Final Impressions Before the American Cup

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“We’re starting out a little slow here, but that’s the plan. Slow to start, and then come out like BAM.”

That’s how two-time 2012 Olympic gold medalist Gabby Douglas defined her expectations for this year’s American Cup, held in Newark, N.J., tomorrow afternoon. That’s how most of the gymnasts discussed this awkward point in the season five months before the Olympic Games, and that’s how everyone looked in training yesterday morning. Obviously, they all hope to do well tomorrow, but no one is peaking for the American Cup.

As the two Americans representing the United States at home, both Douglas and Maggie Nichols have to look good. This is the first time the general public will catch a meet on TV and actually care enough to stop and watch because hey, it’s that girl who won that medal a few years ago, right? They know nothing of her comeback and 2015 success, so if she shows up looking unprepared, that becomes the story. Not her silver at worlds last year, not her potential to be the first repeat Olympian in the U.S. since 2000, but a mistake at a meet that in the grand scheme of things really doesn’t matter.

According to Martha Karolyi, she gave Douglas a spot here because Douglas is at her best under the pressure of competition. “She sometimes needs a very good incentive to train hard, and she knows that,” Karolyi told the press. “A competition is a great incentive because you do not want to go out there and look bad.” Getting her into competition mode early on means she’s doing better in training early on, which bodes well for everyone. Because her Olympic and world medals don’t matter right now. What matters is “who is prepared and ready to represent [the U.S.] in the best condition.”

In training, Douglas looked about how she always does in podium training – a little sluggish, missing some of her bigger skills, but nothing so bad we should be concerned. “Though I may make a lot of mistakes in practice, in competition I just want to give a good show. The crowd definitely boosts me.”

The standing full on beam was probably the biggest issue, but it’s not like it was her most consistent skill to begin with. She also added a stalder shaposh half on bars, an upgrade from last year’s routine that’ll add about a tenth to her difficulty.

As for other upgrades? “Don’t worry. They’re coming. They’re coming.” She seems almost annoyed by the question, which was a big one for her last year as well, as if coming back to competition for the first time in three years wasn’t enough. She’s keeping mum about what she’s training, though it sounds like in addition to bringing her Amanar back on vault, she might have a couple of things to bring on floor as well.

Nichols wins the prize for “most improved” this quad. I remember sitting by her briefly at nationals in 2012 when she was only a junior, watching the seniors warming up to compete. Much like Douglas a couple of years earlier, Nichols was the kind of gymnast I assumed would do a couple of years at the elite level before retiring to enjoy a little freedom before going off to NCAA. But like some of the best U.S. gymnasts of this generation, Nichols waited until her senior debut to put herself on the map.

Now, it’s hard to imagine the team without her. She was surprised to get a spot at this meet, and can’t believe she’s now one of the well-known faces on Team USA. For all of her modesty, however, the fact that she was the most consistent in the U.S. program last year can’t be overlooked. It certainly wasn’t overlooked by Karolyi at worlds last year, where Nichols was the only member of the U.S. team to go up on all four events in team finals. And her surprise qualification into the floor final over Raisman was a cherry on top of a fantastic year, which ended with an individual bronze medal after her team gold.

While Nichols always managed to land the more difficult Amanar in competition, her training could sometimes look scary, so it’s no shock that she’s taken things back to the safer DTY for this early season meet. Her bars looked about the same, give or take a tenth, and though she got rid of her Grigoras and full-in dismount by the time she got to worlds last year (taking her from a 6.4 start value on beam down to a 5.9), she’s replaced the Grigoras with a side aerial (which is her weakest skill at the moment, though more reliable than the front half), connected her front tuck from a wolf jump adding a tenth of bonus there, and will possibly compete a 2.5 wolf turn instead of the double, up a tenth in difficulty there to bring her potential to about a 6.2. Her floor routine is brand new, with a more grown-up flavor to it, though her tumbling is still the same and her biggest struggles in training came on some of her landings.

So who wins this weekend?

Douglas and Nichols went back and forth in all-around competition last year. Douglas had better performances at Jesolo and the Secret U.S. Classic, but Nichols had stronger scores at both days of nationals, where Nichols finished as the silver medalist and Douglas placed fifth. With Aly Raisman earning the third all-around spot at worlds over Nichols, the two didn’t get to go head-to-head in qualifications there, though you can still compare them, as Douglas got a 59.316 in the all-around final while Nichols earned a 59.232 in the team final. And looking at season averages, Nichols was at 59.17 while Douglas was at 59.03.

Unlike any other American Cup in recent history where we had a clear top dog going for easy gold over a weaker second-in-command who would contend with the international guests for silver, tomorrow’s meet is going to be an incredibly close battle for the top. As with any true knock-down drag-out, every little tenth is going to count here. Every landing, every handstand, every toe point. I do think Nichols without her Amanar gives Douglas the edge, as Douglas without an Amanar was scoring about the same as Nichols with one last year. Five tenths means a lot in a sport where titles are won by thousandths, but all of that goes away with a couple of wobbles. Either way, the competition this weekend has the potential to be the closest title match we’ve seen at the American Cup in years.

