The first American Cup of the quad is always my favorite. With most of the previous year’s best gymnasts retired or competing in NCAA or on hiatus, there’s a special buzz of excitement as we wait to see how the new kids will measure up.
In 2013, we came in thrilled to finally get the senior debut of Katelyn Ohashi, but powerful Amanar aside, we didn’t know what to expect from fellow new senior Simone Biles making her international debut. It seems almost insane that four short years later, she’ll now go down in history as one of the greatest gymnasts of all time, so we really never know what’s to come which makes the first few months in each new quad the most entertaining to watch.
At last weekend’s national team camp, new senior Riley McCusker won verification while 2016 Olympic alternate Ragan Smith placed second, securing the two American Cup spots for both. Smith was previously announced as the first American woman set to compete, but as we saw in 2013 when Kyla Ross got the nod, things don’t always work out due to injuries and other setbacks so it’s always the last national team camp before the competition that confirms who will attend.
McCusker, 15, placed second all-around and took the silver medals on every event but vault at last year’s junior national championships, her first year competing at the elite level. The Florida commit trains at MG Elite, home of 2016 Olympic champion Laurie Hernandez, and is known for her polished execution on each event, with bars her strongest.
In podium training, McCusker showed an important upgrade from the Yurchenko full she had last year to a new double. It’s not the greatest or most powerful, but it’s good enough and will add some much-needed difficulty to her program.
Her bars looked similar to Hernandez’s with tons of stalder work, including a back-to-back Downie and Ricna, the latter down into a pak. The rest of her work was pretty clean, especially on her stalder full to Maloney, van Leeuwen, and front half-in double tuck dismount, so I don’t anticipate any problems for her here, and I liked most of her stylistic choices and her general routine construction on beam, though the triple wolf turn and subsequent double wolf turn opening isn’t my cup of tea (and the triple could use a lot of work).
We didn’t get to see her floor, so I’m guessing there’s a reason for that, but overall for someone simultaneously making her senior and international debut less than a year after qualifying elite, she looks super confident and composed, and it’s going to be awesome for her to get to have all of these big dreams and goals come true in front of a home crowd with all of her friends and family there.
From Smith, we saw everything but vault in podium training, so hopefully if there were any training issues there, she can work them out in time for the competition. On bars, generally her weakest event, she showed some good inbar work into a Jaeger, a stalder full to Ricna, and then a pak and Ray before her full-in, all of which looked great for her.
Beam, always her best, looked solid with big skills like a standing full and punch front she’s hoping to connect into her jump series, though we didn’t get to see her dismount. Neither Smith nor McCusker have done the work the Chinese gymnasts put in to better work the code to their advantage, but that’s probably true of most gymnasts over the world, as we’re only about two minutes into this quad and most are still relying on last year’s routines.
Smith still has her Addams Family floor routine, which I love. I think she actually looked shakiest here, getting spotted on her opening double layout, landing her 1½ to triple full about a quarter short, and squatting her double arabian landing, though her double pike looked good so I’m sure once she’s out in front of a crowd she’ll be fine. She didn’t sound thrilled with her podium training performance in interviews after, but I think if she hits, she has the skills and routines to finish at the top.
Among the international squad, I think I’m most excited to see Melanie De Jesus Dos Santos, who missed out on making the French Olympic team last summer after spending the previous year out with injury, though I still think if she had only a few more months to prepare, she would’ve been there. De Jesus Dos Santos, who turns 17 on Sunday, was fourth at French nationals last year and went on to win the bronze medal behind Russia’s top juniors at Massilia in November. She can be a little hit-or-miss in competitions, but beam is almost always a standout event and is where we should expect her to shine tomorrow.
We’ll also get to see 2016 Olympians Amy Tinkler of Great Britain, Asuka Teramoto of Japan, and Kim Bui of Germany back in action. Tinkler, who shocked the world with her surprise bronze on floor, left her gym in order to pursue more opportunities in London, but kept training at South Essex, and hopefully will put on a good show this weekend, with floor an obvious routine to watch out for. Not having seen her since Rio, it’s hard to say exactly how she’ll look, but she’s definitely one of the strongest gymnasts there and could absolutely challenge for the podium.
Teramoto, meanwhile, returned to the sport within weeks of the Olympics last summer, competing at Japan’s student championships and then winning bronze on bars at the Toyota International meet in December. I don’t think she ever stops training, so we can probably expect her to be at the same level we always get, with bars and beam her best events and the ones to keep an eye on.
As for Bui, the 28-year-old is entering her fourth Olympic cycle, which is super impressive. Like Teramoto, she hit the ground running after Rio, competing at three Bundesliga meets and the Swiss Cup at more or less the same level we saw her at in August. I actually saw her compete at the American Cup back in 2009, so it feels insane that she’s still going strong, and I think actually looks better in some ways than she did back then. The bars standout won the bronze medal behind Jordyn Wieber and Bridget Sloan in 2009, and if all goes according to plan this weekend, she’ll be in the running to make that happen again.
Tisha Volleman of the Netherlands competed at last year’s American Cup, placing eighth. A member of the 2015 worlds team, Volleman ended up missing out on the Olympic team despite a last-minute upgrade to a DTY, but she did get an alternate spot and going forward following the games, she won two all-around competitions in Germany with improved consistency on all four events. I don’t think we’ll see the DTY back, but floor is always a strong and engaging event for Volleman, who got big applause from the crowd a year ago with her sassy Rio-themed routine.
From China, we’ll see Xie Yufen, who was a worlds alternate in 2014 and part of her country’s silver medal-winning Asian Championships team a year later. Last year, Xie competed at two world challenge cups, winning bars silver in Anadia and bars gold in Szombathely, and she’s capable of big scores there, though her difficulty on other events pales in comparison and I don’t think we’ve actually seen her vault in about two years, so it’ll be interesting to see what she’s able to pull off.
Finally, Australia got a last-minute spot at the Cup after the withdrawal of Canada’s Ellie Black. They decided to send Emily Whitehead, the 2015 Australian junior champion who was expected to help the team at the test event in 2016, though she tore her calf muscle in podium training at Pacific Rim Championships a week earlier — where she was set to make her senior debut — and was unable to compete.
At last summer’s nationals, Whitehead was only able to return on bars, but she was great there, earning the silver medal and showing great promise for her future in the sport. I’m excited to finally get to see her closer to full strength, especially as Australia goes forward in this new quad with the hopes of reinventing themselves under the guidance of newly-selected national team coach Mihai Brestyan.
The competition begins in Newark tomorrow morning and will be streamed live by USA Gymnastics. We’ll be there live blogging it all, so check back with us at 11 am to follow along!
Article by Lauren Hopkins