Simone Biles did a lot of big things at the U.S. Championships in Boston last weekend.
On the first day of competition, Biles became the first gymnast this quad to surpass both a 59 and a 60 in the all-around. With her combined total of 119.850, she finished 6.550 points ahead of the silver medalist, the largest margin for a two-day all-around competition since the open-ended code of points was introduced in 2006. And to top it all off, she became the first gymnast since 1994 to get a gold medal sweep, winning all four apparatus titles on top of her all-around victory.
The insane thing is that none of this is really a surprise, with the exception of Biles taking the bars title, and even that isn’t all that shocking. Lest we forget, Biles made the bars final at world championships in 2013 and she competed the event in the team final at the 2016 Olympic Games, and now with Laurent Landi as a coach, she’s made improvements that have her looking better than ever on the event. Thanks to her high difficulty (she has one of the most difficult routines in the world right now), ability to hit cleanly, and a lack of standout bars sets in the U.S. right now, her bars — especially on night one — were a reminder that Biles truly does not have a single weak event.
Best of all, Biles — who was a bit nervous at the U.S. Classic, her first competition back in two years — looked confident and light in Boston, quickly getting past the first-meet jitters and looking like she has never stepped out from the gym despite more than a year away.
Because this is gymnastics and we have to get nit-picky to explore how the routines we see at nationals could end up looking on the world stage, it’s time to talk about Biles’ landings on floor. Always the biggest issue with her floor in the past, her insane power is still keeping her pretty bouncy here, and that lack of control is making what should be an easy 15 for her end up a mid-14 instead, with a total of seven out-of-bounds penalties hitting her nationals routines on top of lower execution scores than she’s used to.
Historically her best event, floor has always been a “guaranteed gold” for her with three world titles on top of her Olympic gold, but this year without fixing the landings, reigning world champion Mai Murakami will absolutely be able to present a challenge, as her landings this year have been generally solid and her execution fantastic. Though Biles outscores her by about a half a point in difficulty alone, multiple out-of-bounds penalties on top of landing deductions will quickly erase that edge, so hopefully this becomes a focus over the next few weeks going into worlds.
Even so, Biles will still go into worlds as a top contender on the event, just as she’ll also go into worlds as the top contender in the all-around and on vault and beam in addition to possibly also sneaking into the bars final. It’s business as usual for Biles, as if her time off never even happened.
Behind Biles at nationals were Morgan Hurd with the silver medal and Riley McCusker with bronze, the same two who shared the podium with her at the U.S. Classic but flip-flopped in their own medal positions.
Hurd, McCusker, and the rest of the girls who placed in the top eight to make the senior national team all hit eight-for-eight routines this weekend, making for what was hands-down the best nationals showing in probably 20 years, which is about as far back as I can remember. In fact, I can’t even remember the last time someone in the top three got through without a fall, illustrating how impressive this field is, and why choosing the worlds team is going to be super difficult this year, leaving behind some incredibly talented kids.
When I talked to Hurd after the meet, she said she was thrilled to hit all eight routines, and noted that this was the first time in her five years of competing at nationals that she hasn’t had to count a fall.
At the U.S. Classic, Hurd had what I thought was the best meet of her career, aside from falling on her tricky punch front on beam (which she took out of her routine here to ensure a smooth and error-free performance). She looked more confident and poised than I’ve ever seen her, and proved at nationals that this is just who she is now. Given her prior competitive history, a lot of people questioned whether her worlds win was a fluke good day, but it’s clear now that Hurd is a true competitor with the difficulty, technical capability, control, and poise to make her one of the best in the world at the moment, and a clear front runner for an all-around medal at worlds again this year.
As happy as I am about Hurd’s continued improvement, I don’t think anything can make me more thrilled about McCusker finally living up to the standards we thought she’d one day reach when we first saw her compete at the junior level…isn’t it amazing what life can be like without one billion injuries holding you back?
