Well, this certainly was an entertaining weekend, with crazy surprises at every end of the spectrum. Isn’t that always the case?! Without further ado…
THE ELITE FRESHMEN
A million former elites from the U.S. and beyond made their freshman debuts this weekend, with double Olympic gold medalists at UCLA (Kyla Ross and Madison Kocian, in case you’ve been ignoring everything in the world for the past six months), Olympic alternate MyKayla Skinner at Utah, and two-time world medalist Maggie Nichols at Oklahoma.
Of these, I was impressed with ALL of them, but if I had to rank them, I’d go Nichols, Skinner, and then Kocian and Ross in a tie. Maggie was balls-out insanely good. Unstoppable. The next Courtney Kupets or Bridget Sloan. We were expecting this, though, right? Yes, the judges seemed to be a little overly friendly with a couple of her scores, but at best they ignored like…slight leg separations on bars and floor, nothing major. And zero of her tiny form errors affected how incredible her routines looked at all.
Skinner also has huge star power in Salt Lake City. She’s worked on her form considerably, her confidence and skill on beam has grown tremendously, and she’s keeping more elite difficulty than any other NCAA gymnast in history, so love her or hate her, get used to seeing her at the top of the rankings for pretty much every event. Yes, including bars. For me, the highlight in Skinner’s debut was beam, but I mean, she did a DTY vault and a double double on floor, and hit a super solid bars set, so really, just A+ across the board.
Ross, coming back from a minor foot injury, competed everything but floor, and though she got docked a couple of tenths for missing a C+ dance series on beam, she looked incredible everywhere. And guys, her double layout is back on bars! The most exciting news of all. I thought she maaaaybe gets the win over Kocian, who looked fabulous but a little labored on each event, if that’s the right word? Like, she’s still coming into her own a bit. I loved seeing her sassy new floor routine, but she still looks a little reserved in her work, like the hip shaking and hair tossing is more of a science she has to master rather than natural expression. She’s still at the part in Black Swan before she meets Mila Kunis, but she’ll get there and I’m so excited to see it happen.
Amelia Hundley was a tremendous addition to Florida’s roster, Rachel Gowey showed promise on bars and beam though a fall on bars kind of dampened her start, Sabrina Vega at Georgia had some minor mistakes but looked SO HAPPY and refreshed, she could’ve fallen 300 times and I’d still be like “best debut ever,” Maddie Desch got started slow and steady at Alabama competing on vault and floor for now, Felicia Hano at UCLA had a fall on floor but was awesome on vault, and Polina Shchennikova only competed bars for Michigan and had a fall.
As for the international elites, Antonia Alicke (who now goes by Toni!) fell on beam but otherwise had a strong start for UIC, Sabrina Gill of Oregon State struggled on bars but hit her other events and when she hits bars they’ll be FABULOUS (so many stalders!) while teammate Isis Lowery KILLED IT on floor, Charlotte Sullivan of Iowa had a beautiful performance on beam, Maddie Leydin had some minor errors but otherwise showed a strong start on vault and floor for Arizona (but hey Tabitha Yim, I WANT HER BARS STAT), and Ella Douglas of Michigan State struggled on bars but competed in the all-around and won beam and floor, so look for her to eventually reach great heights for that program.
THE NORMAL HUMAN FRESHMEN
One of my favorite things about this weekend, and about NCAA in general, is that UCLA, a team with multiple Olympians — including an Olympic gold medalist volunteer coach (Jordyn Wieber) and one of the most highly decorated Olympic gold medalists of all-time in the crowd (Simone Biles) — was nearly defeated at home by Arkansas, a team made up entirely of former L10s.
NCAA attracts tons of new fans who follow their elite favorites over to this new venture, especially in the season following the Olympics, but the heart of collegiate gymnastics is with the hundreds of former J.O. competitors who train not for Olympic glory but solely for the purpose of getting a college scholarship. Under the ‘perfect 10’ scoring system, pretty much everyone is on the same page difficulty-wise, and while we’re drooling over what the elites will do, many end up missing stunning performances from the regular human gymnasts who exist.
I watched a ton of meets this weekend, but obviously not all of them, so I’m definitely going to miss a few names here but I went with my top five based on what I did see, and then in the future as I see more teams, I’ll add them to my list of BAMFs. But for now…
Maddie Karr of Denver wins this one by a mile. Actually, I didn’t get to see this one, so I lied before but going into this season I worried “what will Denver be like without Nina McGee?” and Karr completely reassured me that everything is business as usual. Karr was incredible, winning the all-around with a 39.5 and topping every event but bars, where she was third. The former J.O. national champ will absolutely be a star for this program, picking up right where McGee left off. Good.
Everyone expected big things from Kennedi Edney at LSU, but I don’t know how many people expected her to stick a Yurchenko 1.5 literally one second into her NCAA career, getting a 9.95 to win the vault title. DD Breaux then clutched her face and screamed “FIRE BREATHING DRAGON!!!! YOU’RE A MONSTER!!!!” which was hilarious and bizarre but whatever, man, it was great, and she also went on to knock a bars set out of the park. It’s hard to be a standout on a team basically made up of standouts, but Edney’s already doing it.
Aspen Tucker of Missouri was my personal favorite this week. I’d never heard of her before watching her compete, but she was fabulous and will likely continue to make every lineup for the Tigers thanks to her awesome skills, lovely form, and high level of confidence. Her FTY is gorgeous, she has a piked Jaeger on bars and stuck her dismount this week, her beam included a two-foot layout and a double full dismount, and she was solid on floor. Some of her routines were in the leadoff spot and others were later on in the rotation, so she kind of fits in everywhere making her super versatile, which is what collegiate coaches need. Very excited about her.
