The Juniors at the U.S. Classic

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If you haven’t been paying attention for the last few weeks, the U.S. Classic was held last weekend and everyone went nuts as always even though this meet doesn’t really mean anything unless you’re one of the gymnasts who needs it to qualify to nationals, in which case it’s like, one of the most important meets in your life.

It’s usually the seniors who tend to be a little more “who cares” about classics, because they want to hold back until they need to really show up for worlds or Olympic selection, but this year even the juniors were taking advantage of having already qualified to nationals, with half of the national team juniors not doing the all-around over the weekend, making the race for gold just slightly less exciting than it could’ve been.

Even so, we still got to see two girls who aren’t only some of the best juniors in the country, but also the best gymnasts in the world, period. The top U.S. juniors right now are absolutely killing it as all-arounders and if you take a gander at our recently updated “best scores” list for the year thus far, you’ll see that three of the top four are U.S. juniors, which is kind of the coolest thing ever considering they’re positioned up ahead of super experienced Olympians.

Two of these juniors, Emma Malabuyo and Maile O’Keefe, ended up going head-to-head for the title. In the end, it was Malabuyo in for a bit of an upset while O’Keefe — the favorite coming into the meet after winning the Gymnix title in March and the silver at Jesolo a month later — placed second after a fall on beam.

Malabuyo was phenomenal in her competition, and is someone who is truly good on every single event, which is rare. I’m loving how Texas Dreams is able to take gymnasts who are mediocre or even weak on bars and turn them into good bar workers. I’ll never forget Malabuyo at nationals a few years ago falling multiple times on bars and barely getting over a 10. She’s not a top bar worker, but she’s clean enough, her technique is solid, and she has impressive skills, like her opening inbar half to Endo half and a stalder full to Tkachev.

With a lovely Yurchenko double on vault, tidy and pretty work on beam, and a floor routine that is both one of the most difficult in the world while also being one of the cleanest, Malabuyo easily won the title by a two-point margin over the other juniors with a score that would’ve been about two points higher than any gymnast in the senior field as well.

Of all her routines, I love Malabuyo’s floor the most, because it’s not the kind of difficult routine that you would see and be like “wow, that’s crazy!” Her difficulty is more understated, coming from an even mix of acro and dance elements. She’s also quite the performer, again, not going over-the-top, but subtly showing a high level of artistry that sets her apart from other competitors in the mix. Her score of 14.3 there was incredibly deserved, and currently stands as the highest in the world this year.

O’Keefe struggled through her first two events of the day, bars and beam. She actually hit a great opening series on bars, a Chow to pak to toe on to Maloney to Ricna, but then she muscled a handstand right after and went on to look a little unsure of herself on beam, normally her strongest event. She hit her side aerial loso loso series with a wobble and then wobbled on a few subsequent skills and series as well, including on her bhs bhs layout. Her front aerial to split jump to sissone was one of her easier skills, but she missed the beam completely on the sissone, landing entirely on the floor.

With only the dismount left after that, she definitely looked a little frustrated and kind of half-heartedly went into her double pike, but she collected herself very well after that and didn’t let the mistakes carry into her next performances, finishing her day with a solid floor set before nailing her DTY.

Without the bars and beam mistakes, she would’ve been right on par with Malabuyo, so at nationals I wouldn’t be surprised to see these two end up running the show once again. The only other gymnast at their level is Gabby Perea, though she won’t be back in the all-around by then. Perea injured her ankle at camp a couple months ago, and she was only able to show a routine on bars at classics, looking gorgeous, but not competing her full difficulty, with a few missed connections and only a layout dismount.

Still, even with just the A dismount, Perea was far ahead of the rest of the juniors, earning a 14.5 to win the gold medal on the event. I saw a lot of people whining about her winning with just a layout, but while this would’ve caused her to lose half a point in requirements last quad, with a D dismount no longer a requirement, the only thing she lost with that routine was the skill value itself. Instead of counting a D dismount worth four tenths in the code, she counted an A, worth just a tenth, losing a total of three tenths but nothing else on top of that to penalize her for the low-difficulty dismount.

I’ve heard Perea won’t be fully back in time for nationals, and that we should expect to see her again on bars and maybe beam, but hopefully she’ll be able to rest up and get healthy so she can start her senior career off on a high note in 2018.

The other junior national team members all had great days, with Olivia Dunne placing fifth with a 53.600 and both Adeline Kenlin and Sunisa Lee competing only bars and beam. Dunne is held back a bit in the all-around due to lower difficulty on vault, where she only has a full, and on bars, though I thought she looked really good on that event last Saturday, better than we might usually see her.

