Grace McCallum and Leanne Wong
The U.S. women have won every American Cup all-around title since 2002, and even without the team’s biggest stars headlining this year’s competition in Greensboro, North Carolina, up-and-comers Grace McCallum and Leanne Wong absolutely have what it takes to keep the winning tradition alive.
McCallum, a key member of last year’s gold medal-winning world championships team, looked excellent in training this week, as did 2018 junior national all-around champion Wong. At 16 and 15, respectively, these two will come up against some women who have proven themselves as some of the top gymnasts in the world over the past couple of years, including 2017 world silver medalist Ellie Black of Canada and 2018 world silver medalist Mai Murakami of Japan, both of whom have over six years of senior international elite experience behind them, compared to the U.S. gymnasts who just two years ago still had yet to qualify to elite.
It’s been a fast rise for both McCallum and Wong, and both had a lot of success last year, with McCallum earning both the Pac Rims and Pan Ams all-around titles while Wong won four medals, including bronze in the all-around, at Junior Pan Ams. But this will be the first time the two will step up as headliners on a major international stage, and as we’ve seen with some grand debuts in recent years, nerves can sometimes be hard to manage even for the most talented in the field.
Black, who kicked off her year with the all-around silver medal at Elite Canada last month, and Murakami, making her 2019 debut, have both previously made American Cup podiums, with Black taking the bronze in 2016 while Murakami won silver last year. I think both will make this competition an exciting one, with these two along with the U.S. girls all capable of earning the gold.
Another veteran to watch here is Kim Bui, the two-time Olympian from Germany who just turned 30 and is in the process of going for her third Games. Bui, a standout on bars who has made that final at Euros for the past three years in a row, was crucial to Germany’s historic team final finish in 2016 and also to the team making finals at worlds last year, and while beam can sometimes be a struggle for her, she’s strong enough overall to consistently put up great all-around performances.
This competition also marks the senior debuts for Célia Serber of France and Lee Yun-seo of South Korea. Serber was a top junior competitor for France and as the country’s junior all-around champion last year, she was expected to contend for the Youth Olympic Games, but an injury early in the summer has kept her out of competition for the past nine months, with the American Cup marking her return.
Lee, meanwhile, competed well at both the Youth Olympics, where she made the all-around and bars finals, and at last year’s Asian Junior Championships, where she won bronze in the all-around in addition to two event medals. Both she and Serber could potentially add great depth to their national programs now that they’re eligible for senior competition, and both will be major threats for their respective worlds teams this year.
Rounding out the women’s field are 2018 worlds alternate Sanna Veerman of the Netherlands and Lu Yufei of China, who became a senior in 2016 and was expected to challenge for the Olympic team, but an injury limited her that year, taking her out of contention. Both Veerman and Lu were top juniors who have yet to find their footing in senior competition, with the American Cup the first major international meet for both, but both have a great chance at adding depth to their national programs and hopefully will come out with big results here.
In the men’s competition, the top U.S. all-arounders Sam Mikulak and Yul Moldauer will headline the field, which also includes 2017 world all-around medalist Kenzo Shirai, with these three my favorites for the podium if they all hit, though I wouldn’t count out the super steady James Hall, who finished eighth at worlds last year and often flies under the radar behind some of the world’s biggest stars, but who is more than impressive in his own right and absolutely has a chance here to earn a high finish.
Petro Pakhniuk of Ukraine is often known as more of a specialist, but a hit all-around program from him is a great one, which he proved at last year’s American Cup, where he won the bronze for a great performance. Bart Deurloo of the Netherlands and Christian Baumann of Switzerland can also put together some solid all-around work when needed, and the young Ma Yue – a standout at the 2014 Youth Olympic Games, where he finished fifth all-around – will hope to make a big impression as a senior here. While known for his great work on rings, he hasn’t been quite as strong on his other events, which makes him irrelevant on a major international team for a country like China that has so much depth, but hopefully assignments like this one will put him on the right path to make him a future contender.
The competition begins at 11:30 am with the men competing on floor and pommels before the women join them in the third rotation on vault. The competition will be streamed live on the Olympic Channel, and will later air on NBC.
Article by Lauren Hopkins
Photo thanks to USA Gymnastics