The first-ever women’s competition at the Winter Cup concluded today with a decisive win for Jordan Chiles, who earned her best all-around score under the current code of points by more than a point, solidifying her as one of the top seniors in the United States right now.
Chiles, 19, showed an impressive mix of power, control, and fire in all of her routines, which are equal parts difficult and clean. Once known as more of a vault and floor kid (she took the titles on both this weekend), since switching gyms to World Champions Centre, Chiles has begun to show more balance across all four events, paying special attention to cleaning up her bars skills and getting consistent on beam while upping her difficulty on both.
As excellent as she was this weekend – sticking her Yurchenko double full on vault, doing fantastic work with no major mistakes on bars and beam, and hitting all of her difficult tumbling on floor with just hops and a stumble on her wolf turn – there’s still room to grow and improve. She has the potential for upgrades on both vault, where she’s previously competed an Amanar, and on floor, and she’s absolutely capable of going even higher on her execution with just slight fine-tuning on some of her skills.
With an all-around score of 57.050, Chiles joins an elite list of just nine currently active U.S. gymnasts who have broken a 57 in the all-around this quad. If she can keep up scores like these, it puts her in a pretty competitive spot going into the Olympic season. Since the team for Tokyo will be selected based on all-around scores over two days of competition at the Olympic Trials, all she’d need to do is just hit what she’s capable of hitting, and she’s right up there with those who have been considered serious contenders throughout this entire process.
Shilese Jones also had an excellent performance here, finishing her day with a 55.100 for the silver medal after truly shining with endless power on her Yurchenko double vault, and then doing gorgeous work on bars, getting a personal best 14.4 to win the bronze on this event with her Maloney to Tkachev and Downie to Pak easily the highlights for her.
Though Jones and Chiles actually had identical two-event scores taking only vault and bars into consideration, Jones wasn’t able to keep pace with Chiles due to lower-difficulty beam and floor routines, though she did great work on both here. On beam, she overcame an early wobble to hit a mostly solid and clean set with a double pike dismount, and she had a tremendously elegant floor routine, bringing back her full-in half-out double tuck – named for her in the J.O. code of points – for the first time in years, getting another bronze event medal.
Surprising for bronze was Emily Lee, who fought back from a fall on bars to put up a 53.400 total. Lee showed a solid Yurchenko double on vault, and then had huge skills on beam, where she does both a side aerial to two layout stepouts and a two-foot layout series as well as a double pike dismount, and on floor, where she opened with a double double and also had a 2½ to front full, which she landed completely out of bounds. Had she not incurred the three-tenth penalty for that fault, she actually would have won this event, but she still wound up with the silver, getting a score of 13.35.
Lilly Lippeatt, who competed in the junior session, came incredibly close to reaching the podium, but ultimately fell a tenth and a half short to place fourth with a 53.250. She had a pretty clean competition throughout, showing off solid work on vault and beam, while her most difficult skills happened on bars, where she impressed with a Weiler half to Ricna to Pak. On floor, Lippeatt opened with a piked full-in and then hit her awesome whip full to double tuck, and though she had a few deductions for a couple of short landings, she still scored well enough to share the bronze with Jones.
Rounding out the top eight were Amari Drayton in fifth with a 52.950, Ciena Alipio in sixth with a 52.650, Addison Fatta in seventh with a 52.600, and Zoe Miller in eighth with a 52.500. The Winter Cup was recently added as a qualifier to nationals, where the senior qualifying score is a 52.000, so all gymnasts in the top eight qualified.
Many of the top competitors here didn’t actually compete in the all-around, with Jade Carey and teammate Riley McCusker competing every event but floor, while Sunisa Lee competed bars and beam, Konnor McClain competed vault and beam, and Skye Blakely competed beam and floor.
Carey was solid as always on vault, competing a Cheng, which she hopped out-of-bounds to incur a three-tenth penalty, but her overall execution was pretty good for this point in the season. I honestly expected her to play it safe with a Yurchenko double here, so it was exciting to see her going for something bigger. But I was most impressed with how good she looked on bars, where she had a big Church and Maloney to Bhardwaj, and on beam, where she had a few small form deductions throughout, but not even one minor wobble to throw her off.
In an interview on Thursday night, Carey said that she was actually the one behind getting McCusker to train with her in Arizona. She said she knew McCusker was going through a tough time, and asked her if she wanted to move out to her gym for a bit. McCusker showed up “almost the next day” and never looked back.
While training, McCusker looked like she had grown leaps and bounds in her strength and confidence, and my favorite thing about seeing her in training and in competition over the weekend was finally seeing her look relaxed and happy to be doing gymnastics. Normally, I don’t judge a gymnast’s attitude on the floor – whether she looks stoic or bubbly or terrified or pissed off, each gymnast has the right to her own feelings and emotions when she competes, and there’s no one “correct” way to feel in a situation like this. But knowing now how utterly miserable she was in years past, knowing that it was a fear of her coach keeping her serious and scared, it just made me happy to know she no longer has to feel that way anymore.
