Nastia Liukin and the Classic of Secrets

I have been a bit remiss in providing updates since the end of the NCAA season because not much has been happening besides rumors and a trickle of partial routine videos from USA Gymnastics. I’ve also been spending a fiar bit of time working on my word and language blog, The Dictionary Eyes. So feel free to check that out and tell your friends if you’re the type of person who has friends.

On to gymnastics, I was waiting to talk about UGA hiring Danna Durante until we got some kind of official confirmation, but they are taking forever with that. I would say I have a lot of thoughts, but I don’t. This is a very middle-of-the-road, shrug-of-the-shoulders choice. I have strong opinions about everything, and yet I have almost no opinion at all about this, which is telling. Georgia would have loved to get someone with a strong pedigree or big name, but why would a big name take this job? That was one of my main criticisms of the Jay Clark firing. Who else is going to be better?

We’ll have plenty of time to dissect Durante’s every word during the NCAA preseason, but for now let’s turn our attention to the elites and the upcoming Secret Classic.

Once Visa Championships and Olympic Trials start, we will be spending most of our time talking about potential teams and the likes of Jordyn Wieber, Gabby Douglas, and Aly Raisman. The Classic this year isn’t really about them. All the major Olympic contenders will be competing at least one event, but their Classic results will be mostly irrelevant. We’ve seen enough from them already this year to know that they are on track. A fall from one of them would probably send the internet into a tizzy, but it would do little to derail anyone’s momentum. No, this year’s Classic is all about veterans and comebacks.

To be more specific, it’s all about Nastia Liukin. She’ll be competing balance beam at this event with a doubtful question mark next to bars. A bars routine needs to come along very soon for this comeback to be relevant at all, but she could save that for Visa Championships and be fine. Technically, I believe she would need a two-event qualifying score at Classic to make Championships, but come on. All qualification rules magically disappear when names are involved. It should be of concern to the younger gymnasts that even the very concept of Nastia competing is the most interesting thing to happen in US gymnastics this year. Reputation, personality, and presence go a long way.

While a bar routine with something around a 7.0 D-Score would be her golden ticket to London, let’s not discount beam. She won’t be able to muster the huge difficulty in the 6.5-6.7 range that we’ll see from some others in London because she doesn’t have any E+ acro skills, but she will be capable of a  very clean routine with low-6s difficulty, which would be useful in Team Finals. Kyla Ross needs to watch out for Nastia because if Nastia proves more useful on bars and beam, we could be looking at a situation where Ross is not top three on any event come Trials (especially because I’m not sold on the landing of that Amanar), and that’s a very dangerous position for a five-member team. Nastia could shake up a lot of people’s chances if she proves usable on beam at Classic.

Speaking of bars workers, let’s take a moment to talk about Anna Li. As an NCAA fan, I will always root for Anna, but her potential route to the Olympic team will be more difficult than Nastia’s (if Nastia is healthy and fit, of course) because she does not have another usable event and does not have the experience or reputation. Even at Classic, it is crucial that Anna hit her bars routine. She cannot afford a fall because everyone doubts her consistency and she is not a Martha favorite. It’s very difficult to become a Martha favorite unless Martha feels like she raised you in a Miss Havisham/Estella kind of way. In this parallel, the ranch is Satis House, Pip is calories, and Bela is that rotten wedding cake on the table.

In the video above, Anna is performing an alleged hop 1.5. It’s the kind of difficulty she needs in order to have a competitive routine, but the judges will be free to give her total Chinese team E-scores because of the finishing position of some of those pirouettes. She must prove the ability to score in the mid-15s to put her name in as a bars specialist. 

Let’s also consider Rebecca Bross. She will be training only bars and beam this year, which puts her in direct competition for that specialist spot with all the other people with wicker legs who’ve dropped vault and floor. It appears as though she is going for a 6.4 D-score on bars, which may not be enough to stand out. Wieber will be going for a similar routine, and she’s a lock, so that hurts Bross’s argument. Her beam difficulty is a strong 6.5, but if she can’t land that nail-biter of a double arabian dismount, none of it matters. She absolutely must prove consistency at Classic and will probably need to hope for some comebacks not to pan out. She certainly can make the team, but she is in a precarious position where a number of people can pass her by.

Bridget Sloan will also be returning from the dead at this event. We’ve seen her on and off over the past few years, but she hasn’t been healthy since 2009, which gives us nearly as many question marks about her as we have about Nastia. It will be in Bridget’s best interest to focus on being a bars and floor specialist for this team with a prelims-usable vault if necessary. She’s always had glorious potential on bars with a few standout skills (like her excellent inbar stalder from 2008), but she has yet to get out of that low 6 D-score purgatory. Her bizarre low bar composition in 2010-2011 didn’t do much to help her seem stable on the event, so she needs total reconstruction to be useful there. I’d very much like to see her make a run, but I wonder whether her heart is really in it this time.

Don’t forget about Chellsie Memmel. My instinct is that her revival this year will be just one comeback too many, like the plot of Multiplicity, where if you clone something too many times it stops resembling the original. She may not have enough this year to be Original Recipe Chellsie. One of the reasons is that, for the first time in what feels like a decade, she will actually need to upgrade bars to be competitive. Getting her usual skills back will not give her a competitive D-score. In fact, I don’t see her contending for the team without upgrades on all of her potential events, so keep an eye on her composition during Classic. If she’s too far behind the potential team members, she won’t have time to get there before the team is selected.  

A few other notes:
-In the non-veteran category, pay attention to Sarah Finnegan. With some of the top competitors surely not competing all the events, she could sneak in with a very nice AA placement. Her standout event is beam, which is a risky specialty. I don’t see her making the team, but an alternate position is possible.
-Also keep an eye on another NCAA favorite, Casey Jo Magee. She’s not doing this out of any kind of realistic hope to make an Olympic team, but let’s all root for her to finally hit that delightful beam routine.
-Alicia Sacramone and Shawn Johnson are not competing here, news that is hardly news. Johnson appears like she will never be able to adequately recover from her injuries, and Chow has been muttering about her missing Championships, which is the reddest of flags. Sacramone needs every day she can get to try to get those routines back, so it’s no surprise she’s missing out. I’ll be impressed if she can get her old routines back by Championships/Trials, but old routines don’t help people make Olympic teams.