So, the Secret U.S. Classic has two purposes, the first being that it’s the second of two qualifiers to nationals, so for anyone who hasn’t yet earned a spot, it’s the last chance.
But for those who have qualified, I think there was some confusion about why they’re there. Almost no senior goes to Classics with the ultimate goal of becoming the U.S. Classic champion. I mean, sure, if you’re doing the all-around you probably want to finish well, which means a possible medal around your neck. But most of the top contenders have other goals in mind, and that’s getting prepared for the meets that really matter.
In non-Olympic years, gymnasts have the U.S. Classic and then the P&G Championships spaced a few weeks apart, so doing the all-around at Classics is more or less a personal decision. Like, last year Simone Biles had literally nothing to prove, but if all four of her events are ready, it’s nice to get the practice in on all of them so nationals isn’t your first time doing the routines on a podium in months. But this year it’s Classics, then nationals three weeks later, and then Olympic Trials two weeks after that, which means if you do all four events at all three meets, you’re competing the all-around five times over the span of five weeks. Not everyone can handle that stress followed by a month of continued training and competing at the ranch and then at the ultimate holy grail, the Olympic Games.
The Olympic year U.S. Classic for seniors is literally a practice meet. Some get their weakest routines out of the way, others try to prove themselves on the events for which they’d most likely make the U.S. team, and then a small handful will go for all four. In 2012, only two who would go on to make the Olympic team did the all-around, and no 2008 Olympians competed at all, let alone on all four.
This year, Aly Raisman was really the only contender who opted to compete her full program at Classics, possibly because she felt she had something to prove. She’s actually had a pretty good year, winning floor at Jesolo and Pacific Rims after missing out on the final at worlds in 2015, and then placing in the top three on beam at both of these meets as well. But neither meet included the country’s full range of competitors, and she also struggled on vault both times, sitting in Italy and then having a rough landing in Everett.
In Hartford, Raisman again won floor in addition to placing top three on beam and finishing first in the all-around with a 59.25, something she managed with a super low score on bars after a fluke fall on her Maloney (though she said her 13.05 was actually still pretty high all things considered, and hilariously said the judges must be helping her out a bit). While we know Biles would’ve beaten her on floor, beam bronze was a great finish considering all of the country’s strongest on that event competed aside from Laurie Hernandez. With everyone at full strength, Raisman is unquestionably in the top five there, and with a few minor changes to the construction of her routine, she could get more consistent high scores internationally as well.
But for me, what sealed the deal to turn her from “maybe” to “it could definitely happen” was her vault. She’s struggled so much with the Amanar since coming back that at worlds last year, Martha Karolyi opted to use a DTY in the team finals over Raisman’s vault. But she’s since found that her first Amanar is always her best, something I agree with after seeing it look great in the touch warm-up on multiple occasions which makes her competition vaults all the more baffling. So this weekend, she decided to only warm up doubles, with her competition Amanar the first she throws. While it wasn’t perfect in terms of form (she’s always had that one bent knee in the second half of the twist), her landing was the best she’s had all quad, dead center with just a small hop forward. It’s definitely a vault the team can count on in a team final situation which in my opinion raises her value to the team so much given that the U.S. is known for its vault prowess but hasn’t really showed that as much this quad.
Even with the fall on bars, I think this was an excellent meet for her and she did exactly what she needed to do to show that she’s still high up there in the mix for Rio. Plus, hitting three excellent routines after coming back from a fall on bars shows that her confidence and trust in herself keeps building, and if anything, her success at this meet should help keep it moving in the right direction.
Beyond Raisman, I wouldn’t call any of the other top all-arounders real contenders, though both Rachel Gowey and Alyssa Baumann (who placed second and third with scores of 58.3 and 58, respectively) have some quality work and I wouldn’t be surprised if either came in for an alternate spot. Gowey had great work all day, which was especially nice given her injury last year. She came back so strong, with bars and beam her standouts, though I don’t think she could place in the top three on either.
Baumann, meanwhile, has an incredible beam set, one that’s on par with some of the best in the world on this event. Her vault and floor would be welcome in any other country, though are just kind of decent on this stacked U.S. team. Actually, her floor is beautiful, not “decent,” but I don’t think it’s high-scoring enough to make her an asset to the team. Like Raisman, she had a rough set on bars after arching over on the low bar and then crashing her dismount, but she wouldn’t really be used there so I don’t think she should worry too much.
As for the rest of the all-arounders, some would be lucky to make it to Olympic Trials next month but I don’t see any dark horses for the team itself. Between the American Classic and the U.S. Classic, all seniors but Leah Clapper made it to nationals, so we should be looking forward to a good-sized field. I was impressed with Marz Frazier, who is back at Parkettes and placed fourth after a solid day, and I think Emily Gaskins has done some great work since her senior debut at Jesolo this year, and truly, any of the other all-arounders here? Romania would’ve killed for them at the Olympic Test Event (in fact, the bottom six finishers at Classics had potential to finish in about fifth place in Rio). But with the country as deep as it is, there’s no one in this group with routines that would challenge those at the top.
