In 2013, we got Simone Biles.
This year, the American Cup wasn’t quite so generous, but I’m confused about all of the fatalistic cries about “the death of the U.S. program” based on one early-season meet. There were mistakes and falls and even a minor meltdown from the U.S. women, which is too bad, but calm down. This performance won’t set the tone for the rest of the quad.
In 2013, several gymnasts capable of senior-level all-around scores as juniors reached the senior ranks, and we also had a great number of leftovers from the senior squad. The depth was pretty sweet. Meanwhile, between 2016 and 2017, the only new seniors coming up were those who held back as juniors, while the senior team came in nearly depleted.
Of the 15 gymnasts named to the senior national team last year, 11 moved on, either to NCAA or to well-deserved breaks at the end of a long season. Of those who remain, two were at the bottom of the Olympic Trials rankings, and one only really competes on bars and wouldn’t have factored into the American Cup selection anyway.
The fourth is Ragan Smith. At 16, the Texas Dreams gymnast came close to making the Olympic team last year, but instead ended up a super strong alternate who could’ve realistically filled in for anyone if needed. Smith considers beam her standout, though on a good day, she can actually score about the same on every event, making her one of the most balanced all-arounders in the country.
It wasn’t surprising to see her grab the first available American Cup spot open to the U.S. gymnasts. Smith was so young last year, and while she made it far, she didn’t quite reach her goal. She’s not old enough to move on to college, and she still has too much to offer the elite world before dropping down to level 10, so the second she returned from Rio she jumped right back into her old routine.
If anything, being in Rio so close to the action but just far enough away from actually living it inspired Smith to keep going. She watched Team USA compete every day thinking “I can do that,” and now she’s on a mission to make it happen.
At the American Cup, Smith actually looked a bit nervous and even frustrated in training, and during her interviews said her mind was nowhere set on winning. For a first meet back after an extended break, it’s always about simply getting back out there and trying your hardest not to make mistakes, but knowing you probably will.
Though not a perfect meet for her — Smith had some form issues on several events and a fall on her standing full on beam — the difference between what she showed in training and what she put out there when it mattered was enormous. Her experience kicked in, she looked confident and strong, and she even showed major improvements on the uneven bars, once an event that kept her from making the national team when she struggled to stay on and her all-around scores dropped dramatically because of her inconsistency there back in 2014.
Even with the fall, Smith finished nearly two points ahead of the rest of the field, earning a 56.099 — the second-highest score in the world so far this year — to take the title. Sure, she got a few gifts here and there from the E panel, the benefit of competing as an American at a meet often referred to as “Scam,” but it was a legitimate win, and a great way for her to start out her year.
Smith didn’t have a ton of time to prepare for this meet, and so the focus was on competing what she already had rather than on upgrading and changing things around to better suit the code. Because of this, she’ll skip the upcoming Jesolo competition and focus on the future.
Tokyo 2020 is in the back of Smith’s mind, but for now, her focus is on world championships, and specifically getting one of the all-around spots so she can contend for a medal on the global stage. For this early in the season, she looked really good, but I think we can expect so much more from her as she continues shaping and perfecting her routines.
Her teammate, Riley McCusker, had kind of an opposite weekend. She beat Smith at the national team camp the weekend before to earn the second spot, and she looked great in training. Elite for less than a year, McCusker added nearly two points of difficulty to her all-around program and came in the favorite to win this meet.
That adds pressure. So does performing in front of a few thousand people in your home state, your family, friends, and teammates making special trips to cheer you on at your international debut. Add new routines, a nationally-televised broadcast, and being 15 years old, and yeah. That’s a lot.
You could almost see McCusker breaking down a bit as she went through warm-ups. Beam and floor, earlier in the day, were fine. But she missed a few releases on bars, and on vault, crashed her brand-new Yurchenko double onto her hands and knees right before she had to go out and compete it.
Following the rough warm-ups, McCusker had a scary vault landing, a fall on her Downie on bars, a super wobbly wolf turn that almost resulted in a fall on beam, and then a missed foot going into her beam dismount, causing her to miss her punch off and rotate around to her back before rolling over onto her knees, taking a moment to get settled, and getting up again, crying as she and coach Maggie Haney left the arena floor.
