Before They Were NCAA – The 2012 Elites

Now comes the point in the year when we must attempt to wrench ourselves out of an NCAA mindset and pay attention to the elite world again. We’re little more than a month away from Classic now, so the Mad Max remake that masquerades as the US Olympic selection process is soon to reach its familiarly feverish levels. “Do we actually need a bars specialist?” he asks, sharpening an abandoned femur into a spear.

As a bridge between the two worlds, I periodically like to take the results of past US elite competitions and examine how the gymnasts ranked at that point compared to how they would eventually fare in NCAA a few years later. Who rises? Who falls? Who is like the mousy girl in the high school movie who takes off her glasses and suddenly turns beautiful in the NCAA code? Who was using elite difficulty to mask deficiencies that are exposed in college? As we know, success in elite and success in NCAA do not have a 1:1 relationship.

Today, I have taken the various AA and event results from the 2012 Visa Championships (Visa Championships…feels so long ago. Like the John Hancock US Championships, which were basically contemporaneous with John Hancock) and bolded the gymnasts who competed in NCAA at some point after this competition (so I didn’t include Anna Li since she’s a category all her own). A number of items jump out.

1. Wieber – 69.650/61.250
2. Douglas – 60.650/61.050
3. Raisman – 69.200/69.750
4. Ross – 59.750/60.200
5. Price – 59.600/58.500
6. Finnegan – 59.150/58.450
7. Vega – 56.500/57.950
8. Baker – 58.050/56.400
9. Dowell – 55.7800/56.900
10. Sloan – 56.250/56.150
11. Milliet – 55.250/55.150
12. Brown – 54.200/55.500
13. McLaughlin – 55.400/53.150
14. Jetter – 53.550/54.850
15. Skinner – 55.550/51.600
16. Jay – 52.550/53.150
17. Wofford – 51.900/53.350

Fewer than half of the future NCAA gymnasts who competed AA at the 2012 championships continued to do AA in college (and only two or three of the eleven have been full-time AAers for multiple seasons), which helps illustrate the danger of assuming NCAA dominance for all elites. Those who continue at the same strength as all-arounders, your Sloans and Prices and Bakers, are the exception more than the rule. Instead, we have the usual random smattering of competition and success levels, ranging from barely-one-event status to best-in-the-country status. But what’s of most interest here is the reason they’re not competing AA in college.

We tend to assume that the biggest obstacle for elites transitioning to NCAA is health, that they all would be top-ranked gems if their bodies weren’t halfway to the glue factory by now after so many trips to Martha’s Texas Adventure. While that’s true in several cases, many are relatively healthy but simply not making all the lineups. Even someone who counts in the all-around category like Brianna Brown probably wouldn’t have done AA this year if Casanova had been available, and Brandie Jay spent three years not even getting close to Georgia’s beam lineup, not because of health but because of “Aaahh, beam!” In her 2015 season at Oklahoma, Dowell was in a similar position to Jay. Sometimes, in spite of an elite pedigree and strong rankings through the age of 18, gymnasts are just not top six on their NCAA teams, even on events that were elite strengths.

In breaking down some of the specific rankings, I’m not taking Sloan into account much because she wasn’t up to her full level during 2012, so this isn’t really reflective of her standing in the elite world the way 2008 and 2009 were. It’s not like Sloan was some middle-of-the-pack elite who suddenly bloomed in college.

Brandie Jay is one who leapfrogged many of her higher-ranked elite peers to become a bigger and more influential contributor in NCAA than she was in elite, finishing largely on par with the likes of Kennedy Baker, who was a higher scorer and more compelling contender during the end of the last quad. Jay is probably the best example here of someone whose dominant years were still ahead of her in 2012.

Finnegan is also an interesting case because if we were to judge her freshman year by the second-behind-Price standard that 2012 gave us, the 2016 season would be considered somewhat average and not the dominance and team-leading influence normally expected of an Olympic alternate. Yet, having gone through years of “does she do gymnastics?” in between, her three events of 9.850-9.900 and ability to leg-event at all this season are a somewhat unexpected and welcome revelation. A lot happens between elite and NCAA, and we don’t often maintain expectations for NCAA based on elite results, especially for certain types of gymnasts. I don’t think many would say Abby Milliet’s NCAA career has been disappointing so far, but she’s certainly not top-6 AA level. Even before Grace McLaughlin started at Florida, she was at “maybe a beam routine?” status, not AA-queen status.

