So, I think I’m just about calming down after the announcement about the U.S. worlds team, which I got as a notification on my phone while sitting at the hair salon and basically screamed mid-snip when I saw first-year senior Morgan Hurd had earned a spot alongside expected nominative team athletes Ragan Smith, Ashton Locklear, and Jade Carey.
For the first time in the history of the world, USA Gymnastics posted selection camp videos highlighting some of the routines from the first verification at camp, and it was a little hard to gauge exactly how well everyone did because the videos would cut out at seemingly key moments. Locklear’s entire bars set except for her dismount? Clearly she fell! Suspiciously cutting out in the middle of someone’s beam routine? Obviously covering up something too dramatic for our eyes!
Naturally this is where most fans took things while speculating about the worlds team, but I was laser-focused on Hurd’s video, which showed her looking freaking incredible, better than she has all season. Hurd got off to a shaky start in her debut senior season, with falls at the world cup in Stuttgart and at the team competition in Jesolo, and then when she showed up at classics and nationals this summer, she was dealing with recovering from an elbow injury that limited her on vault and bars.
But no national coordinator cares what you do in July or August. Camp is what counts, and camp is where Hurd was able to show that she was one of the top two all-arounders in the country on both days of competition, truly bringing it when she needed to in order to snag one of the four spots open on this year’s team. It’ll be interesting to see if she’s been able to build up her bars difficulty once again, and where she could possibly fit into event finals, which at this point depend more on how the rest of the world competes than on what the U.S. ladies can do, but I’m super excited to see her land on the team, and if there’s one thing the gymternet can agree on in its daily civil wars, it’s that Hurd is the greatest human being alive and deserves to be on every team ever.
Personally, I’m also invested in seeing Hurd make this happen, as I took one look at her on bars during training for the Nastia Liukin Cup in 2014 and basically died because she was just so freaking good. Her routine there was pretty basic, but her skills were immaculate, and I begged the gym gods to get her into elite. I’m pretty sure I talked about Hurd for an hour straight on that week’s episode of Gymcastic, because even though she didn’t have huge skills at that point and was like five seconds into her level 10 career, she just had that something. Watching her go from a kid just starting out to now getting a spot on the worlds team three and a half years later is just surreal and incredible. We are blessed. Morgan Hurd for president.
The other three were kind of obvious, in that they were all on the nominative roster, and in that they just fit the team so perfectly. As the national champion, Smith was a shoo-in, and with some of the highest all-around, beam, and floor scores in the world, she’s practically guaranteed a medal or two in Montreal. Yes, she’ll have some competition on every event, but she’s so super composed and together and on her game, her edge is that she’ll be able hit under pressure, which is how the U.S. wins medals, while undoubtedly many of her peers will crumble, which is how other countries have lost medals in recent years.
In an individual worlds with four-person teams given three spots per event in qualifications, the best team format is two all-arounders and some combination of two specialists, and with Carey an early lock for this team due to her two vaults and one of the most difficult floor sets in the world, the second specialist was going to have to be someone who could medal on bars, or beam, or both.
The thing is, there really isn’t anyone in the country right now already not on the team who can medal on either. Among the other five girls at this camp not named to the team were Jordan Chiles (who got the non-traveling alternate spot), Trinity Thomas, Marz Frazier, Emily Gaskins, and Alyona Shchennikova. None of these are beam workers, maxing out at D scores around a 5.5 when the best beamers in the world right now are working in the neighborhood of a 6.5, and when we look at bars, the only realistic option is Shchennikova, whose 6.3 D score at nationals puts her among some of the world’s best, but her consistency and form haven’t been great this year, and what good is a D score if you don’t have the E to match it?
Thomas is the only one of these with a legitimate case, as she’s lovely on both bars and beam and could also go up in the all-around to challenge for a medal if need be. But as I said at nationals, “she’s gonna get Kytra Huntered so hard this year.” Why? Because in 2009, Hunter was fourth all-around at nationals — just like Thomas was this year — and while she had strong work, especially on floor where she placed third at nationals, she wasn’t in the top two on any event. Guess what? Thomas also wasn’t top two on any event this year, placing — you guessed it — third on her best events.
It’s that classic case of being a fabulous gymnast, probably even stronger than some of the other gymnasts going, but not really fitting the puzzle right now. If it was a team year, Thomas would be one of my first choices, just as Hunter would’ve been for me back in 2009, but if a gymnast can’t finish in the top two anywhere at home, she’s not competitive domestically on those events let alone internationally.
Fortunately for Thomas, I don’t think she has come close to her potential. While it would’ve been cool to see her make the team happen this year, she’s clearly held back in the all-around on vault, and you can’t really call her a specialist when her D scores on her best events are a full point lower than the top specialists in the world. But her time will come. We haven’t seen the last of her yet.
Speaking of “you can’t really call her a specialist when her D scores on her best events are a full point lower than the top specialists in the world,” if that’s the case, then why the heck is Locklear on the team? Valid question. She’s only at around a 5.5 D on bars, which doesn’t make her anywhere near competitive enough for a medal. But…oh, right, as we discussed earlier, no one in the country up for that spot is anywhere near competitive enough for a medal, either there or on beam.