The remainder of the field has a few gymnasts who can challenge for bronze, though I think gold or even silver are out of the picture unless the Americans have at least two falls. My pick for bronze right now is Lorrane Oliveira, the 2015 Brazilian national champion who was her country’s top entrant into the all-around final over the young it girl Flavia Saraiva and the veterans Daniele Hypolito and Jade Barbosa.

Oliveira looked the cleanest in training yesterday, and while she only went for FTYs on vault, she’s capable of an awesome double. She also already has a title under her belt this year after winning the Houston National Invitational in February with a 55.45, a solid score even including a fall on floor.

Her biggest competition for bronze, three-time Canadian national champion Ellie Black, also got her first meet of the year kinks out of the way at Elite Canada, where a rough all-around performance resulted in a 54.725 for bronze. She wasn’t quite as clean as Oliveira yesterday, though she still did some great work and was happy with how things went, though doesn’t have major expectations for this weekend, saying she’s only hoping to hit her routines and then use this meet to build off of as the season progresses.

I also wouldn’t count out Carlotta Ferlito of Italy for the bronze race. Though she struggled quite a bit on her Yurchenko 1.5 vault, she could always bring it back down to a full if need be. Her work on beam and floor is looking strong and she had a great first meet of the season at last month’s Serie A, placing second all-around with a 56.5. Her last performance at the American Cup in 2014 didn’t go very well, but 2014 was a bad year for her in general, and she completely turned things around last year, medaling at both the Golden League and the Novara Cup before placing 12th in the all-around final at worlds.

Then there’s Amy Tinkler, last year’s British national champion and a member of the team that earned an historic bronze at worlds. While most are focusing on cleaning up what they already have, Tinkler is coming in with a few awesome upgrades, including an awesome triple loso series on beam (which comes with two tenths in CV as well as an extra tenth as a series bonus!) and a Maloney to Tkachev combo on bars in addition to bringing back her standing full on beam.

Her training was interesting, because she took a few attempts to warm up to certain elements or combos, maybe falling on the first, having a form error on the second, and then hitting the third. This is fine for training, so it’ll be interesting to see how that translates to competition, where obviously hitting it the first time is a necessity. Like Black, Tinkler said she’s excited to use this meet as a pushing off point that she can build from going forward, and it’s smart of her to unveil her big upgrades now instead of waiting. Because she too doesn’t have any medal expectations personally, she can take risks and have her new skills critiqued by FIG judges on a major international stage, a big advantage over gymnasts in her country. A clean day could definitely mean a podium finish for Tinkler, but if she doesn’t, this opportunity to test out new routines is a great consolation prize.

Rounding out the field are the young Tisha Volleman of the Netherlands and Tabea Alt of Germany. Volleman was the Dutch junior national champion in 2014 and does great work with a clean FTY on vault as well as a floor routine that’s quite enjoyable. She’s changed it since last year, and now performs a fun and energetic set with beautiful dance elements and a fantastic performance quality that should have the crowd going wild. Her bars and beam aren’t really notable routines, and I doubt we’ll see her threaten for the podium, but she’s so excited about the opportunity to compete, a medal is the last thing on her mind.

Alt, the youngest competitor here who turns 16 in two weeks, was last year’s German junior all-around champion, coming close to sweeping the event medals as well, with a bronze on floor the only medal around her neck that wasn’t gold. Alt has great lines and superb form on bars and is fantastic on beam (she’s so good, in fact, that she could be a savior for the German team at the test event). If she hits everything to the best of her ability tomorrow, she’s also in the medal mix, but I think she and her coaches were being modest about her chances in order to take a bit of weight off her shoulders in an already high-pressure senior debut.

Mai Murakami of Japan is also expected to compete, and warmed up in the general stretch yesterday morning, but wasn’t present for podium training at all during media day. It’s unclear whether she was injured before the media was allowed in, or whether she opted to train only in the closed sessions, but if she does compete, expect big things. Last year, Murakami was only the second alternate for worlds, but a series of crazy events ended up seeing her not only on all four events in qualifications, but finishing better than any of her teammates on that first day of competition and then placing sixth in the all-around final. She’s made magic happen before, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see her show up out of nowhere tomorrow and make it happen again.

The American Cup begins with the men’s competition at 11:30 am tomorrow, March 5. After the men finish their first two events, the women will join in, likely around 12:15 or 12:30. The meet will be aired on NBC, on the NBC Live Extra app, and on the USA Gymnastics YouTube channel for countries that haven’t purchased the rights to air it. If you can’t watch, we’ll be there bright and early to live blog warm-ups and then the meet.

Article by Lauren Hopkins

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