Junior world championships bronze medalists Skye Blakely, Konnor McClain, Sydney Barros, and Kayla DiCello
The last time the senior women from the U.S. program missed out on a team gold medal at a major competition – like world championships or the Olympic Games – was in 2010. The Russians were hot that year and gold was a long shot for the U.S. Even with multiple falls and mistakes, the Russians, led by the legendary Aliya Mustafina in her senior worlds debut, proved to be unstoppable.
When I was previewing this year’s junior world championships, I felt the same way about these young Russians as I felt about the senior worlds team nine years ago. With this immense level of talent, I thought it would be almost impossible for them to lose, and I considered the gold theirs barring any major meltdowns or catastrophes.
In the end, the Russians performed brilliantly, even better than I had expected. Viktoriia Listunova, Vladislava Urazova, and Elena Gerasimova made for an absolute total package team, with a combination of solid difficulty across both acro and dance skills, textbook execution, and gorgeous artistry and style that no other country had a prayer of matching.
On paper, this team was supposed to win, and in reality, they did everything they needed to completely blow away the rest of the competition, with each gymnast taking an event title – Urazova on bars, Gerasimova on beam, and Listunova on floor – in addition to Listunova and Urazova going one-two on the all-around podium, coming away from the first-ever junior world championships as the most decorated women’s program in the world.
Personally, as a fan of the sport beyond reporting on it, I found the U.S. a bit lacking in terms of dance skills as well as artistry and style, whereas the Russians were stronger than many seniors in this sphere. With everyone at a similar difficulty level, it was nice to see that little “something extra” rewarded, which is not something we can always see happen at the senior level, where difficulty – often built up from huge vaults and power tumbling – almost always wins out.
But instead of seeing these clear reasons why the Russians had the edge here, many fans who have been watching women’s gymnastics over the past decade – lots of whom started watching during the U.S. glory days and know no other reality – were flabbergasted to see the U.S. juniors miss out on gold in Györ. Despite the Russians coming in as practically unbeatable, and despite the U.S. team not being quite up to par, a common reaction to the results was disappointment in the U.S. not living up to their hype.
It’s not about “what went wrong” for the U.S., however. In reality, not much went wrong for the team in Györ, and despite a missed beam routine from Skye Blakely, the team counted no falls or major mistakes in its final team score. A young and incredibly inexperienced group, the U.S. performed cleanly and confidently, and a bronze for this team was an excellent result up against the stellar Russians as well as a beautiful Chinese team, which had huge scores from the breathtaking all-around medalist Ou Yushan to help boost her country a tenth ahead of the United States.
If the U.S. had a chance at all to take the gold here, the advantage would have come from the girls’ ability to handle their difficult skills with a level of consistency and tidiness that initially brought them to prominence back in 2011. That’s what they’re known for, while the Russians have historically been exciting but inconsistent, holding them back from the big scores we might expect from them and causing them to miss out on many medal opportunities over the years. But then in Györ, the Russians had the big routines and the consistency to get through them, leaving the U.S. unable to capitalize on Russia’s mistakes, which practically didn’t exist.
Coming into junior worlds, the U.S. also didn’t really focus on any sort of strategy the way the national team coordinator would normally do when looking to choose a major international team, and while there was some backlash for this method of team selection and meant a lower team score than the U.S. could have been capable of posting, I think it was the right decision for this level of competitors.
At the trial event at camp, the rule was that the top three all-arounders would be the three to compete in Györ. End of story. While the meet or selection camp closest to the main event usually counts the most when choosing a senior team, the selection committee always looks at competitive history over time and uses more of a strategy beyond “top X all-arounders” because the only way to come up with a team with the highest possible scoring potential is to treat selection like a puzzle. A seventh-place all-arounder with the country’s top scores on bars and beam might make more sense than a fourth-place all-arounder with no standout events, for example, and it’s this careful strategy on most senior teams that helps them regularly reach record-breaking scores in team finals.
“Place top three on this one day of competition” isn’t a strategy, but rather a gamble. Chances are, you’re still going to get three really strong gymnasts in the top three, but if a top gymnast makes a mistake or has a rough day, as Konnor McClain had at the selection camp, or if a bars and beam standout can’t outscore top all-arounders without a Yurchenko double on vault, as is the case with Ciena Alipio, it means there’s no real thought going into who best fits the puzzle, creating a team that’s still pretty solid, but which isn’t taking full advantage of all potential top scores.
While I love thinking about team strategies, especially for programs with depth like that in the U.S., and while I can come up with several strategies that could’ve led to higher scores than what the U.S. team ultimately scored in Györ, I kind of like that Tom Forster made the selection process for this junior competition super transparent and incredibly fair.