A lot of this does come down to injury history/gymnastics style. We tend to maintain elite expectations for gymnasts with Raisman legs who look like they can hold up to four more years of gymnastics, but with the fragile-looking spinny twisties, we’re just happy to see a routine at some point, even if it’s an exhibition bars. We’re like, “Good for her! I can see knees! She still has them!”

It’s worth noting that there are no “whoops, I broke and then disappeared into witness protection without another word” gymnasts in this AA collection, which is encouraging. Everyone either made the Olympics and turned pro, did NCAA, or will do NCAA. The only one in the whole 2012 competition who doesn’t fit into those categories is Bross. There are usually more.

Vault (one vault, two days)
1. Wieber 15.650/15.900
2. Price 15.800/15.600 
3. Douglas 15.350/15.800
4. Sacramone 15.450/15.500
5. Raisman 15.450/15.300
6. Ross 15.100/15.250
7. Finnegan 15.000/14.900
8. Baker 14.650/14.800
9. Skinner 14.550/14.600
10. Jay 14.600/14.500
11. Dowell 14.250/14.700
12. Vega 14.100/14.500
13. Jetter 14.100/14.150
14. Milliet 14.050/14.150
15. Brown 13.950/14.100
16. McLaughlin 13.800/14.200
17. Sloan 13.850/14.150
18. Brannan 13.800/14.150
19. Wofford 12.000/12.200

For the vaulters, I’m most interested in this group of Y1.5s ranked 14-20, excluding Sloan who had downgraded to a full by that point. Pretty much all of these gymnasts were performing the 1.5 at an identical level four years ago, all scoring somewhere between 13.800 and 14.200 for their 1.5s on both days. I’ll set aside Wofford, who was already like, “peace out” to vault and floor and was never realistically in the running to do those events in NCAA. (Cut to KJ going, “McKenzie Wofford is anchoring floor next season.” Because Oklahoma.)

And yet in spite of their identical levels, a quick look at these six gymnasts who performed 1.5s in 2012 shows that four of them haven’t vaulted in college even once, Brown is a borderline backup who has been forced to fill in, and then there’s Brannan, the outlier and only one to maintain her vault in college. She was at the bottom of the pack in 2012, yet while we’re not going to see Jetter touch a vaulting table any time in the next rest of eternity, Brannan will need to become Alabama’s vaulting star next season. She’s the leg-survivor and has risen to the top of the group post-elite. Elite vaulting rotations are like a TV depiction of the first day of law school. “Look at the person to your left. Look at the person to your right. Two of you won’t be able to vault by college.”

The top group has mostly gone as expected, though all of them have vaulted at least a 1.5 in college except Finnegan. She has worked her way back to a very well-executed full, but at this point she’s not going to do much more than a pretty full, which emphasizes the different track she has taken compared to Kennedy Baker. Finnegan’s DTY was outscoring Baker’s DTY in elite, though they had a lot of similar qualities. They’re very different vaulters in different vault galaxies these days.

1. Douglas – 15.450/15.850
2. Ross – 15.500/15.350
3. Li 15.150/15.550
4. Bross – 15.200/15.200
5. Wieber – 15.050/15.050
6. Sloan – 15.100/14.950
7. Baker – 14.850/14.750
8. Price – 14.950/14.250
9. Wofford – 14.400/14.700
10. Vega – 14.250/14.400
11. Raisman – 14.100/14.200
12. Dowell – 14.100/13.950
13. Jetter – 13.550/14.300
14. Jay – 13.650/14.100
15. Brown – 13.350/14.050
16. Finnegan – 14.000/13.350
17. McLaughlin – 13.750/13.500
18. Milliet – 13.500/13.650
19. Liukin – 13.150/13.650
20. Skinner – 13.200/11.100

This is a very good collection of bars workers and largely a who’s who of successful NCAA bars routines. The alignment hasn’t changed nearly as much here, though we do see the effects of a non-difficulty-based code leveling the playing field. Someone like Wofford can be at the same level as Sloan or Price now because, while her execution was even with (or often superior) to Price and Sloan in elite, she was not always able to match their difficulty. Conversely, Baker is no longer able to use difficulty to create a margin over bars workers like Jetter or Milliet, who now score similarly in college. Everyone has bunched. Milliet showed amazing toe point on bars as an elite, but the NCAA code has allowed her to tone down her release-form struggles and dismount with a giant full to double back so that it becomes an affair of execution and highlights her strengths, which moves her up the ladder.

