Anyone’s Game for U.S. Juniors

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At the start of the U.S. Classic competition, someone asked who I thought would win. I came up with five different names and not one of the names I picked ended up making it happen. Two of those were within half a point of the all-around winner, and another two were about a point away after counting falls, so this day was a testament to just how deep this current junior U.S. field actually is.

Looking back at recent years in the junior field, there always tends to be one or two doing really well – in the 59+ zone – and then the rest aren’t even in the picture, making for predictable and boring competition. Right now, there are about seven who can realistically go 57+ on a good day, meaning all-around titles are anyone’s game this summer, which is exactly what happened in Hartford.

Irina Alexeeva of WOGA ended up becoming this year’s Secret U.S. Classic junior champion, earning a 57.55 with especially great work on bars and beam, like many great WOGA gymnasts before her. Alexeeva won the beam title with a massive 15.1 in what is actually a super talented beam field, and she also got the silver medal on floor, where her skills aren’t as difficult, but she did a tremendous job performing them cleanly. She was also especially strong at keeping her cool in what was a pretty messy day for top contenders, allowing her to take advantage of others’ mistakes.

Alexeeva has been on the scene since she was about nine years old, but is only now competing at the national level at 14 due to issues with her citizenship. Originally, the plan was to compete for Russia, though the Russian program doesn’t tend to be accepting of those who train outside their Round Lake system, and so Alexeeva has decided to try things out on the U.S. side. But the thing is, Alexeeva only has a green card, not U.S. citizenship, making her ineligible to compete at nationals next week, and you can thank the Belo-Americans for that.

Last year, after two American gymnasts “defected” to Belarus in order to compete at worlds, the U.S. international elite committee got together to define foreign athlete participation at the national level. Essentially, in a nutshell, gymnasts who aren’t eligible to represent the U.S. at the Olympic Games (i.e. those who aren’t citizens or those who are citizens but have registered with the FIG under non-U.S. nationalities) are not allowed to compete at any domestic meets that determine U.S. teams. Since nationals will determine the junior national team for 2016-2017, Alexeeva isn’t allowed to compete. In the future, if Alexeeva is able to get U.S. citizenship, this can change, but for now she’s kind of stuck in this “no country to compete for” limbo, a bummer given her talent.

But for those who can compete at nationals, things are still looking great, with the top five rounded out by Emma Malabuyo of Texas Dreams with a 57.5 for silver, Gabby Perea of Legacy Elite with a 57.05 for bronze, Jordan Chiles of Naydenov with a 56.35 for fourth place, and Morgan Hurd of First State with a 56.3 for fifth.

Malabuyo and Perea both had great days, coming up just a tad shy with Malabuyo only 0.05 behind Alexeeva and Perea a half point back. Malabuyo upped her game by bringing a DTY to the table, a super important upgrade given the domestic one-tenth penalty for juniors who opt to do FTYs. For her first try, it was an excellent attempt, earning a 14.7, and she also did strong enough work on bars and floor to get solid scores there, though beam – as always – was her standout even with a few minor mistakes, coming in at 14.8 to win the bronze.

I was especially impressed with Perea, however, as she had an incredibly rough warm-up on bars, falling on most of her skills in training before the meet. But her routine itself was the opposite of what she trained, living by the old theater adage of “a bad dress rehearsal means a good opening night.” She actually killed it in competition, and with beautiful form, earning a 14.75 to win the title while also looking near-perfect on beam, including on her beautiful standing full, layout series, and 2.5, getting a 14.9 for silver. Her FTY and lower-difficulty floor hold her back a bit, though she had a gorgeous triple on floor and hit her landings pretty well, so overall it was a successful day.

Chiles, probably the one most people expected would win coming in as the Jesolo all-around champ with an excellent Amanar under her belt, unfortunately sat her double pike after an otherwise mostly good beam routine, and also went out-of-bounds on her double layout on floor, though her Amanar was brilliant and I was actually incredibly wowed by her bars, which – for her weak event – looked awesome with no mistakes and a stuck full-in. For Chiles, it’s about making everything come together, and she’s still young enough that she has a bit more time to figure that out. With a whole quad full of senior competition ahead of her, time is more than on her side, and with a few minor tweaks, she could easily be on top of the podium at nationals this year.