I seriously thought they were going to pull her, but she ended up coming back out and hitting floor with a few short landings, but no major mistakes, ending her day with a 52.966 for fifth place.
The best way to describe her at this meet was “rattled.” The biggest difference between Smith and McCusker was that when Smith made a little mistake or dug a little hole for herself, she had the confidence and composure to pull herself out. That’s what comes with years of experience, and what McCusker still has plenty of time to learn before she’ll be expected to be at her very best. But in Newark, she let each mistake carry on to the next, which really affected her mental game and made it impossible for her to come out strong.
But that doesn’t mean anything for her future, or for the women’s program future, either. Gabby Douglas fell three times on beam at nationals in 2011 and became the Olympic all-around champion a year later. Simone Biles had a mental break on every event at the U.S. Classic in 2013 and became an Olympic and three-time world all-around champion. McCusker might not be the next Douglas or Biles, but I remember a time when people discredited both of those gymnasts for their mistakes and things worked out okay for them.
There’s not a lot of depth in the U.S. right now. If you’ve been watching this program for the past five years, it does feel a little alarming. But I think we’re forgetting that 2017 really doesn’t matter a whole lot when thinking about putting together an Olympic team a little over three years from now. If Smith and McCusker are still around in 2020, their errors here will be long-forgotten in Valeri Liukin’s eyes, and over the next few years, we’ll see upgrades on upgrades, as well as girls we don’t pay much attention to at the moment coming out of the woodwork as contenders.
Think back to February 2009. I was at that American Cup that year, and while we knew Jordyn Wieber was gonna make it big, we didn’t know who Kyla Ross, Gabby Douglas, McKayla Maroney, and Aly Raisman were. Only Douglas had even qualified elite at that point, and her claim to fame was tying for 16th at nationals the year before.
2009 was a wasteland, and yet it was the start of the quad that led to one of the most talented gymnastics teams in Olympic history, so I think the U.S. is gonna be just fine, especially with so many yet-untested seniors and a group of exquisitely-talented juniors coming up as well. One rougher-than-usual meet at the start of a quad will have zero effect on what we can expect from the program in the years to come, especially when we see that around the world, other countries are equally shaken up in this off-year.
Looking to the non-U.S. competitors at this meet, I was so happy about the great days from two-time Olympian Asuka Teramoto of Japan, the up-and-coming Melanie De Jesus Dos Santos of France, and Kim Bui of Germany, another two-time Olympian (three times if you count her 2008 alternate role!) who is forging ahead in her fourth quad.
Teramoto won the silver medal with a 54.231 after a few downgrades in her program, including on vault where she took her Rudi down to just a handspring layout half. It was still one of the best vaults in the competition, though, and she also showed some of the most beautiful beam work of the meet, opening with a wobble on her double turn, but quickly getting it back under control.
The baby of the 2012 team, Teramoto was a leader this year in Rio, and hopes to also lead when her country hosts the Games in Tokyo three years from now. Despite the minimal downgrades, she shows no sign of slowing down, and continues to be one of the best Japan has in the elite program, so they’ll need her as they go forward hoping to medal in 2020.
De Jesus Dos Santos, who turned 17 the day after the competition, dealt with an injury as a junior that kept her out for nearly half of her first year at the senior level, returning only about six weeks before Rio last summer. It wasn’t enough time to prove to the selection committee what she could do, though a few months more, and she would’ve been a major contender.
Her beam in Newark was incredible. It’s my favorite event of hers, though she had big skills pretty much everywhere. But on beam, she’s so beautiful and controlled, and she finished up with a stuck double tuck to get a 14.233, the highest of the day. With a hit Yurchenko full, solid bars set that included an inbar Tkachev and full-twisting double layout, and easy but solid floor set, the gymnast reached a 53.899 to earn the bronze medal, a huge vote of confidence going forward in her career at her first major international meet, and probably the best birthday present ever.
Earlier, I talked about going to the 2009 American Cup, and I actually had a little moment with Kim Bui after her competition on Saturday because she also was at that competition, back when she was only 20. She’s 28 now, and that competition felt like a lifetime ago for the German, who said she was so happy with how her meet went this year.