In the grand scheme of things, this is a junior meet that doesn’t really mean anything or have any bearing on the future of either the U.S. program or any of the athletes who competed. Don’t get me wrong, it’s awesome to finally see juniors get to compete on the world stage, and it’s a huge deal in the sense of giving young gymnasts major international experience that can help them in the long run. Earning a spot on this team was a fantastic honor, but ultimately this was a junior meet with no lasting implications, so why go crazy putting kids under the immense pressure that comes with testing them at multiple meets over an extended period of time? Especially at a time in our sport where we’ve spent the last several years learning exactly how the physical, mental, and emotional health of gymnasts was ignored as long as the team was coming out on top. To see something valued here beyond “winning gold” is a major step for the program, and while I don’t think it’s a process they’ll repeat for more significant senior competitions down the line, it’s the perfect way to select teams for junior and lower-level senior meets.
That said, even if the selection committee went by the numbers and looked at overall competitive history to choose the absolute strongest team, I still think the Russians would’ve had the advantage in a three-up, two-count format. The three who competed for Russia are the most talented group of juniors in the world right now, and they’re more well-rounded than any other group. With someone like McClain or Alipio on the team, the U.S. may have had a better shot of earning more individual medals, and they also likely would’ve come in ahead of China with hit routines, but the gold truly was Russia’s to lose when all is said and done.
It’s not a bad thing for the U.S. to face some healthy competition. If anything, strong competition only serves to make the weaker teams even stronger, and with the kind of depth the U.S. has in its junior program, they’re still looking to add a tremendous amount of talent into the senior pool in the coming years. I can think of about eight juniors who could’ve competed at this year’s junior worlds and come away with roughly the same results, whereas for Russia, the three superstars who competed in Györ are pretty much it for the program, and if the team had to replace even one of its members, it would’ve been a challenge to maintain the top team spot.
You should never let the results of one meet, especially a junior meet, act as a predictor for the future health of the entire program. Yes, the Russians here were fantastic, but the U.S. will maintain dominance over Russia at the senior level for the foreseeable future because of this incredible level of depth that goes beyond what any other program in the world could even dream of right now.
While Russia has three juniors who can easily score a 55+ in international competition, making them unbeatable at the junior level at this very moment in time, beyond that they have only a few other juniors who can score above a 50 internationally. The U.S., meanwhile, has one or two who could get a 55 right now, and then they have another five or so not so far below that benchmark on top of another 10 or so girls who can get a realistic 52 or better on a good day, and this is how it’s always been for the U.S. juniors in the last decade. Compare that to the Russian program, where last year, the junior team lost to Italy at European Championships, and next year, with Urazova and Gerasimova moving into the senior ranks, the juniors could once again be in a bind. The U.S., however, will pretty much always consistently have a dozen girls at a decent enough level to contend for a major podium internationally, and in the long run, that depth will win out over a program with a few gymnasts who happen to be standouts at the moment.
It’s funny, because last quad, everyone freaked out about how terrible it was that girls like Lexie Priessman, Katelyn Ohashi, and Bailie Key had insane junior skills by age 12 and then each made it only months into their senior careers. Now girls who are 13 or 14 are keeping their difficulty slow and steady with the hopes of transitioning into healthy senior elites, and people are freaking out about them being unable to keep up with Russia, leading to the end of U.S. domination in the sport.
Almost every single top U.S. gymnast in the past decade has peaked at 16 or older, and now, thanks to the Hopes program becoming more of a thing, more kids are waiting until they’re 13 or 14 to try elite for the first time instead of trying to qualify at 11 or 12, and I think many U.S. coaches are finally recognizing that the key to success is longevity and not forcing 12-year-olds to compete double doubles and Amanars and 7.0-difficulty beam routines for four years.
When you see gymnasts like Priessman, Ohashi, and Key burning out so early while multi-quad senior elites like Simone Biles, Aly Raisman, and Gabby Douglas were practically adults by the time they began to reach their peak, it’s pretty clear that pushing too much difficulty too young is wrong, and while most of the current top U.S. juniors lack exciting skills and don’t come up to par against the terrific Russian program, I’m thrilled that they’re training now more for longevity and healthy senior careers rather than giving it their all at 14 just to retire a year or two later.
As tough competitors, I know the U.S. team was probably a bit bummed to walk away from Györ with “only” the team bronze and just one individual medal. However, I also know they seemed to fully enjoy themselves at this competition, and they should be proud of themselves for giving it their all and maintaining their composure and sportsmanship even when facing disappointment.
The U.S. ladies came into this competition with almost no experience (aside from Kayla DiCello getting a few assignments last year, Skye Blakely‘s only international meet was Gymnix this year, while this was Sydney Barros‘ international debut for Team USA), and they competed very well in a tough field, and they should be incredibly proud of what they accomplished. It’s been a very long time since the U.S. has had competitors at their level, and it has nothing to do with the U.S. declining, but rather countries like Russia and China stepping it up, which is a good thing.
This wasn’t a U.S. blowout meet like so many senior competitions have been since 2011, and yet there’s absolutely nothing to take away from junior world championships signifying that the U.S. is anything less than dominant.
Hopefully the Russian and Chinese talent that bested the U.S. team here will translate to greater depth in these programs so we can see these countries continue to challenge the U.S., making for some truly thrilling future competitions, but for the foreseeable future, the U.S. will continue to reign at the senior level, and that’s thanks to the consistent and clean skills, smart pacing, and unending pool of talent that made them dominant in the first place.
Article by Lauren Hopkins