Leanne Wong had an incredible start to her senior career this weekend in Greensboro, North Carolina, where she won the United States’ 17th-straight American Cup title just three tenths ahead of teammate Grace McCallum, who finished second.
The 15-year-old who trains at GAGE was excellent from start to finish in her performance on Saturday, hitting big skills – including major upgrades on floor, like a Dos Santos into a stag jump and a back layout with three and a half twists, rarely seen in women’s gymnastics – to get the win with a 56.765.
Though she seemed a bit nervous before each event and apparently struggled with some skills in both the pre-meet warmup and in the touch warmups, she had absolutely no problem competing, putting up the top scores on vault and beam and the second-best floor score thanks to her strong difficulty, excellent technique, solid landings, and an elegance that attracted many new fans from across the globe.
McCallum, a gold medalist with her team at the 2018 world championships, was at Wong’s level on pretty much every event, with the two coming within about a tenth of each other across the board, though some minor form issues and bobbles on a couple of her events ended up being what ranked her behind her teammate. At 16, McCallum competed like a veteran here, and it was great to see her step out on the major international stage at an individual level after such a great debut season last year.
I think it’s also important to note that just two years ago, both Wong and McCallum were still level 10 gymnasts getting ready to qualify elite, and seeing them jump from J.O. competition to headlining a major international meet televised around the world in that short amount of time was inspiring. Both came into this competition with tons of pressure on their shoulders, especially knowing they’d be facing off against two of the strongest and most-experienced international gymnasts in the world. Both handled themselves with confidence and poise, and proved how incredibly well they can handle anything thrown at them.
International stars Ellie Black of Canada and Mai Murakami of Japan both had a shot at coming in for the win here, but while neither ended up pulling it off – Black due to a minor knee injury, Murakami due to a fall on beam – they both looked mostly excellent here given how early it is in the season, and I was thrilled to see them tie for bronze.
Black, who said her knee randomly started hurting her in training last week, modified a few of her routines to keep herself from further injury, so her difficulty was a bit lower than she would have liked, but she still performed admirably. The 23-year-old was solidly on pace with the Americans for the first three events, putting up the second-best score on bars and the third-best on vault and beam, hitting terrific sets on all three, but while she put up a great finish on floor, her difficulty there was a bit too low for her to challenge (though her 55.732 all-around score is her best international score since qualifications at 2017 world championships!).
22-year-old Murakami was also pretty close to her competitors after the first two events, showing a really powerful Yurchenko double on vault and one of her cleanest bars sets, and she had a major chance to make up for the slight difference on beam and floor. Unfortunately, a fall on her brand-new wolf turn took her out of the running for gold, and even though she came back with a fantastic performance on floor, she ended up a point back from the title, though she was able to match Black’s all-around score to tie for third place.
One of the biggest surprises here was Kim Bui. We always expect the 30-year-old veteran to perform well, especially on bars (where she had the highest score of a 14.400), but I didn’t expect her to look pretty close to her best on all four events, so seeing her finish with a 54.199 – her top all-around score this quad! – was fantastic, and it was so well-deserved. It was an excellent day for Bui, and I love seeing her not only “doing well for her age,” but instead holding her own in a deep field to remain a legitimate contender for a third Olympic Games.
Lu Yufei of China had a pretty good day here in her long-awaited international debut. Lu, 18, was a little low in her difficulty compared to the top gymnasts in this field, and though she had some mistakes – going out-of-bounds on vault, some form breaks on bars, some bobbles on beam – all were relatively minor, and she finished with a solid 51.699 in the all-around.
Unfortunately, this ended up being a bit of a rough day for the Netherlands’ Sanna Veerman, who got started with a beautiful Yurchenko 1½ on vault. The 17-year-old who was an alternate at worlds last year took an intermediate swing on bars (though the rest of her routine was excellent), grabbed the beam on her big switch half, and then at the end of a strong floor routine, she came up short on her double full, putting her hands down. Even with the errors, Veerman ended up with a 50.765, showing how much potential she has and how much strength she can add to the Dutch team, so hopefully she can work on her consistency to make herself a threat in the coming years.
We also saw some international debuts here from Célia Serber of France and Lee Yun-seo of South Korea, both still just 15-year-olds, but both were a little weak in their overall performances, earning scores of 49.78 and 47.866 to finish eighth and ninth, respectively.
Serber is just coming back from injury, and while she has some great skills, I don’t think she was quite ready for a meet of this size. The promise is there, but a bit more work is needed for her to become competitive at this level. Lee, meanwhile, had an incredible bars set coming in at a 6.0 difficulty score, showing a Komova II to Pak, van Leeuwen, inbar half to piked Jaeger, and stalder full to full-in. While her form could use some tightening up, she ended up posting a solid 13.6 here and should make all of her country’s teams in the future for this routine alone, though she’s a bit weak on vault and floor, and also struggled with falls on beam at this competition, though she has potential to be lovely there with a hit set.
In the men’s competition, young U.S. standout Yul Moldauer got the win – his third in a row! – at the eleventh hour, defeating teammate Sam Mikulak by just one one-thousandth of a point.
Technically, a win by this margin comes down to a rounding issue, but even if the math wasn’t ridiculous and the two had tied, 22-year-old Moldauer would’ve won the tie-breaker, so it’s basically a non-issue. Also, though Moldauer’s routines aren’t quite as difficult as Mikulak’s, he had the better day, showing brilliant work, gorgeous form, tons of stuck landings, and a huge triple double layout dismount on high bar to post an 85.932.
Mikulak, the veteran of the U.S. team at 26, got started with one of his best floor routines ever, and went on to also nail pommels and rings, though by the time he got to vault he began to let the nerves show a bit. His vault landing was a bit weak considering what he’s capable of, on parallel bars, he nearly sat a release on the bars to get a significant deduction, and on high bar, after catching an awesome series of releases, he arched over on a handstand that caused him to once again score far lower than what he was capable of.
Despite still posting the top high bar score of the competition with a 14.166, Mikulak – who had been leading all meet long – ended up second with a 85.931, though his attitude remained great and his support for Moldauer was admirable, and I love seeing these two continue to push each other to make U.S. men’s gymnastics great again.
The young Ma Yue of China had one of his best all-around meets ever here to finish third with an 84.465, a score that beats all of his 2018 scores by around five points! Generally known for his strong work on rings, Ma has worked hard putting together a better all-around program, and he hit all six events here incredibly well, finishing every routine with the best celebrations of the meet.
Last year’s bronze medalist Petro Pakhniuk of Ukraine had a mostly good day here to place fourth with an 82.864, with just a few minor mistakes throughout, while the rest of the field all ended up having falls. James Hall of Great Britain was fifth with an 82.698, looking strong on pommels and p-bars, but unfortunately struggling a bit throughout his floor routine before falling on high bar, Christian Baumann of Switzerland was sixth with an 81.631, putting his hands down on his triple full on floor but showing beautiful work on p-bars, and Bart Deurloo of the Netherlands was seventh with a 76.932 after falls or mistakes on most events, though his high bar set was great.
The men’s field here was limited to seven after scratches from Marcel Nguyen of Germany and Kenzo Shirai of Japan, with Shirai going to podium training on Thursday, but withdrawing shortly before the competition due to a minor ankle injury.
Next up on the all-around world cup circuit is Stuttgart from March 16-17, where legends Simone Biles and Aliya Mustafina will headline the women’s field while Artur Dalaloyan leads the men’s. A full roster is available here, and you can find all results as well as the live blog from the American Cup here.
Article by Lauren Hopkins