Now that we’ve dispensed with the teams, let’s take some time to enjoy the best individuals NCAA has to offer. The all-around competition doesn’t get as much attention at nationals because the AA title is decided on Friday when the main focus is team qualification, but it’s still always one of the most exciting parts of the event and worth at least several paragraphs of discussion.
I’ll keep things limited to the all-around because trying to preview or predict event finals is a fool’s errand. Semifinal days always has at least 65 upsets of event favorites who take a step on their dismounts and receive 9.900s when they needed 9.925s to make the top four from their session. I could wax on about Kytra Hunter and Lloimincia Hall on floor all I wanted, and then neither would make floor finals (see: last season). Especially after all the notoriety Hall’s routine has received since regionals, you know she’s not making floor finals. That’s the way the world works. And then everyone will be all deflated and complain-y, which is appropriate for Nationals Hangover Day. Really, the only thing I’m hoping on the individual events is that four people in each semifinal score a 9.925+ on vault so that we’re not stuck with 13 people all tied at 9.900 in fourth place and all qualifying to an endless slog of a vault final with 16 million Yfulls.
For the AA crown, we have a number of possible contenders who have led their teams in the all-around this season, but when we start to consider what it will take to win (and given the scoring this season, a 39.700 to win the title is a realistic possibility) that field narrows dramatically. Let’s break down who’s still in it.
Bridget Sloan – Florida
The defending champion and #1 all-arounder in the country must be considered the favorite to win the title once again. She is among the only gymnasts who has not only proven capable of getting a 9.950 on every event but who does it regularly, made more impressive by the fact that she doesn’t anchor any lineups. We expect 9.950s from her on all the events, and anything less than a 9.900 for any routine she performs is an off day. If she recovers from her mental safari on beam at regionals, she’ll be tough to beat.
Rheagan Courville – LSU
Courville is kind of the Prince Harry of the SEC all-around royal family. I don’t mean that she’s playing strip billiards in Las Vegas (but if she is, you know, have fun). I mean that she’s the second heir to the throne, the one who would be queen if not for Bridget Sloan. She has the skill set to get the same scores as Sloan, and should be expected to get 9.950s on vault and floor, but bars occasionally drops down to 9.850, so watch that. Also, watch the arabian since one wobble on a skill like that will be enough to take anyone out of it.
Katherine Grable – Arkansas
Our Lady of Perpetual Grable is among the fan favorites for the AA title, with her originality on both vault (handspring pike half) and floor (double arabian half out), tight form, sparky gymnastics, and general excellence. She’s another who should be scoring a 9.950 on vault and floor, but she may fall an inch back because of bars, which has some occasional handstanditis to bring it down into the 9.8s. The biggest challenge for Grable, however, will be competing without her team. It’s a completely different environment that she has never experienced as an NCAA gymnast, and that’s just enough of an obstacle to consider her not quite as likely to win as her SEC comrades in spite of her equal talent level.
Emily Wong – Nebraska
Like Grable, Wong is a senior who gets some bonus consideration – at least in the eyes of us observers – because this will be her final competition, and what better way to cap of a glorious career than with an individual title. She’s also the deserving winner of the AAI award this year in a tough field. Wong doesn’t have the peak score in the 39.7s that the three ahead of her do, but she is in the advantageous position of anchoring three of the lineups (while Courville anchors one and Sloan anchors none). So if the scores are building, she can take advantage of that for most of her routines. I certainly believe that she can go straight 9.900s across the events, but the more 9.950s coming from the top contenders, the harder it will be for her to keep pace.
Sam Peszek – UCLA
First of all, UCLA should thank its lucky stars for Sam Peszek. It has been a rough season anyway that would have been a disaster without her. Replace Peszek’s scores from regionals with 9.850s, and UCLA is sitting at home right now. Peszek is very dangerous in this race because she is capable of those 9.950s on every event that Sloan can get, but her main concern will be sticking. She does that little fake bouncy stick that doesn’t count as a stick. It’s going to get deducted, which hurts her ability to score as high as she might otherwise, especially on vault. She’ll need to have a serious chat with her feet and ankles about their current mood if she’s to win the AA.
Joanna Sampson – Michigan
Sampson has been right near the top of the all-around standings all season, and if she pulls off the upset and wins the title, floor will be the reason. She’s the defending champion there and can match anyone’s score. The major test of how competitive she is will be beam. We know she can hit a perfectly good beam routine – and the team will need one of her good ones if they’re going to make Super Six – but often her hits are for 9.850. It will be tough for anyone to contend with a 9.850 on any event because there are several people in this race who will get none of those.
Kytra Hunter – Florida
The one person who perhaps could contend with a 9.850 is Hunter because we know she can realistically receive 10s on both vault and floor, which gives her more buffer than anyone else has. It will likely take at least one 10 for Hunter to win, though, because the bars and beam scores haven’t been as high this season. She hasn’t been in the 9.9s often enough on those two events, especially beam, to think she’ll challenge the very best of those events, so sticking that vault will be her chance to get in the race.
Alaina Johnson – Florida
Johnson may be on the outside edge of this all-around argument, but that 39.825 she got this season makes her at least a possibility. She’s another of those gymnasts, like Wong, who has a believable chance of getting 9.900s on four events but not necessarily 9.950s, so they lower the scores stay, the better for her. Actually winning an AA title is also a challenge for gymnasts who are the second- or third-best all-arounder on their team, as Johnson is, because if they are scoring well, their more heralded teammates are probably scoring a tad better. Bridget Sloan immediately follows Johnson on three events, so if Johnson is getting the kind of scores it takes to win, Sloan is probably getting even better ones.
Lindsay Mable – Minnesota
Mable is another of the sentimental favorites for the title because she has beautiful, exquisitely performed gymnastics and comes from one of the less famous teams. She is ranked 5th in the AA, tied with Sampson, which makes her a contender, but she has a double burden in this competition. She’s competing without her team and going up in the first semifinal, which makes winning a highly improbably challenge. It would be fun though, wouldn’t it?
Dark Horse Nation
Jessie Jordan of LSU is another highly ranked contender, but she may be afflicted with the same syndrome as Alaina Johnson, having to compete before Courville in most rotations. Her early lineup placement – in the first half on three of four events – will also hurt her AA chances. We have a bunch of other people who are very, very capable of getting a 39.500, which has seen them rank well in individual meets this season, but who don’t have the scoring potential to get the stratospheric total that the AA title requires. In that group, I’ll include Alabama’s top AAers – Kim Jacob and Sarah DeMeo – and Tory Wilson of Utah. Nice scores, but not winning scores.
Jessie DeZiel is another I would have expected to be a major player in this conversation, but interestingly enough she hasn’t had very many competitive scores on floor this year, which is surprising. This season, she has been more likely to hang around the 9.875s than the 9.950s. Plus, consider Alaina Johnson Syndrome for her as well. The other one I have my eye on is Kristina Vaculik, but it would be a crazy upset. I’m just throwing it out there.