I’ve covered the U.S. Classic every year since 2010, and every single year, I find myself having to explain that this meet is meaningless. Unless a gymnast needs it to get her qualifying score to nationals, literally zero things that happen here will matter going into worlds.
Last year, two of the gymnasts who finished on the podium at classics weren’t even being legitimately considered as alternates for the Olympic team, and in 2013, Simone Biles fell on every single event she competed, finally withdrawing before going to vault. She went on to win the worlds title that year and, oh yeah, became one of the biggest legends in gymnastics history. No big deal.
So yeah, it wasn’t the greatest meet, and it never will be. Literally no one who is trying to get to worlds wants to peak at classics. If you’re kind of an underdog without many international assignments, it’s the perfect time to shine and get your name out there as someone who can be a contender, but for those who are already in the mix, the meet is nothing more than a way for gymnasts to slowly ease back into high-level competition without the pressure of having to do all four events to the best of their ability. Gymnasts nursing injuries can hold off on skills or apparatuses that might aggravate them further, they can introduce new skills they’re hoping to include in full routines, and they can make mistakes without having it count against them.
Many of this year’s top all-arounders opted to compete only a few events apiece for various reasons, which opened the door to a truly random assortment of gymnasts fighting for the podium. Alyona Shchennikova was best able to take advantage of their absence, putting up a beautiful performance to win the title with a 54.950, a great score for her especially considering it included a fall at the end of her beam set, generally a tricky event for her.
Shchennikova was most impressive on bars, as always, winning the silver medal for her difficult and lovely set. Her feet still aren’t perfect, but they weren’t as noticeably messy as they have been in the past, and she shows super fluid connections, especially on her inbar full to Komova II to Tkachev and then on her Ricna to pak to Chow half. Her double layout was a little slow in its rotation, and I actually freaked out for a second wondering how she was going to get it around, but she pulled it off in a bit of a squatted landing, earning a 14.5 with a 6.2 D score, one of the highest in the world.
Aside from bars, Shchennikova doesn’t really have a standout event, but she’s passable as an all-arounder with good enough difficulty on vault and beam that will help her stay somewhere around the top five at nationals with everyone back on all four. Despite her win here, though, I don’t really see her as a top contender for worlds, unless she ends up showing that she’d be a better bars option than someone like Ashton Locklear, which could get her a specialist spot.
Abby Paulson, who snuck in for the bronze all-around medal in Jesolo and looked more ready than anyone else coming into this competition, had a solid day to finish second with a 53.100. She wasn’t super polished on the day of the competition, showing quite a few wobbles on beam, where she has the highest level of difficulty, though her execution in that performance held her back a bit. Paulson only vaults a Yurchenko full, so it’s hard for her to stay relevant as an all-arounder when every other senior is doing a double, especially since the U.S. takes two tenths away from every senior who competes a full.
Her best event, floor, was good, though again her difficulty doesn’t really make her competitive compared to her teammates, and so with a strong routine, she placed only fifth. Her piked full-in to open was a little low, but that aside, she showed a great triple full, a controlled 2½ to punch front, a lovely 1½ to front full, and nice extension on her leaps.
Third place ended up going to two total surprises, Kalyany Steele and Luisa Blanco, who shared the bronze with scores of 52.900. The two managed to sneak in ahead of several current and former national team members, which was great for them, though they both really only have one strong event apiece that kind of helps them to a higher all-around total.
For Steele, that event is vault. Even as a junior, Steele vaulted a gorgeous Yurchenko double, and while it wasn’t the best one out there this time around, it was still strong enough to get her to a 14.25. Otherwise, Steele’s difficulty is pretty solid on bars and beam, though it’s not quite as difficult as the strongest seniors on these two events. Still, she had good performances on both, and I especially enjoyed her on beam, where she had a huge arabian, a solid triple flight series, a punch front, and a 2½ dismount with a hop, earning a 13.6 to place eighth.
Speaking of beam, this is where Blanco shines. The first-year elite ended up winning the silver medal on the event, where she has a solid level of difficulty, but more importantly shows clean work and a beautiful style. Her mount and opening low beam choreo sequence is super freaking unique and lovely, and then she also hit a front aerial to split ring jump, bhs loso, switch ring, switch to switch half to split jump, full L turn to full pirouette, and a stuck double full dismount, earning a 14.3.
