The simplest preview of the competition at junior nationals is just Classic…but again.
Because the juniors tend to be farther along in their preparations by Classic (aiming to peak for nationals rather than for worlds/selection camp) and because their young bodies have not yet been destroyed by the harsh sands of time forcing them to skip most apparatuses at most competitions, the junior Classic acts as a far better predictor of what will happen at nationals than the senior Classic does.
For the most part, we’ve seen the routines we’re going to see.
It was Emma Malabuyo who blew the field away at Classic with a two-point margin of victory, which elevated her from the #3-junior status she occupied in the long-lost past of two months ago and established her as the favorite for this week’s junior national title.
The most significant development in Malabuyo’s routines was her upgraded 5.4 D on bars, a more competitive number on a piece that had been a weakness compared to the other top US juniors. Her 14.300 on floor also demonstrated that she is able to pull in a number well above her competitors (here, there, and everywhere) by actually getting credit for all her attempted leaps. A REVOLUTION.
That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to be smooth sailing at nationals. Maile O’Keefe isn’t going anywhere. O’Keefe ended up being the closest to catching Malabuyo at Classic (you know, just a casual two points behind), but that performance included a fall on beam and going over on a handstand/recasting on bars.
O’Keefe’s beam set is quite risky, but here she fell on a sissone, which…come on. It’s a rando mistake we shouldn’t expect to be repeated at nationals. I expect the result at nationals to be much, much closer between the two as a clean meet at Classic from O’Keefe would have put her essentially right on par with Malabuyo.
Gabby Perea looks unlikely to compete the AA here—though she’s obviously a threat to wins bars since she won it at Classic even while dismounting with a Nastia-away.
You could never.
Without Perea, I’m adding in Adeline Kenlin as a real upset threat to slide in and surprise for the junior title. She competed only bars and beam at Classic but did exceptionally well on both. She would have needed to average 13.925 on vault and floor to catch Malabuyo, which is not out of the question since she does have a DTY. Floor difficulty may be a question, but I’m hoping to see her add in the Faux-dkopayeva at nationals, which she has been training. Before Classic I had Kenlin in the second tier of contenders, but if she repeats what she did on bars and beam, she’s first tier.
Juniors excelling on beam is quite typical. They’re all super small. Which helps a lot.
This year’s junior crop is no exception to the beam rule, and if the quest for the AA championship ends up being a snoozer after someone falls into a pit of lava, then the beam battle royale as everyone tries to outdo everyone else’s 6.0 D will become the best part of the meet. And by best, I mean most horrifying. Obviously
Unlike in the AA, the O’Keefe, Kenlin, Perea, Malabuyo squad has some real competition when it comes to who can beam all the beams with the most beam. The fancy cool kids may be the favorites, but they’re not the only ones in the conversation.
Lee is next in line as a contender for the AA, but she needs to show she can hit her massive difficulty across the events. Still, never ignore a 6.2 D, which she hit pretty well at Classic.
There’s quite a bit more beam difficulty in the juniors than in the seniors right now. Seniors, address your 5.5s.
A critical issue among many of these top-difficulty beam routines is the attempted ring positions. In general, the basic leaps are quite nice from these beamers (better than we’ve seen in some recent crops of US juniors), but then we get to the rings.
I’m somewhat surprised we’re still seeing so many people go for such downgradeable ring leaps, so keep an eye on what D scores they actually end up with. Also, if you see someone with a surprisingly 7.9 E score (as we saw for a number of these people at Classic) the ring leap and ring jump attempts may be to blame.
Get cracking, group of legitimately 10 people who could win beam! I’m looking for my THERE’S MY BEAMER NEXT BEAMER.
Risk v. Reward
We’re not looking ahead to a worlds team selection for the juniors, and the remaining Japan junior international assignment is likely to go to the top AA finishers here because Valeri is basically just scratching tick marks on the wall of a prison cell waiting for them to become seniors. That means rest of the conversation for the juniors revolves around showing potential for future senior elite careers.
Path #1: People who are already showing senior elite difficulty and could crash the podium if they actually hit it all together at the same time.
Sunisa Lee blasts out of the earth with here difficulty nowhere more so than on bars. We just need to see it all incorporated. At Classic, bars would have garnered a strong score had she not been code-slammed.
This routine received a 5.1 D instead of the expected 6.0 D, which is cause for a little code CSIing. By adding in that extra toe-on after the Pak, Lee suddenly had too many toe-on skills. That meant the toe full at the end of the routine couldn’t count because it was her fourth backward toe-on skill, so she lost the value of that skill, its connection tenth, and the 0.5 CR for a skill with full turn. Dayum. It also looks like she didn’t get layout credit for the Nabieva.
Don’t you feel like someone big at worlds this year is going to get Sacramone-floor-2006-ed by the bars root-skill rule? I do.
When talking about difficulty, we also have to mention Jay Jay Marshall, who is going for some of the highest difficulty in the competition. It’s quite raw at this point. If she hits the AA it will be a miracle, but it would also score WELL.
Path #2: My D-score is a 4, but just you wait.
If a person were to rank the juniors competing at nationals by the best scores they have achieved on each apparatus so far this year (because of course I did…), that person would get the usual suspects we’ve already discussed, but then some others.
Some of this is on account of cracky elite qualifiers (never forget how cracky elite qualifier scoring can be), but we also have Leanne Wong ranking extremely well despite the fact that she is more or less performing her Level 10 routines on bars and beam. She has added a skill on bars to fill out the set, but beam is the same routine she competed at JO nationals, and yet she’s still among the top-scoring juniors. DTY helps, but non-terrible execution also helps.
We also have someone like Grace McCallum, who placed very well at Classic and came out as one of the major surprises of the competition. We have to start paying attention to her now. She ranked well not so much because showed any WOW routines (her D is very middle-of-the-pack) but because she went through with hits and only one E score in the 7s, which counts as a big deal now because THIS LIFE. The approach paid off gloriously.
We have seen both paths work. The ones throwing the big difficulty as juniors tend to get the most attention, but the babies showing simple, hit routines right now are the ones best-timed to emerge right when the quad is ramping up toward the Olympics when they suddenly upgrade.