The same can be said for Hurd, who has a whole mess of upgrades this year, all of which she competes beautifully. She didn’t have the best day, just getting back into competition after an elbow injury took her out for most of the past year, but she’s another one who could easily become the national champion if she hits what she has. Her DTY was a little short, but that’s easily fixable, and she fell on her side aerial to layout stepout on beam, a bummer because the rest was SO good, and she also added a huge full-in dismount, making her the only junior in the world with a G-level beam dismount at the moment. That aside, her bars were perfection (and probably a tad underscored, though her 14.7 still got her the silver medal), featuring a huge Ray, inbar full to Tkachev, inbar to pak, and a brand-new double double dismount, and continuing the theme of girls having some of their best work on their weakest events, Hurd actually won the floor title with a 14.25 after an awesome routine with a lovely performance, clean dance elements, and solid landings.

Making up the top twelve were Maile O’Keefe of Salcianu in sixth with a 55.9, Aria Brusch of CGA in seventh with a 55.35, Deanne Soza of Arete in eighth with a 54.75, Riley McCusker of MG Elite in ninth with a 54.7, Elena Arenas of Georgia Elite in tenth with a 54.45, Alyona Shchennikova of 5280 in 11th with a 54.25, and Kalyany Steele of Colorado Aerials in 12th with a 53.95.

Soza was one of those I expected would be at the top, but as good as she is as a gymnast, she still has problems actually competing, which is shocking to me. I don’t get it. Her first routine of the day was beam, and like Chiles, it went very well for the most part, though she stumbled and crashed her double pike dismount at the very end. Her floor was good, and she hit a lovely DTY, and then she finished strong with a hit bars routine, though considering some of the big skills she does (like the Ezhova and a full-twisting double layout dismount), her difficulty is still a bit low and she racked up some e-score deductions as well, which was a bummer. I still think she’s one of the most technically strong gymnasts currently competing, and all I want for her is one really great killer day. Hopefully we see it from her soon!

Also among these, I have to say I loved O’Keefe’s beam and was expecting her to be a podium contender if it wasn’t for a slip on bars. She’s also doing a pretty good DTY now, and while she has great big skills on beam, I’m most impressed with her amplitude on her switch half there. Brusch should be noted for her fantastic day, with hit routines from start to finish and floor an especially strong standout, getting a 14.1 for bronze.

McCusker is MG Elite’s newest kid in the mix, and she’s coming in with huge compulsory scores, mirroring teammate and Olympic hopeful Laurie Hernandez‘s own great compulsory work back in 2011 (I still remember seeing Kim Zmeskal-Burdette’s jaw drop at Hernandez’s beam compulsory). She’s got some good skills, especially on bars, and didn’t seem to get too mussed about a fall on beam, which is always nice to see. There’s definitely some clean-up work to be done, but for her first big elite meet, she did a fantastic job, especially considering she finished ninth in a field of 45 girls and most other first-timers were waaaay down toward the end of that list.

We saw another new DTY from Arenas, who actually showed the strongest DTY of the day with a 14.85 for the silver medal, though she unfortunately had a fall on bars to limit her overall in the standings. Shchennikova showed off her fantastic bars for a 14.6 to get bronze, but had a rough landing on her DTY and a fall on beam in addition to a relatively weak floor, and then Steele, another new kid, had a great DTY for a 14.8 to get bronze as well as great work on beam.

Between this meet, the American Classic, and the couple of international junior meets earlier this year, a total of 38 gymnasts qualified to junior nationals, and a big number of them are total newbies. I expect we’ll see the same super tight competition for those at the top, and only hope as many falls as possible are kept at bay, because if this happens, it should make for one of the most exciting domestic U.S. competitions in forever.

U.S. Championships will be held in St. Louis next week, from June 23-26. For more information, including the schedule and start lists, check out our coverage guide. Full results from the U.S. Classic are available here.

Article by Lauren Hopkins

19 thoughts on “Anyone’s Game for U.S. Juniors

  1. Such bull that Alexeeva can’t compete at nationals. Even if she didn’t do well enough to win, she could’ve easily earned herself an impressive array of medals across the board, and was my pick for the junior beam title. I agree with gymnasts of non-US citizenship not being allowed to compete abroad, but I think that if they are in the US program or are not registered under another country they should be allowed to compete domestically. That would be fair to gymnasts like Irina who are halfway in and would clear up the Belarus situation.