The rest of Blanco’s difficulty is super low, with just a Yurchenko full, a layout dismount on bars, and some nice twisting but overall basic tumbling on floor, so she’s kind of just this level 10 kid with a solid beam, which is cool and I love when kids are able to break onto the elite scene super late in their careers compared to when most go elite. She’s fabulous, and will be a great addition to Alabama when she ends up there in a few years.
Jordan Chiles in fifth with a 52.850 was a bit of a surprise, given that she’s entering the senior ranks after competing as one of the top juniors in the country over the past couple of years, but under the circumstances, it wasn’t a super big deal. Chiles spent part of last season injured, had a coaching change earlier this season that caused her to miss out on several international opportunities, grew a ton, and hadn’t competed all-around in over a year before last weekend, so I was basically expecting the bare minimum. But even with her mistakes and lower-than-usual difficulty, she definitely exceeded my expectations.
The biggest surprise for me was that bars, normally not her best, was actually a solid event for her on this day. Her difficulty there is low and she isn’t the cleanest bar worker, but she showed a nice piked Jaeger, Ricna to bail to toe shoot, giant full to Gienger, and a stuck full-in to earn a 13.6, getting her day off to a good start. Unfortunately, she had a few mistakes on beam — including a wild double wolf turn, a balked flight series that she fell on when she went for it the second time, and some wonky leaps — and she wasn’t super tidy on floor, though both routines had good moments, especially with her big double layout and Dos Santos passes on the latter.
She finished her day with an Amanar, not as tidy as it had been with her form getting a little loose as she came closer to the landing, and she was also a little low with a step over to the side for a 14.7. I don’t know how much of her routines can be cleaned up by nationals, especially because when you add back what she lost with her mistakes at classics, she’d still only be somewhere around Shchennikova’s score, which won’t factor her into any worlds decisions…though with everything that went on in the past year, that might be the best for now. She can use this season to get back into the swing of things, and then hopefully can make herself part of the picture next year. That being said, if anyone’s gonna show up at nationals having completely turned the picture around from classics, it’ll be Chiles. She’s totally my bet for a secret “you thought I wasn’t ready?” transformation.
Rounding out the top eight were Shania Adams and Emily Gaskins tied for sixth with scores of 52.750 and Deanne Soza in eighth with a 52.650. Adams looked decent, but sat her bars dismount and was a little uncontrolled in her landings on floor, which was a bit of a bummer, as I was hoping she’d be an outside contender this year. She did some nice work on beam, though, and could actually have a really strong floor set if she cleaned up a bit.
Gaskins didn’t look great in training, but she really showed up to the competition, a little messy in some of her skills and not as difficult as we once saw her, but impressive nonetheless, especially with her crazy nine-skill opening bars sequence. Some of the connections weren’t worth much, and she had the same problem Sunisa Lee had, doing too many stalders early in her routine which caused her to miss the credit for her release, but it was still cool, going from a hop change to Endo half to toe full to Maloney to pak to stalder to Chow to stalder to Ricna. Literally every skill in her routine came in a sequence with just the dismount left over at the end, so props to her for going for that, and she also impressed me with her new candle mount on beam as well as some lovely style and flair thrown in both there and on floor. If nothing else, it’s nice to see her still going five seasons into her elite career.
Soza was my reason for living at this meet. Despite having some of the best technique in the world, she’s had a hard time with the mental aspect of elite competition in addition to losing a ton of training time after picking up a life-threatening infection that blinded her in 2014, and last summer she struggled so badly, she ended up withdrawing from the competition on the second day. She moved to Texas Dreams in the hopes that it would help get her to a higher competitive level, and so when she made it through her competition with no falls — her biggest goal of the weekend — my heart was so happy for her.
It wasn’t a perfect meet, with some noticeable mistakes pretty much everywhere but bars, but what was most important was how she dealt with all of that. On vault, she crashed multiple Yurchenko doubles in podium training, but in the competition her only problem was landing a bit short. On beam, she had a huge wobble after her L turn to illusion turn, but while that might have destroyed her in the past, she was able to fight through to hold on. And on floor, she opted for just a layout opening pass instead of her usual double layout in an effort to save her ankles, which is why she was also a little iffy on the rest of her passes.