Dunne shines on beam and floor, though. Her beam is awesome, coming with a 6.1 start value that puts her among those with the most difficult routines in the world (actually, fun fact, every U.S. junior national team member except Malabuyo is currently in the top ten in the world for beam difficulty!). Dunne hit everything I saw in her routine this weekend, placing sixth on the event in what was a stacked beam field, and she also showed great work on floor, hitting a double layout and piked full-in very well. I’ve loved watching her go from the youngest gymnast at classics only a few years ago to one of the leaders this year, and I can’t wait to see how she continues to do in the future.

Kenlin and Lee both looked solid on bars and beam. Watching the two in podium training, I thought Lee looked fantastic while I felt bad for Kenlin, who seemed to struggle quite a bit…but then Kenlin came into the competition and killed it, looking clean and lovely on bars and absolutely brilliant on beam, while Lee was a little off on Saturday, though she still managed strong enough routines to stand out.

I couldn’t get over the change in Kenlin from training to the competition. I honestly thought she was injured or sick in training, but that was all a ruse, because she was on fire when she needed to be. Her bars have come so far, and she looked gorgeous this weekend, winning the bronze for a routine that included lovely skills and a double front half-out dismount, but her beam is what she’s known for and while she’s struggled with consistency in the past, she was absolutely tremendous on the event at classics.

From start to finish, Kenlin was so in control of everything she did on the apparatus, showing big skills, fluid connections, incredible focus, and lovely execution. I especially loved how quickly she made it through her switch leap to switch half to back tuck, and then she also impressed me with her side aerial loso, a perfect layout series, and a nearly-stuck double pike, earning a 14.85 to easily win the gold. It was the kind of routine that had me squealing in my seat and wanting to jump up and scream, and I’m so thrilled she finally hit it so well in competition. I’ve been waiting for this moment since she was back in Hopes, and it’s been more than worth the wait.

Lee came into the competition after having posted an Instagram video of herself connecting a Nabieva to pak to Maloney to Gienger, a freaking insane combination that I had to ask if she was going to attempt to pull off in competition…and the answer was yes! It was fully ready to go, but she just had to be in the right mindset to pull it off. Though she went for it, Lee ended up adding a toe-on between the pak and the Maloney, which was quick thinking on her part, as the pak was off just enough that it would’ve thrown her off on the Maloney, which could’ve led to a fall.

The judges were super strict with Lee, though. Actually, they were super strict in general when it came to awarding full difficulty, which is great. There have been times in the past where dubious connections have gotten full credit at home, only for the gymnast to show up at worlds and find her D score drastically lower than what she expected, so it’s good that judges are being vigilant…but Lee was hoping for a huge difficulty score and instead only ended up with a 5.1.

With the new rule of only counting the first three elements of any given entry in a routine, because she threw the toe-on in between the pak and Maloney, she reached her toe-on entry max early in the routine (Nabieva, toe-on, Maloney) and couldn’t count her toe full that came in at the end of her routine…meaning she missed the skill value for the toe full and also missed the full pirouette requirement, taking away half a point from her total. Because of that entries rule, new to the code of points this year, her difficulty actually would’ve been higher had she done the Nabieva to pak, then a kip cast to handstand, and then the Maloney to Gienger than it was with a toe-on directly linking the two elements making it one long series, because that set her up for being unable to count her toe full later on. Gymnasts sometimes have to think quickly on their feet (or on their hands, as the case may be) when dealing with missed connections and cover-ups on bars, so last year, that toe-on between the connections would’ve been fine, but now it’s detrimental to her routine overall. If they want to keep the toe-on as a “just in case I don’t connect everything” cover-up, they really need to change the toe full at the end to a pirouette with a different entry so something like this doesn’t happen again.

Lee showed great work on beam, though, placing fourth with a 14.15 after showing two strong acro series, a lovely switch ring to split ring jump, and dynamic movement throughout, a nice comeback from the disappointment on bars, though I’m sure she’ll have everything worked out in time for nationals. Lee said she’s been working on a Yurchenko double in training, which will help boost her considerably in the all-around, and she’s also hoping to bring her big skills back on floor in time for nationals.

National team aside, I went into classics mostly wondering who 80% of the juniors were. I watched a ton of videos, but sometimes it can be impossible to get a sense of who everyone is based on some random videos of a few routines from meets held months or years ago, and so while I had a good idea of which new juniors I was going to love, I was also super excited to get some major surprises during the competition.

The biggest surprise for me, and for pretty much everyone else, was Grace McCallum of Twin City Twisters. McCallum ended up winning bronze in the all-around with a solid 54.150, coming ahead of some far more experienced gymnasts. Her qualifying scores were decent, but not super impressive given her age.