McCusker has always been the real deal, but her injuries last year made her physically incapable of getting there in addition to throwing a wrench into her mental game, causing her to second-guess landings and look tentative even on her best skills, causing people to wonder if she could ever truly get back to a good enough place to be competitive as a senior. But now, she’s showing shades of the gymnast she could one day become, and though she still struggles a bit with power and endurance, she more than makes up for it with a technique that surpasses pretty much everyone in the field.
After seeing her struggle a little on bars this summer, I began getting a bit worried about her there, but she hit her set on the second day of competition with such precision and finesse, I almost stood up in my chair in press row. Everything was just about as perfect as we could hope, with a toe full to Maloney to Tkachev, Ricna to Pak to Chow half, and a half-in double tuck, a dismount that has given her some drama in training but that looked fantastic there. She seemed thrilled and kind of surprised at herself after that routine, but I hope now she knows just what she’s capable of and doesn’t let any self-doubt or nerves keep her from looking that great in the future.
The only reason she didn’t win the bars title is because of a couple of little mistakes on the first night of competition, which held her E score back a bit. But on Sunday, she showed that she is easily the best bars worker in the country right now, and she also proved to be one of the best beam workers, with two beautiful and strong sets over the weekend backing up her case for the worlds team this fall.
In fourth and fifth were Grace McCallum and Shilese Jones, neither of whom really has a standout event, but both are solid and well-balanced all-arounders with two of the best DTYs in the country on vault. McCallum carries a bit more difficulty in her program, and she is impeccable in most of her skills, while Jones has an unusual combination of power and grace that makes her so much fun to watch.
I was happy to see these two named to the Pan Am Championships team alongside fellow national team members Jade Carey, Kara Eaker, and Trinity Thomas, but I would be surprised to see either on the worlds team if everyone else stays healthy. Neither are top three on any event, so while they are both a dream for qualifications, neither would be a first choice in a three-up three-count team final…but as we see every year, injuries happen and both of these ladies could step in anywhere and score well.
Carey finished sixth overall this weekend, making the national team in one of the automatic all-around ranking spots rather than as an added specialist, something she was very proud of. Despite some weak spots in her floor routine, she still finished second to Biles, and with downgrades on vault, she got the bronze there, though she said she plans on bringing her Amanar back for the worlds camp, where she will also be upgrading to the Cheng.
People have asked why she abandoned her Kas full in favor of the Yurchenko half-on style vaults, but the reason is pretty simple…she wants to upgrade her total level of difficulty, but since the Kas and the Yurchenko both have backward post-flight, she wouldn’t be able to up her Kas to a 1½ because then both of her vaults would have the same post-flight (a backwards layout with 2½ twists), which incurs a two-point penalty.
Her only other option for keeping the kaz and Yurchenko vaults while getting an upgrade in would be going up to the triple Yurchenko, but considering that is a vault no woman has yet been able to land in competition, it’s not quite that simple. Switching over from the Kas family to the Yurchenko half-on family means she now has post-flights going both forward and backward, so she won’t have to worry about how many twists she’s doing off the table, and can upgrade her heart out with no issues.
I loved that Carey did the Kas entry vault because it’s rare to see the American women venture away from the Yurchenko style, and hopefully once she masters the Cheng, she can bring back the Kas and possibly even upgrade it. But for now, I’m excited to see her add the Cheng after debuting her Lopez this summer, and hope that she’ll get to do it at worlds.
Yeah, that whole thing about hoping to see Carey at worlds…if you haven’t been following, Tom Forster is concerned that Carey won’t be able to compete on this year’s worlds team and then also compete as an individual at the 2020 Olympic Games, though this is not the case. The actual rule is that if the U.S. qualifies as a team to the Olympics this year at worlds (which they will), then no member of this team can go on to also qualify individual spots, because the whole point of having individual spots is for countries to show that they have enough depth to earn them, and by sending the same athlete to qualify on the team and as an individual, it’s clear that you don’t have enough depth and don’t deserve an additional individual spot.