I was just so happy with how she fought through everything, and talking to her afterwards, she just had the biggest smile on her face while discussing how much Kim Zmeskal and Chris Burdette have helped her. She said she always felt like she was under so much pressure in the past, but now she barely feels the pressure of elite competition at all, which totally showed. There was a lightness to her throughout the meet that I’ve never seen before. Part of that definitely comes from having a ton of teammates out on the floor with her — Texas Dreams had a four-woman army in the senior session — but the coaching change has also seemed to help her enjoy herself so much more in the sport, which in turn is helping her to be a better gymnast.
Elena Arenas, who won the poorly-attended senior session of the American Classic earlier in the month, was ninth here with a 52.350, showing a fabulous Yurchenko double on top of a clean and lovely bars set, something she struggled with so much in podium training but managed to crank out like it was no big deal in the competition. Unfortunately, her foot slipped on her punch front on beam, causing her to put her hands down, and she had a few other stumbles on her flight series and some leaps, leading to an overall low score there and on floor, where a super low and weak double layout caused her to take a major stumble forward while the rest of her passes had a lack of control on the landings and she also struggled through her turns.
The other all-arounders here finished below the national all-around qualifying score, with Abi Walker in 10th with a 51.500, Frida Esparza in 11th with a 50.850, Leah Clapper in 12th with a 49.050, and Laney Madsen in 13th with a 45.850. Walker had already earned her three-event score at the American Classic, where Clapper earned her all-around score, while Esparza picked up her two-event score at the U.S. Classic, getting a 27.05 between vault and bars to end up just five hundredths ahead of what she needed.
So among the seniors, Madsen was the only one to not make it, and I have to say, I’m glad. Her story is incredible. It takes a special kid to be able to start artistic gymnastics at 12 after coming up through the cheer system and make it this far, and she clearly is a very powerful kid who can perform huge tumbling runs…but after watching her last weekend, I don’t know how she made it past her compulsories. Compulsory qualifications, which emphasize the strong execution of simple and basic skills, exist for a reason in the U.S. elite program — to separate the girls who should be doing elite skills from the girls who could probably chuck a bunch of difficulty but…shouldn’t be doing so.
Madsen has some very strong qualities to her gymnastics, but most of her routines at classics were thrown with very little attention to detail. It’s funny, because she’s at Gym-Max, known for producing Kyla Ross, the queen of low D and high E, so it’s clearly not the coaching style. I mean, it’s pretty obvious that she just hasn’t had enough time at the fundamental levels of the sport and pushed too hard too fast because she wanted to be elite. The thing that sets the U.S. program apart from many international programs is the J.O. levels system, which moves kids up the ranks if they meet a certain standard, so even though Madsen got the skills to bypass all of these levels, she missed out on perhaps the most crucial step to becoming a good elite gymnast.
I love that she was able to switch sports so seamlessly, and I’m absolutely not one of those people who’s like “cheerleading isn’t a real sport!” because it is, but cheerleading is not artistic gymnastics. It’s quite evident that she has a cheer background and not a J.O. background, and while it’s super cool that she can throw two baranis on beam and a double arabian on floor, that doesn’t mean she’s doing everything the way it should be done. There will always be issues with questionable form and technique at the elite level, but this goes beyond ‘questionable.’ When every single skill shows problematic execution, it suggests that this gymnast needs to go back to the basics and figure out what’s happening on a fundamental level. Otherwise, it doesn’t matter how many big skills you can chuck — you simply will not make it as an elite.
More than anything, I feel bad for Madsen and my heart broke for her when she had her four beam falls and just kept freaking going as the last gymnast all by herself in the arena with the crowd rallying like heck for her, so I will say what I was impressed with. I loved that she did a Podkopayeva vault, which wasn’t great, but wasn’t bad either. Her main problem was twisting the half-off while she was still on the table, making it more like a Yurchenko full-on back pike off…which would low key be even cooler. I also loved her German giants on bars, which are such a rarely-done skill because they are a true shoulder-killer, but she totally has the shoulder flexibility to pull them off nicely…though it was a shame they continued into a messy pak, on which her legs fully tucked and hit the mat. I also love that she does scorpion turns on beam and floor, I love that she’s ballsy and goes for huge beam difficulty even if it’s not quite looking cute, and I love that she has floor difficulty that puts her among the most difficult routines in the world, again, even if she’s not executing at a high level.
