

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      • I think you’re probably right on all counts, but because the US is so deep with phenomenal athletes, I think sometimes athletes that have to be confronted with pressure situations until they learn to push through the nerves never really get to the point of mastering the nerves. They make one mistake and then get benched, which keeps them spinning in a loop of doubt. I think Brenna could have really contributed in team finals on bars, and by nailing her routine in that situation, it would have given her the confidence to reach a new level. And even she fell, we still probably would have won.

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    • While I did feel sad that Brenna was banished from the floor during TF, it wasn’t just her bar routine that was banished. Every routine that messed up in qual was banished from TF (Aly’s bad amanar, Douglas’s bad beam)….. I don’t know if Marta will ever trust her again in a pressure situation… 😦 I just hope maybe she can be given another chance at performing her bars routine somewhere in maybe another comp like PacRim? I mean Brenna did get a world gold medal but I imagine she never imagine she would got it this way..

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  12. Btw, bars wasn’t the only event US got a higher score thann 2012. FX was also higher by a good margin, most of it thanks to Biles massive FX score..

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