A total of 42 seniors registered for today’s U.S. Classic, making it the most crowded senior field as far back as I can remember. Maybe ever?
With the COVID-19 pandemic pushing the Olympic Games back a year, we have a couple dozen of the top U.S. seniors who have stuck around all quad waiting for their shot to make the team, combined with many younger seniors who may not be threats this time around, but are here for the experience as they take us into the next quad.
Since the U.S. Classic is at its core a qualifier for national championships, and since many of the top gymnasts tend to use it a warm-up in some way – either because they’re not yet at 100% or not ready to do all four events at a high level – I tend not to put too much stock into what it means for the Olympic Games, this year or any year. For me, it’s always been more of a way to get a sense of where things stand at the moment and what still needs to happen over the next month in the lead up to the Olympic Trials, so that’s what I’m going to talk about in my preview of today’s events, with everyone broken into categories based on what I’ve seen at training and elsewhere this season.
Obviously, Simone Biles. If you’ve been completely ignoring the internet over the past 24 hours, she nearly stuck a Yurchenko double pike in podium training yesterday, and then overrotated the next one, telling the press that while she was nervous at first to put it on a competition surface, as soon as she did it, she felt great.
She also looks fantastic generally, with her toe full on bars the only skill giving her any problems all morning. Not bad for a gymnast who hasn’t competed since world championships in 2019, but what else would we expect? She is the goat, a living legend, a virtually unbeatable genius at gymnastics who has existed in her own playing field for the better part of the eight years she’s been a senior. She doesn’t need to do the all-around here, she doesn’t need to do the most difficult vault ever competed by a woman, but she can, and she will.
I only have three other athletes in my current “frontrunners” group right now, mostly because it’s still early and most haven’t been giving it their all at this point, for various reasons. Jade Carey – who has already mathematically locked down an Olympics berth via the apparatus world cups – is one of them. This is partly because she’s locked in regardless of whether she scores well enough to put herself in contention for the team, but also because she looks awesome. She’s only competing bars and beam here, but she’s made tremendous improvements on both, and is hoping to earn good enough scores here to build her up as an all-arounder. With what she’s capable of on her best events, her progress on bars and beam could make her one of the country’s top overall gymnasts, in which case she’s thinking of potentially dropping her individual berth to take a spot on the U.S. team.
The other two who I think have looked ready are Jordan Chiles, who won the WOGA Classic and then the Winter Cup earlier this season, and Sunisa Lee, who is still battling back from a foot injury and won’t be at a hundred percent on vault or floor, but who has consistently proven to be one of the country’s best on both bars and beam.
Both are listed to compete all four events on the start list, and I think Chiles – who was working an Amanar in podium training – is a major podium threat both at this competition and in future meets this summer. More than just being a top vault talent, Chiles has grown in her technical skill and in her consistency on events that were once challenging to her. She’s become a pretty balanced and well-rounded gymnast, and will be one of the top athletes fighting for silver behind Biles if she can keep her streak going.
Though Lee has had to downgrade her hard surface skills, I see her as a near-lock for the Olympics, and as someone who could still make an all-around podium here despite her downgrades, because she is just that good on bars and beam. On bars, she’s quick enough to correct potential mistakes with one of her endless “back-up” routines, so it’s rare to see her truly falter there, and on beam she matches difficulty with grace and confidence.
The Question Marks
I’ve moved a lot of gymnasts who were once in my “frontrunners” group down a notch for the time being, simply because injuries, COVID, and life got in the way. Some of the more successful gymnasts of this quad – Morgan Hurd, Grace McCallum, Riley McCusker, Kara Eaker, and Leanne Wong most notably – have found it difficult to hold on a year, with Hurd and McCallum both recently coming back from surgeries, while McCusker switched gyms after suffering endless abuse (and a case of rhabdo) at MG Elite, and both Eaker and Wong have found it difficult to maintain their difficulty at a high level of execution over time.
I’m keeping expectations low for Hurd and McCallum here. Both actually looked great with what they did in podium training, but they just weren’t doing everything they’re capable of, which is obviously going to limit them. Hurd trained bars, but won’t compete them, focusing on beam along with downgraded routines on vault and floor, while McCallum – who broke her hand in January and required 11 weeks of recovery – will do all four, but won’t be fully back just yet.
McCusker, meanwhile, will compete all but floor here. It seems like it’s been the most difficult for her to get back after her gym change, and though she did a dance-through of her Hamilton routine and warmed up a couple of tumbling runs (including a full-twisting double layout, which didn’t look quite there just yet), it looks like she’s waiting until nationals before giving that routine a go.
I didn’t see much of McCusker’s bars, but she was mostly strong on beam, just taking a couple of attempts to stand up her double tuck dismount. Vault is where the bulk of her improvement has come after beginning her training with Brian Carey, with her Yurchenko doubles no longer terrifying. Her block has gotten much better, and while she’s not the most powerful vaulter, she’s completing the twists and standing them up without issue.