Someone who could challenge, however, is Amelia Hundley. I can’t get over how well Hundley competed on Saturday. With the exception of floor, she performed well enough on beam, but really knocked it out of the park with her gorgeous DTY on vault and an absolutely phenomenal bar routine. Because there’s so much bars depth right now, she was actually only sixth there, and with a 14.9, but don’t let her placement fool you. She was beautiful and confident and it’s amazing seeing her continue to thrive and really enjoy herself in the sport. Even though she’s a long shot for even an alternate spot, it’s great to see her still kicking butt at 18. She came into elite in her teammate’s shadow, but really came into her own as one of the best juniors in the country, and continues to perform at such a high level today, it’s incredible.
The big Olympic contenders at this meet aside from Raisman included Simone Biles, Gabby Douglas, Ashton Locklear, Ragan Smith, Madison Kocian, Brenna Dowell, MyKayla Skinner, and Laurie Hernandez, all of whom had already qualified to nationals and did between one and three events in Hartford.
Biles, who could literally show up and do level four routines and still make the team, competed on bars and beam, her “weak” events if “weak” is a word you can use to describe her beam considering she’s the reigning back-to-back world champion on the event, but given that she can reach 16+ on vault and floor, clearly she still has a ways to go on beam (kidding, in case that wasn’t clear). I never know what to say about Biles aside from how not shocked I am that she continues to dominate. Her beam was excellent, and despite not being a natural on bars, she has a routine that most teams would kill to put in their team finals line-ups. For Biles, Classics was a great way to dust off her grips and stretch up for nationals, and she had absolutely no problem getting her job done and looking relaxed and happy while doing it.
Her all-around runner up at last year’s worlds and the reigning Olympic champion Douglas also did bars and beam, opting for the opposite of Biles’ strategy as these are generally her two strongest events rather than her weakest. Beam has seen better days, but there was nothing majorly wrong there…just a few hiccups and bobbles she’ll hope to get rid of in the next couple of weeks. Actually, she had a moment on bars catching her pak a tad too close but she’s so good at overcoming blips like these…wasn’t it at the 2012 Olympic Trials when her grip basically fell off during her pak and she kept her swing like nothing went wrong? She had great work otherwise, and ended up placing third.
Speaking of bars, both bars specialists – Locklear and Kocian – were fantastic on the event, with Locklear taking the top score of 15.85 and Kocian just behind with a 15.7. While the execution scores on bars were more than a little insane, they were both gorgeous, and then Locklear went on to hit a great beam set while Kocian fell on that event herself. Between the two, I still think a healthy Kocian with a full all-around program is more valuable than Locklear with her extra tenth on bars, as Kocian could actually step in on vault and floor if needed whereas Locklear is completely limited by her lack of routines there, something Karolyi tends to stray from on a five-member team.
The new seniors Smith and Hernandez basically got their jobs done this weekend. Smith had one of her best bars sets ever, going from that being a weakness to actually looking like a reliable set, and on beam she finally debuted the Patterson dismount. The landing was a bit scary, but when you go back and watch it over again, you can see she missed her feet almost entirely going into it, giving her no height off the end…and she still over-rotated it. It’ll get there. The rest of her beam was nearly flawless, and I think she’s makes more of a case for herself every single time she competes. Hernandez, meanwhile, was lovely on bars, her one event as she’s trying to keep her injuries in check and not risk anything further as she goes into the competitive season. I could see these two in direct competition with one another, actually, as they have similar strengths on beam and floor, so it’ll be interesting to see how they look up against one another over the next month.
Then we have Skinner, who did everything but floor, and Dowell, who competed beam, typically her weakest though she said in the time leading up to the meet that she was feeling the most confident and ready there in the gym. Dowell did a good enough job there, considering it’s not going to be one of her core events on a team, and she has some big potential upgrades coming in time for nationals, including an Amanar and some little extras here and there on floor, so I’m excited to see what she’ll do on her top events. Skinner had a fantastic day on vault with a great Amanar that got totally low-balled compared to how other vaults were scored (or actually, it could be more like her score was fair and others were over-scored…but either way, it was unfair). She also had a fabulous beam set, and while she was shaky on almost all of her bars skills – too bad, as she’s had her greatest improvement there this year with actually great sets at Glasgow and Jesolo – she unveiled a double double dismount that boosts her D score a little. I love that both Dowell and Skinner have kept themselves high up on the list this quad after fighting through each year never as favorites but as the girls who are always daring and awesome, pushing to be their best, always trying to make themselves better, and never quitting.
Christina Desiderio and Jazmyn Foberg also competed this weekend, both new seniors making their big competitive debuts in 2016. Desiderio, who qualified to nationals at the ranch and competed at the American Classic, did all events but bars and had a mostly good day with great work on her big tumbling passes standing out over the minor mistakes that came up on occasion. But Foberg sadly had a rough day, beginning with a fall on her out-of-control wolf turn on beam, which kept spinning even after there was no way she’d hold it up. The rest of her routine was a bit hesitant, with lots of checks and wobbles like she was second-guessing every move. On floor, her double double went out-of-bounds and she crashed her full-in, and then on bars she fell on her Church. After floor, she opted to scratch vault, probably a good choice given her mentality all day, so I hope she’s able to come back strong in St. Louis.
So these were the seniors. Lots of good here, but most importantly, lots of room for improvement. No one made the team or missed out on it based on what they did here, but some – like Raisman – built on already strong foundations while others showed that there’s still lots of work to do over this next month.
The U.S. women will continue on at the P&G Championships in two weeks, where everyone will be expected to be in top shape in order to get selected to move on to the Olympic Trials in July. Full results from the Secret U.S. Classic are available here.
Article by Lauren Hopkins