It was no surprise to see Simone Biles top the all-around standings on the first day of competition at this year’s U.S. Championships.
Biles, the five-time Olympic medalist and ten-time world champion who returned to competition less than a month ago at the U.S. Classic in Columbus, had a commanding 3.1-point lead coming out of the first day of competition, becoming the first gymnast this quad to surpass both a 59 and a 60 in the all-around in addition to leading the field on all four events.
This feat is somehow mind-blowingly impressive and incredibly unsurprising at the same time. The 21-year-old has dominated in the sport internationally since her debut year as a senior and she’s probably the best gymnast of all time; of course she’s leading nationals by three points and breaking quadrennial records just weeks into her comeback. At this point, Biles could compete a quintuple Yurchenko and a triple back off beam and I’d still be like “next?” because in my mind, there’s no end to what she can do, and I still think as great as she looks — which is even better than she did in 2016 — there’s still so much she’s capable of that she’s not letting us in on yet.
As impressed as I am with Biles, however, I think the most exciting part of this competition was that while the rest of the field can’t catch her, they’re more than holding their own at a level that will once again make the U.S. unbeatable as a team at world championships this year.
With 2017 world champion Morgan Hurd and reigning U.S. bars champion Riley McCusker operating at the highest level we’ve seen from both of them in their careers, with Trinity Thomas double-teaming NCAA and elite with a brilliant mix of difficulty and execution, with underrated up-and-comers Grace McCallum and Shilese Jones sneaking into the top group with confident and clean routines, and with girls like Jade Carey, Jordan Chiles, and Ragan Smith all standouts in their own right even without hitting at their full potential on Friday, it’s pretty clear that while Biles’ return elevates the potential of the U.S. squad, the strength of the team overall is far beyond what we normally expect at this point in the quad.
As good as Biles is, it’s an insult to the rest of the team to see comments about how she makes this team what it is, and how the team “would not survive” without her. Biles is brilliant and in a three-up three-count team final, her scores provide a buffer that no other team leader in the world can offer, but even without Biles, this group of young ladies has the ability to be the best mid-quad team in the history of the U.S. women’s program, with depth and individual medal potential that far surpasses the 2010 and 2014 teams, and the girls who competed without Biles in Montreal last year would’ve won by a dominating margin had there been a team competition.
It almost feels disrespectful or sacrilegious to talk about anything but Biles at this point, because her comeback is the story. Biles is doing what pretty much no reigning Olympic champion has done before by returning so quickly and confidently with upgrades and improvements to her existing skills, and she absolutely deserves to be the center of attention, especially because she was outstanding in Friday’s competition.
To seal her huge lead, Biles hit two of her best vaults ever with a beautiful Cheng and solid Amanar, catching her Weiler half to Maloney to Tkachev and landing her Fabrichnova on bars with zero problems, hitting a rock-solid flight series and high full-in dismount on beam, and bouncing back her landings on floor, but otherwise showing the most difficult tumbling in the world and making it look as easy as a compulsory J.O. set.
While most returning Olympians tend to struggle through their comebacks under the pressure, Biles has slipped right back into her role with no visible struggle despite coaching changes, national team staff changes, and personal life changes. Currently ranked sixth on the list of most-decorated world and Olympic medalists of all time, Biles needs only three medals at worlds this year to move up to third place, and by the end of Tokyo 2020, she can realistically wind up bumping Larisa Latynina from the top spot.
But again, as phenomenal as she is and as outstanding as she looks, this is a huge year for the team competition, with the top three teams at worlds qualifying directly to the Olympic Games, which is not something Biles can make happen on her own. The rest of the U.S. team matters, and just because the other U.S. gymnasts aren’t matching Biles doesn’t mean they aren’t worthy of celebrating for their own accomplishments.
Hurd, for example, earned a 57.000 on Friday, which is the best score of her senior career and among the highest scores in the world this quad. Coming in at nearly a three-point difficulty deficit behind Biles, Hurd nearly matched her execution at every turn on Friday, coming within a tenth or two on every event but vault. She was a bit downgraded here, taking out her punch front and full-in dismount on beam as well as her Moors on floor for the time being in an effort to stay clean and confident, but she plans on getting it all back for the worlds selection camp, where she should be a frontrunner for the team.
A true performer on floor, Hurd’s routine is one of the more spectacular in the world right now, she’s beautiful and sharp with every skill she has on bars and beam, and all of the nervous energy she had last year — including in her gold medal-winning performance in Montreal — is completely gone. At 17, she’s now one of the more senior gymnasts on the team and is a clear leader, bringing a young team through a terrific Pacific Rims performance this spring despite her own personal struggles on beam.
Hurd will absolutely be an integral part of the worlds team this year, with the ability to contribute scores on all four events while also making a run for an all-around medal. Even if Biles will make it challenging for Hurd to defend her title, Hurd is still one of the best all-arounders in the world right now, and she also has a realistic shot at at least two event finals (and possibly three if she can outscore her own teammates on floor).
As thrilled as I am about Hurd’s growth as a competitor over the past year, I’m just as excited and shocked by the McCusker renaissance we’re getting. Like Hurd, McCusker is looking better than ever, thankfully back and healthy after a year of injuries that have kept her from competing for much of the past year.