Both Eaker and Wong struggled a great deal with their vaults in podium training, with Eaker both tucking and sitting her Yurchenko 1½ while Wong crashed multiple attempts at her Yurchenko double. They were hit or miss on other events, but I think what’s been historically notable about both gymnasts is that they tend to compete much better than they train. I don’t expect either to be big guns here, but I also wouldn’t be surprised if one of them made it happen. Wong was second at the American Classic – where she debuted a Ray dismount on bars – with mistakes on beam and floor, and she’s looking at a 56+ for a hit day, while Eaker’s beam is always scored favorably at home, and her score there has in the past been enough to carry her as an all-arounder.
We also have the young senior group, with first-year seniors Skye Blakely and Konnor McClain both made suddenly eligible for Tokyo when the Games got pushed back to 2021, while Kayla DiCello – a relatively untested gymnast who made her senior debut just a week before the world went into COVID lockdown last March – will also be hoping to find herself included among those at the top.
All three gymnasts have done incredible things in the sport already, and are wildly talented all-arounders, but I don’t consider any of them really in the running for Tokyo, with my hopes for all three set on this year’s world championships. Blakely, who won the American Classic, and McClain, who has slowly been building her way up to an all-around performance this year and won’t do floor here, both excel on beam, but still have a lot to prove elsewhere, and I don’t think there’s enough time to do it.
DiCello, meanwhile, could be a 56+ all-arounder on a hit day, and she’s super clean, confident, and capable, but I think in some ways her skills have still looked a bit ‘junior’ in comparison to the stronger seniors. I won’t count her out in terms of becoming a frontrunner, but we definitely need to see more of her before we can definitively put her in that box.
The outliers for me here are Shilese Jones, Emily Lee, and 2019 worlds alternate MyKayla Skinner. Jones and Lee are capable of brilliance, but are often overlooked despite how good they are, while Skinner – who mounted an incredible comeback two years ago after making the decision to return to the sport – has been dealing with Achilles injuries on top of a case of COVID that left her with pneumonia, keeping her out of training for the longest amount of time she’s been away from the sport in her entire life.
I think Jones is the biggest dark horse of the competition for me, but while vault and bars are standout routines for her, her all-around scores tend to be held back by her beam and floor, very much like an Elizabeth Price circa 2012. Lee has incredible talent on beam, vaults a Yurchenko double, and has a few big skills on bars and floor, but her execution and consistency can sometimes be limiting.
As for Skinner, she looked to be back at full strength on vault with her Cheng and her Yurchenko double, so for her it’ll be all about hitting these, and then keeping the rest of her routines clean and solid enough to stay in the mix. If anyone can come back from a setback like COVID, it’s Skinner, but even she has never been dealt quite a blow this big before, so of course there could be some nerves in the mix, on top of her weakened endurance levels.
I don’t really see anyone else here as a major threat, though there are still lots of exciting names in this group. Of course, most exciting is the return of 32-year-old Chellsie Memmel, competing for the first time since the U.S. Classic in 2012. She’s only doing vault and beam here, and looked a bit nervous on both, but she mentioned on the press call that she could potentially petition to nationals based on how her bars and floor look, so regardless of how she looks here, I don’t think it’ll be the last we see of her.
There’s also comeback kid Laurie Hernandez, who returned to the sport at the Winter Cup, but will be back in the all-around here for the first time since the 2016 Olympic Trials. She looked good on both vault, where she’s doing a Yurchenko full, and bars, where she had a few difficult combos, and then her beam has tons of potential as well. Floor is where she has been shakiest in terms of her difficulty and overall ability, but I’m personally just excited to see her back and competing for herself.
I’m also anticipating great competitions from the WCC gymnasts, with Amari Drayton, Karis German, Zoe Miller, and most recent addition Sydney Barros all looking super strong in podium training. The first three especially have all brought in big results this season, with both German and Drayton top-scoring all-arounders, while Miller is all elegance, shining especially on bars. Barros still has a few bad habits from Texas Dreams that need to be corrected, but she is always entertaining on floor and makes a great addition to this squad.
Emma Malabuyo is a question mark, but she’s only doing bars and beam here, as is Aleah Finnegan, who actually looked more prepared than her teammates Eaker and Wong in podium training (and she’s doing the piked Deltchev!), though she doesn’t generally score quite as high. Jamison Sears and her teammate Ava Siegfeldt both showed a lot of promise in training, as did Elle Mueler, while Mya Witte is one to watch on beam, and Addison Fatta is a favorite of mine among those who don’t score super high, but still know how to do some pretty excellent gymnastics.
Others on the roster include Sophia Butler, Ciena Alipio, Skylar Draser, eMjae Frazier, Hailey Klein, Alonna Kratzer, Temple Landry, Lauren Little, Kaylen Morgan, Anya Pilgrim, Katelyn Rosen, and Lexi Zeiss.
Article by Lauren Hopkins