By the time gymnasts reach 14 or 15, you expect them to be a few years into their junior elite careers, but McCallum — who turns 15 this fall — is a late bloomer, kind of reminiscent of Twin City Twisters teammate Maggie Nichols herself. Nichols actually was on the junior scene for years, but wasn’t really super memorable at the junior level, and it wasn’t until she reached her first year as a senior that she began to stand out. Nichols only got better with age, and I think that’s something we can also expect from McCallum, who was making her big-stage elite debut at the U.S. Classic, but she looked like she’d been leading the scene for years with her level of confidence and ability.

McCallum’s biggest score came on her DTY on vault, where she earned a 14.65 to win the gold medal ahead of O’Keefe. She did well on bars and beam, but I loved watching her on floor, especially with her beautiful twisting form on her front double full and then on her triple full. Her difficulty overall is a bit low, vault aside, but she more than makes up for that with her clean and consistent work, much like Nichols did in the early half of her senior career. If McCallum continues to grow the way Nichols did, we can definitely expect some great upgrades from her in the future, with floor something I’m especially excited to see transform into a key event for her by the time she reaches the senior level.

I was also pleasantly surprised to see Audrey Davis do so well. I knew a few things about Davis, because how can you ignore literally anyone WOGA produces, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen her put together a competition as well as she did here. Davis led most of the early junior session, only giving away the lead to McCallum on her final and weakest event, floor, though she still finished second in that session and fourth overall with a 53.750 total.

Obviously, her bars are golden, but I was actually super into her beam, which had some awesome little pose moments, a super solid flight series, and a perfect Onodi to split jump. She got a 14.1 for the routine, so kudos to her for managing to stand out in what was an insanely good junior beam field.

Rounding out the top eight were Kara Eaker tying Dunne for fifth with a 53.600, Shilese Jones in seventh with a 53.450, and Madelyn Williams in eighth with a 53.300. Of these, I figured Eaker and Jones would come in and kill it. Eaker’s difficulty is a little behind, but she’s gorgeous and regal and everything I love about gymnastics. She and her GAGE teammate Leanne Wong, who placed ninth with a 53.200, remind me of Kyla Ross circa 2009. They both just have this presence that makes them stand out, and Eaker was especially excellent at classics, showing a beam that almost killed me with a perfect side aerial loso loso, full Y turn, and beautiful low beam choreo.

I thought Jones would place a bit higher, especially because from my vantage point her routines looked fabulous! She opened with beam, where she was super solid on all of her acro, including an arabian and punch front. She did just about every jump in the code and got tons of amplitude, but then her score came in and seemed a little low execution-wise so I’m guessing the jumps had something to do with it…I haven’t had time to go back and watch, but it was an overall great routine, though just with lots of picky moments the judges went crazy deducting.

I felt the same about her floor, where she debuted a double double in addition to competing a double arabian, double tuck, and double pike, though again, the dance elements were probably a little weak. She also had a huge DTY that was a little wild in the air, and she fought back from muscling a couple of handstands on bars, where she was weakest overall in terms of her form and then finished with just a double tuck. She wasn’t quite where I’d hoped to see her, but still had a fab day and hopefully can iron out some of her kinks by nationals.

Williams, though. Oh my goodness. Where did she come from? I had to go back and read my definitive junior guide to see what I wrote about her, and it seems I knew to watch for her on bars, but I don’t think any of the videos I watched before classics really do her justice. She’s superb on that event, winning the silver medal with a 14.3 after showing incredibly nice inbars (she pikes down like a Russian!), a cool inbar full to pak to stalder to perfect van Leeuwen series, and a double layout with a step back. The rest of her events haven’t quite caught up to her bars yet, but I don’t care. Her bars are my life.

In tenth was Jay Jay Marshall, who missed qualifying to nationals at the American Classic after having to withdraw from the competition due to a rough bars, but she got her score no problem here, earning a 52.250 after a good, but slightly messy day.

I love Marshall in that she is basically my new MyKayla Skinner — a kid with endless talent and huge, daring difficulty, but who isn’t quite refined, at least not yet. Her floor, for example, has a 6.2 potential, though she was only given a 5.7 here with some elements not credited — which would tie Sae Miyakawa for the highest in the world — but she’s just a little messy right now, like with her leg form on her full-twisting double layout and on her 1½ through to triple full, which was super under-rotated and not credited…and she also put her hands down on her double layout. But I mean, she’s doing a 1½ through to triple full as her last pass, so all the credit in the world to her, and though there were those issues throughout, she also stuck a freaking Dos Santos. She’s legit, and I love her, messy form aside.

In addition to floor, Marshall had an amazing DTY, getting the bronze medal there, though she had some struggles on bars and beam, having to take an extra swing on bars — her weakest event by far, though, and that aside it was a good routine — and then unfortunately falling on her side aerial on beam, though her layout series was fabulous and she finished with a super high double tuck. Clearly, placing in the top ten is a pretty huge deal, so she’s definitely on her way to doing big things, and I’m sure TIGAR can help polish her a little as she continues in elite.