Forster seems to believe, however, that if Carey competes on the worlds team this year, then she won’t be eligible to compete in an individual spot at the Olympics, which is absolutely not the case. Most of the individual spots the U.S. will be eligible to earn are non-nominative, meaning they belong to the country, not the individual who earns them. If the U.S. sends gymnasts to compete at various all-around world cup meets in 2020, for example, and these gymnasts qualify a spot this way, that individual spot belongs to the U.S. as a team and they can do with it whatever they want, including using it for Carey to compete in Tokyo on vault and floor.
So yes, Carey can compete at worlds on the team this year and still go to the Olympics as a two-event specialist. The two have nothing to do with one another and I hope Forster realizes this, because it would be a shame to force Carey to miss out on worlds when she’d be a top contributor to the team as well as a potential individual medalist on two events.
I don’t think all hope is lost, but there is talk of her potentially going to the apparatus world cups instead to attempt to earn a nominative spot that way, meaning she’d have to win the series title on vault or floor to qualify and then the spot would belong to her — and not the country — meaning she’d seal an automatic bid to Tokyo for herself while the rest of the U.S. gymnasts will have to battle it out for the team and one remaining non-nominative individual spot. I can see from Carey’s perspective how going the apparatus world cup route would be ideal, but it’s not necessary for her to do that.
The other two going to Pan Ams, Eaker and Thomas, both actually would’ve outscored Jones and Carey as all-arounders had they not received a total of four tenths in penalties on vault for competing the Yurchenko 1½, which is considered not up to difficulty standards in domestic competition. Eaker would’ve placed fifth and Thomas would’ve been sixth without these penalties, but I was glad to see that they were both named to the national team and the Pan Ams team regardless, as both had a fantastic weekend in Boston and should be heavily featured in the worlds discussion.
Eaker is still a bit green, and wouldn’t really contend for worlds without her beam, which is magnificent though connection-heavy and a bit of a risk, especially in a team competition. Still, if she hits, she’s one of the best in the world, and therefore absolutely deserves the chance to contend against the rest who fit that “best in the world” category, so I hope she proves herself at Pan Ams.
At nationals, Thomas was still undecided about whether she’d attend the worlds selection camp this year, as she’s now a freshman at the University of Florida and balancing college and elite gymnastics is a super difficult task, though if anyone’s up to the job, it’s Thomas, who tackled her elite career while also participating on her high school diving team.
Thomas is kind of in the same boat as McCallum in Jones in that she doesn’t really have a top-three standout event that would make her a contributor anywhere but qualifications. She has great difficulty potential on bars and floor, but she was a little weak in how she competed both, going out-of-bounds and looking a little rough on her landings on both days of competition on floor while repeating a toe-on skill in her bars set on Sunday, causing her to lose the difficulty value for her van Leeuwen, which ended up being the fourth toe-on root skill of the routine.
Again, though, the greatest takeaway from all of these gymnasts is that they all hit every single routine this weekend, an insane accomplishment that blows every other nationals out of the water, and for those on the bubble of making the worlds team right now — like McCallum, Jones, Eaker, and Thomas — Pan Ams will be how they can prove themselves.
Rounding out the all-around field were Alyona Shchennikova in ninth, last year’s champion Ragan Smith in tenth, last year’s silver medalist Jordan Chiles in 11th, Shania Adams in 12th, Margzetta Frazier in 13th, Audrey Davis in 14th, Madeleine Johnston in 15th, Sloane Blakely in 16th, Luisa Blanco in 17th, and Olivia Dunne in 18th. Additionally, Jaylene Gilstrap and Deanne Soza both competed three events apiece, while Adeline Kenlin competed on beam and floor.
Shchennikova finally hit her bars dismount after a solid routine on Sunday, though while her difficulty is great there, she loses a lot in her execution and probably won’t be a major contender for worlds, though she has earned the alternate spot for Pan Ams and could very well end up going if Thomas decides to bow out.
