Four years after defeating Jordyn Wieber to unofficially win the American Cup title, 2012 Olympic all-around champion Gabby Douglas has done it for real.
With one of the strongest overall performances of her comeback and perhaps one of her best beam sets ever, Douglas has reached yet another milestone on the “still don’t think my comeback is real?” measuring stick. As if winning a silver medal a point behind Simone Biles at worlds last year wasn’t proof enough.
Though she looked a bit shaky in training earlier in the week, we knew it was nothing to worry about. Douglas is a competitor above all else, meaning she may not put it all out there behind closed doors, though when the pressure’s on, so is she. Though she came onto the table a bit low on vault, causing lower-than-normal amplitude and leading the gymternet to somehow assume this means she is severely degressing (you guys aren’t dramatic or anything, are you?), her clean form and stuck landing got her a meet-best 15.1 and the rest of her day was fantastic, with top scores on bars and beam as well.
On bars, she added the Chow half – a stalder shaposh with a half twist – into the mix, picking up some difficulty there, while on beam she looked more confident than I’ve ever seen her. Her standing full led to multiple falls in training, but she nailed it with a smirk when it counted, one of the highlights of her aggressive “told ya so” set on Saturday afternoon. And while floor still isn’t a standout event for Douglas, she did well enough there to seal the deal, finishing five tenths above silver medalist and 2015 worlds teammate Maggie Nichols with a 60.165.
For Nichols, it was the first time we really saw her step into the spotlight on her own as an all-arounder. Two years ago, in her second year as a senior, she mostly tagged along behind top dogs Simone Biles and the now-retired Kyla Ross, winning bronze behind them at both classics and nationals before an injury at Pan Ams took her out of contention for a spot at worlds.
When she returned from injury six months later, we saw the makings of a brand-new gymnast. She had upgrades everywhere, and while a fluke fall at Jesolo kept her down in the standings there, by the time summer came along she was basically now the one to beat in the playing field that doesn’t include Biles. A silver medal finish at nationals and a surprise bronze on floor at worlds upped her star quite a bit, cementing her A team status and putting her on the fast-track to Rio.
Getting the American Cup assignment was still a surprise to Nichols, however. She’s still getting used to her gymnastics stardom, though if there are nerves they didn’t show for even a second this weekend. While her performance could still withstand some fine-tuning, especially in the form department, judges seem to love her and her big beam upgrades – taking her up six tenths from worlds – were very well-received.
She did downgrade from the Amanar to the DTY, which worried some fans, though it seems like both she and Douglas said they were taking it slow at their first meet of the season. She’s also missing a few connections on bars, where I was hoping to see the most improvement this year, but it seems the focus is on cleaning up what she already has before going for broke this summer. A 59.699 this early in the season is certainly great, so if she can use that and build from it, it’s going to be a fantastic year.
In all, the Americans were prepared, confident, and solid, their early season performances showing yet again why they’re so successful when it counts later on. Given their hiatus since worlds and trying to peak five months from now, I didn’t set super high expectations, and both Douglas and Nichols exceeded what I imagined from them both.
Ellie Black of Canada was the only non-U.S. gymnast to make it through the competition with no falls, so it was no surprise to see her come in for the bronze medal with a 57.132. She pushed some warm-up struggles on vault and beam out of her mind to come back mentally on fire for the competition, hitting everything including her tricky tuck full on beam. It wasn’t the cleanest performance, but it was without a doubt one of her most solid, an especially big deal coming back from multiple falls at Elite Canada a month earlier.
The British gymnast Amy Tinkler wasn’t far behind Black going into the final rotation, and given her typically strong work on floor when she hits, it looked like she might actually sneak up and take it. Unfortunately, however, she just lost stamina coming out of her 1.5 into the double tuck, her third pass, and crashed it, getting a 13.066 on the event and finishing fourth with a 55.932.