Remember how Brenna Dowell didn’t have a lot of bars difficulty in 2012? She didn’t really start to go to D-score town until this quad, showing difficulty that was lower than even Raisman during the 2012 process. Compared to 2012, a closed-ended code helps her, but compared to 2016, it hurts her.


1. Raisman – 15.200/15.450
2. Finnegan – 15.350/15.050
3. Sacramone – 15.200/15.100
4. Ross – 15.100/15.000
5. Wieber – 14.700/15.050
6. Liukin – 15.100/14.100
7. Douglas – 14.800/14.100
8. Vega – 14.200/14.400
9. Price – 14.300/13.850
10. Milliet – 14.150/13.600
11. Dowell – 13.700/13.900
12. Wofford – 13.700/13.650
13. Bross – 13.550/13.700
13. Brown – 13.600/13.650
15. Sloan – 13.850/13.150
15. Baker – 14.150/12.850
17. Skinner – 13.650/12.300
18. McLaughlin – 13.700/11.950
19. Li – 11.950/13.650
20. Jetter – 12.550/12.400
21. Jay – 12.050/11.250

By contrast, this elite class is less of an all-star team when it comes to beam, where a few have become standout beamers but more are in the middle-of-the-pack/don’t-compete category and have been passed up by L10 gymnasts who are able to do a better job of being not on the ground.

Dowell and Wofford are both toward the top of the pack here, which is notable since neither have been college beamers. Some of this has to do with the challenge of making Oklahoma’s beam lineup, but more of it has to do with that whole hitting thing. Looking back to 2012, that’s somewhat odd because, for Dowell, beam wasn’t really any better or worse than her other events that year and only more recently gained an identity as a weak piece, reinforced by not making OU’s lineup in 2015. Wofford didn’t necessarily show any more tentativeness or fall-riskiness on beam than say Brown or Sloan or Milliet in 2012, all of whom have been constant beamers in college while Wofford fell several times and then was quietly removed forever into the “she can’t hit beam” box. Nothing about their elite performances necessarily said that Brown would become a team leader on beam while Wofford wouldn’t compete.

At the top, it’s about what we would expect. Finnegan can’t throw up a 6 billion D-score anymore, which has brought her back to the group instead of being a full point ahead, but she still has an argument as the best beamer here, or second-best to Sloan.

Brandie Jay’s last-place position here and subsequent senior-year beam renaissance should be an inspiration to all and is the more common development overall. Gymnasts usually figure out beam in college, either right away like a Macko or after a while like a Ding/Dabritz/Jay, not the other way around. This group somewhat bucks the trend.

1. Raisman – 15.450/15.800
2. Wieber – 15.250/15.250
3. Douglas – 15.050/15.300
4. Finnegan – 14.800/15.150
5. Price – 14.550/14.800
6. Ross – 14.050/14.600
7. Vega – 13.950/14.650
8. Baker – 14.400/14.000
9. Brannan – 13.800/14.300
10. Dowell – 13.650/14.350
11. Skinner – 14.150/13.600
12. McLaughlin – 14.150/13.500
13. Sloan – 13.450/13.900
13. Jetter – 13.350/14.000
15. Milliet – 13.550/13.750
16. Brown – 13.300/13.700
17. Jay – 12.250/13.300
18. Wofford – 11.800/12.800

Similarly to vault, Finnegan outscoring Price and Baker on floor is something that has not translated to NCAA and was such a fleeting and momentary thing in the first place that it’s easy to forget. Four years ago, Finnegan and Baker had almost equally killer piked double arabians. For Finnegan now, it’s much more important that LSU preserve her for bars and beam rather than forcing her into an already strong and powerful floor lineup. She can be useful to the team and still remain in the “I’ll do a double back sometimes but mostly no me gusta” category. The Baker/Finnegan 2012-to-2016 comparison is a worthwhile one, so let’s do it again.

I don’t think this counts as much of a surprise. In fact, the bigger floor surprise this season was seeing a few gymnasts who were squarely in the “maybe do a beam routine if you can” category of spinny-twisty former elites in McLaughlin and Milliet make their respective floor lineups. They have become very clean leadoff gymnasts when at times floor seemed the least likely event for them to compete in college. If four years ago, I said that Grace McLaughlin would make one lineup during her sophomore year at Florida, raise your hand if you thought it would be floor.

One thought on “Before They Were NCAA – The 2012 Elites”

  1. This is awesome – I love the comparisons. I especially love Bart Conner saying everyone is “all jacked up” at the beginning of Finnegan's Super Six vault video.


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