It was sad to see last year’s best gymnasts not make the national team this year, but I don’t think the road has ended for either Smith or Chiles. I do think it would be best for Smith to just sit out this season, given her injuries and how they seem to be getting to her mentally, but Chiles showed a solid performance level across the rest of her events that put her on par with the McCallum-Jones-Eaker-Thomas group, with the one exception being that she had multiple falls, holding her back from contending alongside that top group.
The notable difference between Chiles and the rest of that group, however, is that Chiles has an Amanar that would be capable of adding about a point more to the team final total than any other gymnast could add on any other event, making her role something like what McKayla Maroney’s role ended up being on the five-person team in London. With a tsuk full for her second vault, she’s not quite in the vault medal potential category, but she could definitely make the final, and if Forster does ultimately decide to send Carey on the apparatus world cup track, Chiles could easily slip into that spot.
Overall, there were about 11 gymnasts at nationals who could realistically contend for team spots at worlds, and if Emma Malabuyo is healthy and ready to petition, I wouldn’t be surprised to see an even 12 at the selection camp. Though Malabuyo missed nationals due to back pain, she showed up at all of the training sessions to show Forster what she can do, and if anyone throws a wrench into everyone’s worlds team predictions right now, it’ll be Malabuyo.
In the junior competition, Leanne Wong held onto her lead after the first day of competition with routines that were pretty much robotically perfect, also winning the gold on floor as well as the silver medals on vault and bars. Even without the highest difficulty in the bunch, Wong managed to outshine the rest of the junior field — and even most of the seniors! — looking like a baby Kyla Ross thanks to her precise, clean, and effortlessly lovely gymnastics.
Kayla DiCello ended up with the silver medal, a huge jump from finishing 26th just a year ago, thanks to equally tidy performances across all four events. Her powerful vault earned her the gold there, while she also picked up the bronze medals on bars and floor, and while she’s lacking in difficulty compared to some of the others, she’s still just 14 and has another year of junior competition ahead of her before she needs to be reaching for more difficult skills.
In third was Sunisa Lee, who struggled a little bit on vault and floor in her first competition back at full difficulty since getting injured this spring, but she still managed to win the bars title with a score that would’ve beaten Biles in the senior division, and she got the silver on beam with her set on day two absolutely stupendous, featuring a gorgeous layout series, a perfect switch leap to switch half to back pike, and a second flight series with her side aerial into two layout stepouts.
Also making the national team at the junior level were Skye Blakely, who placed fourth and won the silver on floor as well as the bronze on vault; Konnor McClain, fifth place in addition to winning the beam gold with two beautiful sets; and Olivia Greaves, who fought back from a fall on bars in the second day of competition to seal a spot on the team in her first year of elite competition.
A young talent worth noting was Ciena Alipio surprising to win the silver medal on beam, where she hit two solid and breathtaking routines valued at a 5.8 difficulty. While a couple of other juniors matched her D score, including McClain, Alipio stood out with her great control on the apparatus, hitting a fabulous layout series and side aerial to layout stepout on both days of competition.
Unfortunately, Jordan Bowers had to withdraw from the second day of competition after ranking 17th on Friday night. Dealing with some back pain, Bowers came into the arena on Sunday morning and began warming up on the uneven bars during the general stretch, but then she walked off of the podium looking a bit dejected, and not long after, she informed USA Gymnastics of her decision to sit out the rest of the meet.
It was a bummer to see her end her lengthy junior career this way, especially knowing she spent three long years climbing the ranks before finally reaching the pinnacle of junior elite competition this year. The winner of the all-around titles at Pac Rims and Junior Pan Ams, Bowers was consistently showing growth in her ability all season, and she was a frontrunner for a podium finish at nationals until her injury held her back.
Hopefully next season we’ll see her back and ready to compete with the seniors, and we wish her and everyone else who either withdrew or struggled through this meet due to various injuries the best of luck in their returns.
Full results are available here.
Article by Lauren Hopkins
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