Hopefully Madsen, who seems set on her 2020 goal, will stick around and use this meet as a wake-up call. Using this as motivation to keep working on her technique and on the basics could make her a super strong elite at one point, but if that side of things continues to be ignored, we’ll just keep getting repeats of what we saw in Hoffman Estates.
Oh my goodness, this is already longer than most college papers, and I have yet to get to any of the worlds contenders, which is insane. I obviously have so many feelings.
Anyway, based on this meet, I’d say Ragan Smith and Jade Carey are the two locks for worlds this year. Smith won both of her events here, bars and beam, while Carey won vault and floor, and as the only U.S. gymnast who currently has two vaults, she’s kind of a no-brainer for Montreal.
Smith looked so polished and confident in both of her routines, with her upgraded bars going 14.55 and her stellar beam reaching a 15.35, the highest in the world so far this year. Smith competed a double wolf turn, a solid layout series, a gorgeous standing full, a punch front pike, and a stuck double pike, with really the only ‘weak’ elements a few issues on her jumps, both the straddle half and split half from a sideways position, but otherwise this was a medal-worthy set and even if she places last all-around at nationals and at the selection camp — she won’t, but if — I’d still send her to Montreal for this beam.
I have to say I’m probably more impressed with her bars, though, if only because she took an event that used to be such a weakness it kept her from missing the top six and making the national team in 2014 and she made it into one that is actually an incredible strength and can boost her all-around score even more than her vault and floor will. Smith added a fabulous Downie into her routine in addition to linking her Ricna and pak, both great upgrades that give her a 6.0 D score on the event, among the highest in the world. She also competed an inbar to inbar full to inbar half to straddle Jaeger and a solid full-in to earn a 14.55, which might not be the top score once the best U.S. bar workers are back in action, but will still be pretty freaking close.
I’m also so excited about Carey, who competes a kaz full and an Amanar on vault as well as insane tumbling on floor, including a great double double, double layout full-in, front double full, and tucked full-in as her last pass for a 5.7 D score, tying a couple of gymnasts for third-best in the world. Her vaults aren’t super clean, but she has come a long way on both since showing them at a few of the camps earlier in the season, and once she cleans up her landings a bit, she should be able to reach the podium pretty easily considering her combined difficulty is the best in the world, tying other likely worlds competitor Wang Yan, who has some form and landing issues of her own. I looooved when Kayla Williams went from qualifying elite to winning worlds gold within the span of less than six months back in 2009, so I’m thrilled that we might get to see this once again. It’s such a cool journey, and I’m glad her coaches had the foresight to see what they could do with her in the always weird post-Olympic year.
Morgan Hurd, dealing with a lingering elbow injury, only competed beam and floor here, winning the silver medal on floor with her routine that is literally anything we could ever want in a floor routine, from powerful and controlled tumbling to brilliant artistry. She opened with a great double double, nearly stuck her piked full-in, showed a beautiful Ferrari, got through her front layout to front double full with no problems, and then came in just a little low on her double pike to finish before going into her beautiful end choreography, posting a 13.85.
Her beam was actually fabulous as well, though putting her hand down on her standing full hurt her E score a bit. Hurd continued with an otherwise excellent routine, hitting a solid flight series, front aerial into her jump series, and a double pike with a small hop. She placed sixth even with the mistake, and had she competed and hit vault and bars the way we know she’s capable of doing, she easily would’ve reached the 56+ territory in the all-around, which is what she’ll be shooting for at nationals next week. She’s definitely on my list for worlds at the moment, both for her all-around potential and for what she can do on multiple individual events.