Mollie Korth of Kentucky was similar to Tucker in that I knew very little about her and yet she totally wowed me. Kentucky did that last year with Alex Hyland and Sidney Dukes, both of whom are now basically leading the program as sophomores, and now Korth is joining them in an equally awesome fashion, so high five to Kentucky for recruiting some under-the-radar gymnasts and turning them into killers. I’m pretty sure Korth wasn’t expected to do NCAA until the 2017-2018 season, but she ended up graduating early and committing to the team this past fall, so she literally showed up at Kentucky one day and then won the all-around the next. Casual.
Anyway, she has a piked full-in on floor and an awesome cat leap to switch leap to back tuck series on beam, so hooray for her. Oh yeah, and she had to go up last on bars with the team having a fall earlier in the rotation, so there was a ton of pressure on her and yet she nailed her set with a piked Jaeger and a full-twisting double layout, so yeah. She’s the real deal.
Finally, Denelle Pedrick of Central Michigan technically competed elite in Canada with a few Elite Canada appearances and the Canada Games under her belt, but at bigger meets like nationals she mainly competed at a level that was similar to L10 in the U.S. In her debut, she was the only Chippewa gymnast to contribute on all four events, and showed incredible promise with skills like a triple on floor, a huge floaty switch to switch half and a double full on beam, and my favorite toe-front half dismount off bars. I’m excited to see what she can continue to add to this team in the future.
Pretty much every team ended up ranking about where you’d think, with LSU, Oklahoma, Florida, Alabama, and Utah all having fabulous openers where they counted no major errors into their total scores.
But there were a few surprises. Missouri killed it, FYI. They busted out one of their strongest meets I can remember, and without last year’s superstar Morgan Porter, who is currently facing suspension (though I think we’ll see her back soon). And while they may get overlooked as a team that doesn’t generally put up huge numbers, Temple also had an incredible meet, posting their best season opening score ever to outshine many programs that are typically much stronger than they are.
Other little things…NIU won their quad meet?! Against typically much stronger teams?! That was awesome…AND in a D3 matchup, Gustavus beat Oshkosh!! That was exciting to see…and BYU had an outstanding bars rotation.
Georgia was a bit of a bad surprise…although should I really be surprised? Without the three seniors who ran the show last season, they had a lot of ground to cover, and we didn’t quite see things work out for them. Confidence (or lack thereof) on beam is again an issue, as they counted two falls and two other routines with mistakes, but the bigger problem is that they’re giving up too easily and not fighting for tenths the way other teams are.
Danna Durante actually said something like this to the team midway through the meet. Even the hit routines just didn’t look put together, like they’re still messing around in training instead of competing at one of the toughest programs in the SEC. Georgia is not a 193 team. They can add at least a half point back on each event just from cleaning up and finishing what they start. Hopefully they get into the groove once they get back home or something, and they use this to motivate them to reach higher levels of success because this was straight up a bummer to watch.
Kudos to Sydney Snead for holding onto her head while everything around her was falling apart, though. The sophomore had a fantastic day and was a glimmer of hope in an otherwise messy situation.
I was also shocked to see UCLA score far below what they’re capable of, but this is because they sometimes pay more attention to the flash than to the task at hand. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE the flash. Katelyn Ohashi doing a layout full on beam?! She can fall on literally every other skill and I won’t even care.
But it’s a risk to throw something like that in a collegiate competition, especially when your teammate before you had a near-fall of her own and two of your other teammates before that missed connections. So it came down to these errors on beam, and counting a fall on floor, that brought UCLA down…but meh. It’s the first meet. And it’s UCLA. They’ll get there eventually. And until they do, they’ll still be SO much fun to watch.
MY FAVORITE ROUTINES
Caroline Fitzpatrick of Central Michigan competed a hop change to Healy to straddle back on bars and everything was amazing and nothing hurt. Like, where did that even come from? I started screaming, it was so unexpected and incredible.
Kennedy Baker slayed floor and will get tens on tens on tens in Gainesville. Literally tens at all the meets. And I can’t wait for it.
BYU had some very creative floor routines, including one where freshman Shannon Hortman started out with “Surfin’ USA” and then basically got attacked by a shark in the middle. It was so creative and awesome, one of the only routines I’ve seen where the ‘story’ isn’t just in the gymnast’s head, but you could see it actually playing out on the floor. Also her bio says “loves seafood but is terrified of sharks” so I can’t help screaming laughing at her choreographer being like “oh, so you hate sharks?” before wringing his hands and Dr. Evil-laughing (omg an Austin Powers reference HOW OLD AM I) and then approaching her like “by the way, you’re getting attacked by a shark in your routine.” A+ to BYU for keeping floor super entertaining from one routine to the next.
This one’s not necessarily a routine, but Alexa Phillips of NC State had a scary fall off the mat on her beam dismount, almost vomited on all of her teammates after getting up, and then nailed floor a few minutes later like it was no big deal. Bonus points to her.
MY LEAST FAVORITE ROUTINES
Dabs. DABS. I counted five this weekend, which is far too many. Even DD Breaux dabbed at one point, several gymnasts dabbed on floor, and ONE GYMNAST DABBED ON BEAM. I get it, Sophina DeJesus went viral last year, now we all have to go viral so we can go on Ellen, but I don’t like it even a little and my feelings can only be summed up through song:
Thanks for reading, and we’ll see you Friday!
Article by Lauren Hopkins