Her performance on Friday wasn’t quite as strong as what we saw from her at the U.S. Classic, where she won the silver medal. With some mistakes throughout her bars set and some weak tumbling on floor, she lost some valuable execution tenths which hurt her overall, as execution is where she generally gets her edge.
Because her technique is so close to perfect otherwise, McCusker still had some of the top E scores of the meet even with mistakes, and she mostly looked beautiful on bars and beam, though her double tuck dismount on beam was quite close to the end of the apparatus and looked a bit terrifying, so hopefully that’s something they can end up working on as she continues on the path to being at 100% for worlds.
I loved seeing McCallum, Thomas, and Jones round out the top six all with scores less than a point behind McCusker, meaning the podium was absolutely not decided on Friday night as it has been in years past. All three of these gymnasts were at their strongest this year, with McCallum sneaking in just a couple of tenths behind McCusker, Thomas upgrading to an NCAA-ready Yurchenko 1.5 while shining on bars and beam, and Jones continuing to up her game with the best DTY of the meet and solid routines across the board to finally make her a true national team contender this year.
Thomas, who began her NCAA career at Florida this summer, is still unsure if she’ll make a push for the worlds team this year, but I have a feeling her results after this weekend could definitely get her to that selection camp. And while neither she, McCallum, nor Jones have legitimate standout events that would make them top three in the country on that particular event, every team could benefit from the consistent utility player who can go up anywhere if needed, like Maggie Nichols in 2015. Any program would be blessed for one of these types of gymnasts, but the U.S. has multiple options, and that’s something to celebrate.
In the second elite all-around performance of her career, Carey ended up in seventh place while also looking strong on her best events, placing second on floor and third for her two-vault combination. She only went for the DTY and the Lopez on vault, warming up an Amanar but opting against it, though I’m sure she’ll have it back and ready to go for the worlds camp. I was most impressed with her floor, where her difficulty is just a few tenths behind Biles’ and she showed great care with her landings there, though some of her form isn’t quite as crisp as she’d like.
Neither Smith nor Chiles had the days they wanted here, but neither was especially bad. Smith, who is dealing with torn ankle ligaments and broken toes, did what she could to fight past mistakes on bars and beam, and with her injuries she obviously wasn’t able to put up high-quality work on vault or floor. Chiles, meanwhile, brought back a stunning Amanar, one of her best actually, and she hit beam moderately well, though dealt with a fall on bars and rough landings on floor, though I was excited to see that her tumbling matches Aly Raisman’s almost exactly, minus the punch front out of her first pass.
I’m hoping both will be able to get closer to full strength as worlds gets closer, and I think it could happen. While nationals won’t be career highlights for either, I don’t think they’re completely out of the mix based on this one meet. It wasn’t the end for Hurd last year, and with everyone so close once again, the worlds camp will absolutely once again be the deciding factor for those currently on the outskirts.
For the others who competed on the first day at nationals, Kara Eaker hit all four events with beam a standout, though I think her connection-heavy set — while insane and stunning and daring and everything I love about beam in the current code of points — is too risky for the FIG judges who absolutely destroyed these kinds of routines at worlds last year. Alyona Shchennikova hit all events but bars, where she had a fantastic start but then once again struggled through her dismount, which she also missed at the American Classic.
Shania Adams hit her four routines for a solid finish, Margzetta Frazier fought through a fall on bars and some bumps throughout her other events but overall looked strong and confident considering she almost didn’t come back to elite after fracturing her sternum earlier this summer, the WOGA girls — Audrey Davis, Sloane Blakely, and Luisa Blanco — all struggled on at least one event apiece, Madeleine Johnston had unfortunate misses on bars and beam, and Olivia Dunne showed that she’s still getting over an ankle injury with some shaky beam skills and a couple of falls on bars.
For those not competing all four events, both Deanne Soza and Jaylene Gilstrap hit their three, with Soza standing out on bars while Gilstrap was fun to watch on floor, and Adeline Kenlin — still coming back from an injury — competed on beam and floor, looking promising on both, with her Randi on floor one of my favorites and I loved her full L turn to tour jeté half on beam.
In the junior competition, Leanne Wong was close to perfect on all four events to lead the field with a 56.400, but her competition wasn’t far behind, with Sunisa Lee fantastic on bars and beam to earn a 55.900 and Kayla DiCello showing a fantastic DTY and clean bars set for a 55.250. Skye Blakely and Konnor McClain round out the top five with scores of 54.800 and 54.500, respectively, both coming in as the new kids ready to shake things up at just 13 years old, and Olivia Greaves was lovely in her routine to finish sixth with a 53.400.
The biggest shock of this competition was 2018 Pac Rims and Junior Pan Ams all-around champion Jordan Bowers finishing 17th after the first day with a 51.000. With just about a point and a half between her finish and the top 8, though, she’s not completely out of the mix just yet. All of her mistakes were easily fixable, with a low landing on vault, her feet hitting the low bar on her 1.5 pirouette, a fall on her flight series on beam, and some low landings on her floor tumbling just showing signs of fatigue. As someone relatively new to the top of the elite scene, she’s definitely under a lot of pressure to deliver, but like Smith and Chiles in the senior session, I don’t think anything career-determining will come out of this meet for Bowers.
The women will finish up their competition on Sunday, where both senior and junior champions will be crowned and national teams will be named.
Article by Lauren Hopkins
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