As for the rest, I have a whole article coming up with my favorite new juniors from this year’s classics, but off the top of my head I loved Lilly Lippeatt’s super sharp and precise movements, Sienna Robinson’s major sass and awesome potential, Anya Pilgrim’s Patterson dismount on beam, Love Birt killing it with her super clean work, and Annie Beard in her first year as a junior looking like she belonged in the national team group on beam and floor.

We have a full list of everyone who made it to nationals either at classics or via another means this year here. As for those who didn’t make it, perhaps the most shocking was Konnor McClain, who ended up in 24th place with a 50.200, just three tenths away from getting to nationals after a super rough competition (she also missed the qualifying score at the American Classic after a disastrous day on beam). McClain had the skills and talent to reach the top ten at classics, but unfortunately falls on every event but vault kept her from doing as well as she’s able to do.

McClain began her competition with an underrotated double pike on floor, putting her hands down, and then she hit her FTY, but fell on her Jaeger on bars, where she also brushed her knees on the mat after catching her pak. Her beam was fabulous, and would’ve been more than enough to get her through even with a few wobbles, like after her layout series and then her standing full, though her fight on both was great. Unfortunately, when it looked like she might pull it off with just the dismount left, she ended up sitting her double pike, leaving her just shy of where she needed to be.

The good news is that McClain is 12, so despite all of her potential, she still has more than enough time to get where she wants to be. After this season, she’ll still have three more years at the junior level, and then another four years after that before she’ll attempt to make the 2024 Olympic team. If she does make it that far, she’ll always have the story of being so close yet so far back in her first year of elite competition. I can smell the fluff pieces from here.

I was also bummed to see Ellie Lazzari not qualify after a few mistakes. She was phenomenal in her competition at the Parkettes qualifier, but just seemed a little off at classics, falling on her Tkachev on bars and then also landing her double full on floor on her knees. It wasn’t a particularly bad performance, but with lower difficulty, the couple of falls she did have ended up hurting her, which is too bad, as she once again only missed out by a few tenths. It turns out she was competing with a torn labrum, so she had surgery last week to correct it and hopes to come back strong for her final junior season in 2018!

Article by Lauren Hopkins

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11 thoughts on “The Juniors at the U.S. Classic

    • Thank you! ME TOO. I totally knew this was gonna be her meet, slash her year. She’s been sneaking up on us but hasn’t ever quite been able to put it together…but now she is RIGHT THERE. I love that she has so much difficulty but it’s super subtle and all stuff she can easily manage. Such major potential!

      Liked by 1 person

  1. If Sydney Johnson-Scarpf could petition to nationals couldn’t Konnor or is petitioning only in the place of injury or illness or is it only a senior thing?

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    • You can only petition if you’re not ready for the qualifier due to illness or injury. Konnor wasn’t ill or injured…she just had a bad competition. She had two chances to qualify and had multiple falls (3+) at both of them…which shows that she doesn’t yet meet the standard for elite national-level competition in the U.S. If she could petition based on her falls, so could a ton of other girls who didn’t make it this year, which defeats the purpose of having a qualifying score.

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  2. Lauren, great recap as always. Just to clear up a few things, Gabby will only doing bars (may see upgraded routine) and possibly beam (questionable) at P&G’s. Ellie Lazaro competed with a torn Labrum and had surgery last week to fix it. Look for her to comeback strong on 2018 (very talented kid). Thanks again for all you do.

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  3. Thanks a lot, Lauren, for that precise recap. Emma Malabuyo is a fantastic gymnast. Morgan Hurd, Emma Malabuyo, Ragan Smith … : I like all of them, they are very different (as gymnasts) from the Rio team, with much more artistry and perfectionism. It’s for me a very exciting perspective if US gymnasts, in this new squad, can challenge the best European and Asian gymnasts concerning artistry, attention to every tiny detail, refinement and complexity of choregraphy (I’m not speaking of the COP). Maybe Liukin, will promote a different gymnastics ?

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    • Yeah, I think once the U.S. started taking a lot of criticism for not being artistic, that became a big focus…and now it’s clear they’re catching up in that respect with some beautiful routines!

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  4. Lauren, fantastic article as always! Thank you for being so thorough! Would you explain what you mean when you say Williams “pikes down like a Russian”?

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    • Thank you! A lot of the U.S. girls who do inbar skills in their bar routines are basically doing little more than toe-ons, with their feet barely passing through the bar, whereas most of the Russian girls who do inbars are so piked down, there’s a ton of space between their feet and the bar. An inbar is an inbar no matter how piked down you are, but I just prefer that Russian style of being so insanely piked…it’s lovely! Madelyn does that very well compared to girls like Ragan and Alyona whose inbar skills I sometimes have trouble identifying because they look like toe-ons!

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