But even though it didn’t work out for Tinkler, she came into the meet with some major new upgrades, including getting her standing full back on beam in addition to adding a triple layout stepout series there as well as a tricky Maloney to Tkachev combo on bars. She hit all of these upgrades like she’d been doing them for years, and proved to be a fantastic little beam worker, getting her best score ever on that event – a 14.2 – thanks to her new 6.1 start value (her highest score before that was a 13.8, so yeah, this is big). Given that beam is a huge question mark for the British team, I’d say Tinkler’s day was a major success and should give her a ton of confidence going into the selection process later this year.
Carlotta Ferlito of Italy was right behind Tinkler with a 55.932, showing a mostly strong performance aside from a fluke bars dismount fall, hitting her arabian double front after getting zero height off the bar. Otherwise, she seemed very relaxed at this meet, and seemed to be truly enjoying herself.
Though her execution score doesn’t really reflect it, Ferlito had the best floor routine of the day, hands down, sticking nearly everything while putting her heart and soul into the performance aspect. It was seriously a highlight of the competition, though her difficulty definitely holds her back a bit. The gym where she trains lacks proper floor equipment, so she is shooting for some upgrades there – including a double layout – but can only train these skills once a week at Brixia Brescia, so they’re not coming along quite as quickly as she’d hope. But even so, the work she does do is fantastic, and she also put up gorgeous work on beam, making her bars fall the only sour point in her day.
Rounding out the field were Mai Murakami of Japan in sixth with a 54.431, Tabea Alt of Germany in seventh with a 54.399, Tisha Volleman of the Netherlands in eighth with a 52.666, and Lorrane Oliveira in ninth with a 50.298.
Perhaps it was the long flight from halfway around the world, or not attending a couple of the podium training sessions, but Murakami looked a bit tired and unprepared at this meet, which was a bummer as she’s usually one I really look forward to. Alt, meanwhile, made her senior debut looking fresh and hitting big skills – including a side aerial to layout stepout to layout stepout – but second-guessing herself on her easier skills, falling on a straddle jump of all things on that event. Still, her score of 13.3 on beam was better than what most German beam scores reach for hit routines, so a little more high-pressure experience could definitely help her out.
With her low difficulty across the board, Volleman was never really in the meet, though I was impressed with her beautiful FTY vault and a hit bars set. Her all-around score was a couple of points shy of her potential, however, after a fall on her triple full in her awesome new Brazilian-style floor routine as well as a stumble on beam that caused her to get docked in execution in addition to missing out on a flight series. Still, I enjoyed her and her attitude and passion going into the meet, and think she’s definitely on the short list for those who can help the Dutch make it to the team final in Rio.
Finally, Oliveira. Oliveira, Oliveira, Oliveira. My heart broke for her, the one with the cleanest and strongest work in training all week but who kept getting more and more frustrated with each mistake, finishing last on each event (except vault) when she should have been in the mix for bronze. It looked like a case of wanting it too badly, her adrenaline on overdrive and causing her to miss skills she can hit in her sleep.
Her lovely piked Jaeger on bars got way more height and distance than necessary, resulting in a scary first fall of the afternoon, as she seemed shocked by her positioning in the air and didn’t have time to brace correctly, bouncing forward and looking stunned by the impact. Like Alt, she hit her difficult skills and combos on beam, but then went for a switch leap combo and missed her footing for her second fall of the day. By the time it was her turn for floor, she seemed frustrated but super mad, and I was really hoping for a revenge routine…but she sat both the Dos Santos in her first pass and then her double tuck to finish.
I think every year at the American Cup there’s someone who comes in and just blows it completely, like Claudia Fragapane last year. There’s no doubt in my mind Oliveira – who is the reigning national champion and one of the five already named to Brazil’s team for the test event – can come back from this looking better than ever. She has the skills and the talent, and now she even has the disaster meet out of the way. Every gymnast has one. At least for Oliveira, it happened here, and not in front of a home crowd in Rio next month.
She still has a few more opportunities to put this behind her – including the low-pressure Jesolo meet next week – and if anything, she can use this as a learning experience. Her rise to the top last year was almost too good, going from a maybe for the worlds team to having the best performance for her country in Glasgow and then becoming national champion a month later. This was a kick in the pants every athlete gets at one time or another, and how she rises up from failure is only going to make her a better gymnast in the future when it counts.
Article by Lauren Hopkins