So this decision was more of a “whoever can get us the closest” kind of thing and not so much “she’s guaranteed to get it.” A couple of gymnasts up for this spot do have higher bars difficulty scores, like Frazier with her 5.9 or Shchennikova with her 6.3, but the thing is, Frazier’s and Shchennikova’s difficulty don’t hold a candle to what Locklear can make up in execution, which is why Locklear beat Shchennikova at Jesolo, why Locklear beat them both at nationals, and why she beat them again at camp. It’s like when Simone Biles could average the same scores as Maria Paseka on vault despite being a point back in difficulty — you need a lot more than a high D score to win an event, and even without her inbars (#ButHerInbars!) building her back up to a high start value, Locklear has proven multiple times to be more than capable of outscoring her teammates.
Even at an international level, while she won’t come into worlds as a frontrunner for a medal, she’s actually not that far back. The top contenders above Locklear are probably Anastasia Iliankova, Fan Yilin, Nina Derwael, and Elisabeth Seitz, with maybe Elena Eremina joining them if she hits all of her connections and isn’t slammed for her execution as she has been internationally this year. Aside from Riley McCusker, who had to withdraw from the worlds selection process due to a stress fracture, Locklear has the highest international score on bars for any U.S. senior, and she consistently earned E scores in the high 8s at worlds in 2014, so having improved tremendously since then in her ability, it’s fair to say that she will likely be rewarded by judges in Montreal as well.
I’m not the biggest fan of Locklear, and I do wish Valeri Liukin had paid more attention to the longterm. With no one really capable of medaling on bars this year without major mistakes from other gymnasts, why not just take a new kid like Thomas or Shchennikova or Chiles to see how they do? A similar opportunity worked wonders for Gabby Douglas in 2011, and I’m always a huge proponent of giving experience to those who show potential for longevity throughout the quad.
But at the same time, I don’t understand the rampant hate or the utter shock and disbelief towards Locklear for getting one of the least surprising team bids I’ve ever seen. If anything, Liukin is likely betting on the fact that one of those top bars gymnasts like Fan (who has a hit rate of 60% this year) or Seitz (who is always heavily docked for her execution internationally despite getting high scores at home) will end up not doing as well in Montreal as they have elsewhere, leaving room for Locklear to creep in for a medal the way so many gymnasts have earned medals at every major international meet basically ever. She might not be a frontrunner, but she has a better chance at a bars medal than anyone else being left at home, so if there’s even a slight chance they could get something out of her, they’re obviously going to take it.
Locklear ended up somehow being the controversial decision this year, but I have a feeling it’s more because everyone who cried about her not making it to Rio over Madison Kocian or Gabby Douglas in 2016 turned on her when she allegedly favorited a supportive tweet about Donald Trump than it is about her actual ability or lack thereof, as if a gymnast’s physical ability or potential in the sport is affected by her questionable taste in humans (she also favorited Obama tweets, by the way, so I’m guessing she’s politically confused at best). ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
But the least controversial decision was naming Carey to the team, the sole two-vault gymnast in the U.S., boasting an Amanar and a tsuk double — sorry, kas full — which gives her the highest combination of difficulty at worlds alongside China’s Wang Yan. Though her vaults have been kind of hit-or-miss with form, they looked great at camp yesterday, and it’s not like the vault field this year is full of Simone Biles clones. It’s actually pretty weak, form-wise, and Carey — who only just qualified to elite this spring — could very well pull off the second “how to go from level 10 to world champion in six months” magic for the U.S. in the past eight years. She’s also super powerful on floor, where a hit routine there could also get her a medal, so bam, easy decision for everyone.
The one big heartbreak for me this year was Chiles, who I thought at nationals showed she might actually pull off a worlds team bid despite coming back from the injury she sustained in her final year as a junior and then entering with a rocky start to her senior year, having to switch coaches, causing her to miss several crucial early-season competitions on top of the changes in her gym. She looked a little rough at classics, but managed to pull herself together to look mostly sharp at nationals, winning the silver medal in the all-around.
Her medal was mostly thanks to the score boost from her Amanar on day one, however, compared to the Yurchenko fulls performed by her biggest competition for silver, McCusker and Thomas. The rest of Chiles’ events were slightly behind those of her teammates, with nothing really a standout except for vault, but obviously she’d need to have a second vault if she wanted that to factor into her worlds decision (Chiles said following the competition that she was working on a Lopez, but it wasn’t ready by the time the selection camp came around).
I get why she didn’t make it this year. As with Thomas, it’s simply that she didn’t fit either as a top-two all-arounder at camp or as a valid specialist on any one event. And like Thomas, I think she’s one who hasn’t yet hit her stride, but instead shows potential for the coming years, especially as her Amanar will be incredibly valuable in a team competition.
Don’t sleep on these two yet just because they didn’t happen to make the most selective worlds team of the quad on their first try. They’ll be back, and so will many of those who didn’t fit this particular team at this point in their careers. Trust that you don’t know most of what’s going on at camp to make these decisions the best possible decisions for the team, and know that no matter who ended up being named, most of the nine gymnasts up for the four team spots could’ve been justified for one reason or another, but in a program where depth is a bittersweet problem to have, someone capable of great things is always going to get left behind.
Article by Lauren Hopkins
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