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    • Well, they’re letting her compete domestically, which is why they’ve been letting her do the qualifiers and Classics. Nationals is the only one, because if they let her compete, they’d have to let a bunch of others compete, and given that there are at least 15+ girls currently living in the U.S. and repping other countries at the elite level, it would just get messy, honestly. It would be different if she was the only one, but because there are so many (including 7 who qualified to the Olympics for other countries), it would just make things too complicated.

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      • I wish they could let her exhibition at least. Especially since it seems like she’s in the process of getting citizenship.

        I know she competed a few internationals, but I don’t remember that actually being for Russia.

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        • Usually any international meet she’s been to (like Gymnix or WOGA) has been an invitational, not an FIG-sanctioned meet, meaning she’s sent by her gym, not by her national program.

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      • Yeah, I think that if they are under the US program AND not representing another country that they should compete; it’s awfully specific to Alexeevas case but I think it’s a bit unfair that she can’t compete at nationals. I don’t think Kylie, Alaina, Thema or other gymnasts who are representing different countries should compete at nationals, but gymnasts like Irina should. Annia Hatch had almost the same thing happen to her with Cuba in 02 and was at least allowed to compete at nationals which was fair.

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      • Maybe I’m missing something, but it seems like they could restrict Nationals to U.S. nationals (not representing other countries) + aliens living in the U.S. and not representing other countries. This would (fairly) include Irina but exclude Thema, Kylie, Alaina, et al.

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    • Depending on when she got her permanent residency, it takes another 5 years after she got her green card (and minimum age of 18) before she’s eligible to apply for naturalization to become a US citizen. That can possibly mean that she won’t even be eligible to compete for US for the next quad.

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      • If so, maybe in the meantime they’ll add something to the rules about allowing non-citizens to at least compete at Championships even if they can’t do internationals, provided they aren’t competing for another country (and maybe haven’t ever). Also, if they’re actively in the process of obtaining US citizenship, that should factor in.

        Irina gets stuck in such a weird circumstance.

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  2. This may be a silly question but kinda confused about the comment about McCusker’s complusory scores? I’m not too familiar with junior elite competitions but I didn’t think complusories were done anymore?

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    • Compulsories are done in order to qualify for elite…so at the very first elite qualifier meets. I forgot where Riley did hers, but it was probably Parkettes or something since that’s close by. Basically it’s not even real routines, just a couple of basics on each event. They never do them again after that first time.

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      • Charlotte? YouTube videos say qualifier, but the routines look a little beyond compulsories to me (I’m not knowledgeable enough to know, but the BB tumbling pass on which she falls seems too much for compulsory). Beam and bars look good and have some difficulty, but she has a fall on both. Floor was really pretty clean, with a very nice stuck double twisting layout. No video of vault I can see.

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        • Yeah that was optional qualifier, not compulsory. Compulsory is out of a 10.0 per event and 40.0 AA and she had something like a 39.1 AA which is really high…the compulsory qualification requirement is usually judged very strictly and it’s something like 33-34 to qualify and many don’t even get that, so a 39.1 is HUGE. Most don’t bother filming compulsories because it’s not even really routines. These are the videos with the elite compulsory requirements. https://usagym.org/pages/women/video/10elitecompulsories/

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  3. I made a spontaneous decision to buy a ticket to see the seniors on day two yesterday (it’s a six hour drive for me). I was going to skip the juniors, but you convinced me to buy a ticket for them, too!

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  4. I didn’t realize the whole citizenship/competing for the US deal was a new policy after the whole Bulgaria situation. I remembered Talia Chiarelli competing at Nationals a few years back though, so I guess it is that new. I think it makes sense in some ways, which have been pointed out, but at the same time, is it really the fault of a talented 14 year old girl that the citizenship process is slow, and giving up your old citizenship is a big deal?

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    • Yeah, it’s definitely super new, and just came about after worlds last year…I think the terms were voted on in December or January. I do wish they would allow for guest international competitors, especially because the U.S. is home to I believe SEVEN girls representing other countries at the Olympic Games this year and it would be a cool way to foster international friendship which is one of the Olympic values, and then it would also help girls like Irina in the process of getting citizenship so they can represent the U.S. in the future, but yeah. I don’t know why they’re so against it. Other nations allow for international guests and just separate their results from the actual national gymnasts’ results. It shouldn’t be that big of a deal.

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