I didn’t have super high expectations for McCusker here, and was essentially just hoping that she’d get through with routines she could be proud of. In the end, I think given all the time she’s had off, the emotional turmoil she’s been through, and then changing gyms just a year ago, she should be more than proud for the work she managed. She had a noticeably improved block on her Yurchenko double, her bars were just as good as ever, and though she had a fall onto the beam on her double wolf turn and then put her hand down on her double tuck dismount on beam, the rest was so gorgeous and technically solid, I don’t think the issues she had there are reflective of anything other than first-meet-back nerves.
Lee told us that she’d only do bars and beam here, as she’s still coming back from the ankle injury she suffered last summer, and she’s also dealing with a little bit of Achilles pain (though she’s training vault and floor on the tumble track and said we’ll see her there soon). Her bars were out of this world, easily getting the title ahead of McCusker with a 15.05, and with her “back-up routine” at that.
During podium training, Lee showed off a Nabieva to Bhardwaj to Maloney to Gienger, and while the Nabieva to Bhardwaj is incredibly impressive on its own, it was the Bhardwaj to Maloney that floored me. I truly didn’t think anyone would be able to do it, at least not in a competitive routine, yet Lee makes it look easy. This is the routine she wants to compete at the Olympic Games, but this weekend, she “played it safe” with her 6.5 set, which included a Nabieva to Bhardwaj, van Leeuwen, piked Jaeger to Pak to Maloney to Gienger, and a full-in with a hop. It was excellent, and I love that we’re seeing her grow so much in her confidence with this routine.
Lee also competed beam, getting a 14.25 for third place with a 6.0 start value despite only dismounting with a layout. The rest looked great, with just little adjustments and minor form deductions throughout.
In podium training, both McClain and Blakely – first-year seniors who suddenly became eligible for Tokyo when the Olympic Games were postponed – looked excellent, so I was surprised to see neither end up competing in the all-around. McClain stuck to vault, showing a beautiful Yurchenko double, and beam, earning a 14.0 set with the floatiest layout series ever and a big double pike, though she showed off a fantastic 2½ through to double pike on floor in training, so I can’t wait to see her return there.
Blakely, meanwhile, looked so clean and controlled on everything in podium training. She didn’t disappoint in the competition, winning beam with a 14.5 thanks to her combination of gorgeous leaps, big acro skills, and elegant, fluid movement throughout, and though she has a lower-difficulty floor set and wasn’t at a hundred percent there with a few iffy landings, her opening double layout looked great, and I’m confident that once we see her back with her Yurchenko double on vault on top of her crisp bars set, she’ll easily be in the mix with all of this quad’s top seniors.
Finally, Laurie Hernandez. I had pretty much no expectations for Hernandez here, not because I don’t trust her, but because I wanted her to pleasantly surprise me in her first competition back after nearly five years away. She later told us that while she was planning on doing a little more difficulty, her coach, Jenny Liang, told her to just have fun and “dance her butt off” to take the pressure off.
This meant a pretty simplified floor routine, where her most difficult pass – an arabian double front – had just a step forward, while the rest of her simplified passes – a double tuck, double pike, and layout – were clean, though caused her to lose out on a credit requirement with no full-twisting minimum pass, something she’d normally get on her full-in double tuck. Obviously there’s still a lot of work there to become competitive, but as a plus, she had fantastic leaps, she put on a great show with her Hamilton-themed performance, and she walked away thrilled with pulling off a hit, which I’d much rather see at this stage than her struggling through difficulty she isn’t physically or mentally ready for just yet.
That performance on floor gave her the momentum she needed to kill it on beam, where she was solid on absolutely everything, from her opening punch front pike, to her back handspring layout stepout series, into her front aerial to jump series, and then concluding with a double pike. At a 5.5 D-score, it’s obviously not everything she’s capable of, but she showed everything a good beam routine should have, and had such fire and attack to top it off, earning a 13.95 to finish fifth.
At this point, is it likely Hernandez will pull off an Olympic spot with just under four months to go before trials? It’s obviously not super likely unless she brings out all of her upgrades and proves that she can match the all-arounders who are getting 14s on multiple apparatuses. But beyond Tokyo, like McCusker, it’s just great to see her having fun and enjoying the sport again.
I think many people are forgetting that elite gymnastics doesn’t have to be “Olympics or bust.” It would be one thing if she wasn’t coming close to the bare minimum in terms of her skill level, in which case she wouldn’t be given the go-ahead to compete at elite-level meets. But Hernandez has the elite-level skills, and her two-event score proves it (it was just half a point back from the senior elite qualifying score of 26.500, which is something she could easily make up essentially just by adding a layout full in place of her layout on floor).
It’s clear she’s just focusing on competing what she feels like makes sense for her right now, and if that’s not full difficulty for the time being, that’s okay. Hernandez can be serious about the sport and her comeback, but still have fun with the process and take it easy when that’s what she needs. Personally, I’m happy she’s back, and I’m happy she’s doing gymnastics on her terms. Anything that happens beyond that will just be a bonus.
Article by Lauren Hopkins