Like many of the others here, Bui downgraded in some areas, but was pretty much at top form, competing an NCAA-esque Yurchenko full on vault, a brilliant bar routine that earned a 14.533 for the best score of the day on any event (her Bhardwaj was gorgeous and got applause), a hit beam (I was happy to see her nail her roundoff layout mount perfectly after falling several times in warm-ups), and a solid performance on floor to hit a 53.632 for fourth place.
What’s awesome about Bui is that when I asked her about going into her fourth quad and her goals going forward, she basically said she competes because she loves it and because her body still lets her.
After injuring her knee a year before Rio, Bui debated coming back and trying for it, knowing she’d only have a few months to make an impression. The depth in Germany last year was some of the greatest in the program’s history, and Bui knew a team spot wouldn’t be a guarantee, but she said if she didn’t try, she’d regret not going for it more than she’d regret trying and missing it.
Turns out, she was a perfect fit for the team with one of the best bars sets in the country and a floor routine they couldn’t pass up. She made the team, had an incredible experience in Rio helping Germany to its best Olympic finish ever, and then got back home and down to business, taking only a couple of weeks off before training again so she could be in shape to help her team, Stuttgart, out on all four events at Bundesliga that fall.
Stuttgart ended up winning the overall Bundesliga title with Bui contributing some of the best scores of the season, and Bui kept going because…why not? She said Tokyo 2020 is on her mind, and it would be great to make yet another Olympic team, but whether it happens or doesn’t, right now she’s just along for the ride and will keep competing until her body tells her it’s time to stop.
Beyond the top five, we saw Xie Yufen of China in sixth with a 51.599, Tisha Volleman of the Netherlands in seventh with a 49.266, Emily Whitehead of Australia in eighth with a 48.399, and Amy Tinkler of Great Britain in ninth with a 39.566 after competing all events but floor.
Xie hit all of her routines, but has lower difficulty nearly everywhere, and she struggles on many acro skills, with vault and floor especially weak. She’s never really made a major team for China, but has always been kind of in the background as either an alternate or a world cup option, but with bars where she excels, they’re not strong enough to let her contend against one of the best bars teams in the world. I don’t think we’ll see much of her at the international level without some major upgrades, but it was nice that she got the opportunity to come here and gain more experience.
I loved watching Volleman train, especially on beam and floor, where she did certain elements — especially turn sequences — over and over and over, long after everyone else had left the podium. While she had some struggles in this meet, including falls on bars and floor, she has definitely shown improvements in other areas, most notably on vault.
Last year, she desperately tried to upgrade to a Yurchenko double to earn an Olympic team spot, and while she eventually got the vault down, they went with a more reliable vaulter in her place. But working that double made her full look fantastic. You could put her on any college team in the country right now and she’d earn a huge score, so good for her, and with the Dutch vaulters pretty much all retired now, I hope she is eventually able to get her double back so she can make some big teams in the future. She also hit beam with a low-difficulty but upgrade-able set that was so strong for her, I was happy to see her thrilled when she came off the podium.
Whitehead also looked very collegiate on her vault, and she hit a solid — if a bit nervous — bars set to get a good start to her competition. Unfortunately, the nerves caught up to her on beam, where she had some wobbles and mistakes before falling on her double pike dismount, and she then fell three times on floor, which was heartbreaking.
In a sense, Whitehead reminded me of McCusker. A new senior last year, Whitehead got injured while training for Pacific Rims and had to take time off to heal, so this was really the first time we’ve seen her on all four events in quite some time. Her mistakes on floor were more a learning experience than anything else, something that happens to everyone at some point, but now she can hopefully move on because it’s only up from there.
As for Tinkler, she had a real medal shot here, but has only been back training for a short period of time, coming to her new gym a couple of months ago and downgrading most of her routines. She hit her Yurchenko full (perhaps her biggest downgrade from her always-superb double) and made it through a slightly messy bars set before falling on her standing full on beam and then scratching floor.
I actually didn’t see her warm up floor at all before the meet, so I honestly wasn’t too surprised to see her decide not to compete it. If she wasn’t fully ready, it wasn’t worth it for her to rush something and get injured, so I think she made the right decision by sitting out, though I obviously would’ve loved to see the Olympic bronze floor medalist live and in person with an Olympic-caliber set! But she did what was right for her, and it was a solid post-Olympic return, so I’m sure we’ll get to see her more at full strength when she competes at the London World Cup next month.
Article by Lauren Hopkins