My biggest ‘maybes’ for worlds based on this meet were Ashton Locklear and Riley McCusker, both of whom struggled in podium training and counted falls during the meet. Locklear, who trained bars all weekend, told me she was really having problems with the bounciness of the uneven bars, which didn’t feel ‘right’ to her. I didn’t see her make it through a full routine in podium training, so I wasn’t surprised to see her drop them during the competition, instead choosing to focus on beam, where she was debuting two upgrades, a triple wolf turn and a tour jeté half.
Locklear, who has always been kind of ‘meh’ to me on beam, actually really impressed me there, even though she does the dreaded triple and double wolf turn series at the beginning (but as always, I blame the code, not her and her coaches for taking advantage of it). She had a solid flight series, punch front to straddle jump, and side aerial to switch leap to switch half, and was just a tad short on the tour jeté half, and I was basically like, wow, she is literally a beam worker now?! But then she put her hands down on her underrotated double tuck and I was so bummed. Hopefully that won’t be an issue for her at nationals, but I think even with the fall, she more than showed how much work she’s done on that event even since Jesolo, and I’m excited to see how she looks both there and on bars in Anaheim. If she’s great on both, she joins Smith and Carey in my ‘worlds lock’ group.
I was disappointed and slightly terrified to see McCusker training so poorly in podium training, but was happy to see that most of her scary moments — at least ten falls on bars, and missing her feet three times on back handsprings on beam — were gone by the competition. She explained to the press that she was “on crutches and in a cast” only weeks prior to showing up at classics, so like, why go? You qualified to nationals and have nothing to prove?! HEAL, CHILD! She said she basically had no expectations or goals there, and was basically just there to “raise [her] hand to the judges,” which I think people (hilariously) took literally, like she just showed up to salute and leave, which would be 900% pointless. What she meant by that was that she wanted to just show the judges (and probably more important, Valeri Liukin) that she was back in the gym and doing what she could, even if she wasn’t fully ready to be competing. It’s definitely important to show the national team staff, especially in all of the podium training sessions more than the actual competition, what you’re doing…but I still think she should’ve just sat this one out and taken the time to focus on nationals without feeling like she had to rush this meet.
In the competition, she ended up hitting bars, though looked wild on many of her skills, like her stalder full and Ricna to pak. She also completely tucked her legs on her Downie, which people are jokingly saying she should compete as a tuck legitimately so she can get it named for her, joining Claudia Fragapane with her accidental tucked toe-on Tkachev. I mean, it wasn’t cute, but at least she didn’t fall. She fought through it, which is what she did with her beam and floor as well.
On beam, McCusker looked wild on her triple wolf turn and wobbled through pretty much every skill after that, but at least she didn’t look scary. Even her double tuck, which she stumbled back and sat, had the rotation she needed whereas in training it was always super short. On floor, her full-in was good, but her 2½ landed awkwardly, causing her punch into the front tuck to barely get around, though she was able to stand up out of the squat, moving on to a low double pike and a stuck double tuck to finish. Not a great day on the three events she competed, but also not terrible. She just wasn’t ready, and when she is ready, she could be a worlds contender on multiple events, so we’ll see if she’s able to get back to that point this season.
That leaves us with Trinity Thomas, who won the bronze medals on both bars and beam for her good, if not out-of-this-world performances, Marissa Oakley, who competed everything but floor in her first meet back since 2014 and qualified to nationals on vault and bars, where she brought back her impressive Fabrichnova dismount, Margzetta Frazier, who competed only on bars after dealing with a slight injury at the American Classic earlier in the month (she missed her hand entirely on her pak but somehow it didn’t cause even the slightest hiccup in her rhythm!), and Sydney Johnson-Scharpf, who competed only on vault after training all of her other events all week, but ultimately decided not to compete because she was getting over pneumonia and didn’t want to push through with weak routines and falls (she was able to successfully petition to nationals based on everything she had shown in podium training, however).
A total of 22 seniors will compete at nationals, a pretty healthy field considering it’s the post-Olympic year. Everyone at classics with the exception of Madsen made it through, as did Victoria Nguyen, who qualified via her score in Jesolo but opted to skip classics. Nationals will be held in Anaheim next week, with the women competing on Friday evening and Sunday afternoon.
Our full coverage from the U.S. Classic, including all results and live blogs, can be found here.
Article by Lauren Hopkins
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