The Balance Beam Situation

Because gymnastics is a comedy, not a drama

P&G Championships Preview – The Seniors

The seniors understand the importance of maintaining a little mystery. After Classic, we still have a number of routines we’re waiting to see and a couple questions that must be answered so that we can put together a presumptive worlds team heading into the selection camp portion of the season. Let’s get to it.

Note: I’ll be at nationals in the stands with the rest of the peasants (which means I won’t be live blogging).

The title

There were moments this year when it seemed the race for best female gymnast in the US might actually be up for grabs for the first time in a quad, but the upgrades and level of preparation Ragan Smith showed on bars and beam at Classic reflect a gymnast who is rising toward world-beating level. While her closest competitors are attempting to return from injury and simply maintain their previous levels, Smith is performing at a rung above.

We haven’t seen vault or floor from Smith since American Cup, but as long as she shows up with the same routines (or upgrades) and hits six or seven of her eight sets at nationals, she should be the national champion and should record the highest AA score in the world so far this year, a mark which currently sits at 57.225. Very doable.

The second AAer

Beyond Smith’s own ability, the other reason she’s currently a clear favorite to become national champion is the injury status of her closest competitors. They’re not at full strength right now, but that also means they should have an exciting race among themselves to see who gets the (potentially temporary) seat as the other member of the all-around oligarchy.

Riley McCusker claimed that second AA spot early in the season when she earned the American Cup assignment, but then it didn’t go great. She seemed to overcome that performance and reinstate herself as the #2 AAer at Jesolo, a competition she won with a 56.600 that included a fall, but then she got injured.

The injury situation left her looking unready at Classic which, coupled with not having hit a full competition AA this year, has thrown some doubt onto McCusker’s status, even though she likely still has the second-highest peak scoring ability in the US right now.

We’re just a couple weeks on from Classic now, so to expect McCusker suddenly to record top scores at nationals would be a bit much. The goal here will be to show progress from Classic, and I’m sure the major aim is to be at full strength for selection camp, not nationals.

But, a McCusker performing short of her ideal level leaves an opening for Morgan Hurd to attempt to establish herself as a strong #2 candidate. Much like McCusker, Hurd is dealing with injuries (coming back from an elbow injury that may impede her bars difficulty at nationals) and needs to prove that she can hit the AA in a single meet, which also hasn’t happened yet this year.

Hurd should have among the highest floor scores we’ll see at nationals, which along with her execution across all the events, makes her a solid contender for an AA total into the 56s, a major benchmark in the current code. The difference between the 55ers and the 56ers will be a significant distinction at nationals this year.

A multi-tenth edge on floor is an asset for Hurd compared to McCusker, while McCusker will look to take advantage of bars with a D-savvy routine that has brought in the highest score in the US (slash world so far this year) when hit.

That bars routine will be the most important event for McCusker as the summer progresses because even if there is some question about her consistency/health status as an AAer for worlds, she’s a very legitimate event final or medal contender on bars.

Comparing McCusker’s bars performance to Ashton Locklear‘s at nationals will be interesting because we haven’t seen Locklear show her inbar skills yet this year. Even if she adds them back, McCusker has the higher D-score by a couple tenths. Locklear of course has E in her corner, but is it enough? Are they going to be in a bars fight? The presence of that question is why an in-form all-around Riley McCusker is good news for Ashton Locklear: it would mean they’re not going for the same role on a worlds team.

The AA standings

Up next in the all-around conversation are gymnasts like Alyona Shchennikova, who did well to win Classic with a 54.950 that included a fall. Other than that fall, it was a pretty good meet for her, so we can expect that if Shchennikova shows up at nationals and has her best-possible all-around, she’s going to be around the 56.0 mark, which could be competitive for as high as 2nd place. But, it would require an excellent meet.

The significant event for Shchennikova is, of course, bars. She has the difficulty with a 6.2 but finds herself stuck in a pack with Locklear, McCusker, and now Ragan Smith apparently. She hasn’t been able to escape ahead of that group. Shchennikova would need to do that here to make any case specifically for bars.

We also have a similar-scoring character in Victoria Nguyen—another legitimate contender in the AA standings with a very competitive beam along with a DTY—whom we’ve all forgotten about because she didn’t compete at Classic and because we have the memory and attention spans of…

Trinity Thomas is a person! Her first glimpse of gymternet obsession came because of her excellent floor, but now no one can stop talking about Thomas’s beam. And by no one, I mean me. Because her beam.

Lost in the shuffle is that Thomas has a competitive bars set as well. Those who are looking to specialize on bars will need to go for at least 6.0 (Locklear can get away with staying at 6.0 exactly because of execution, while others will want to be higher than that), but those looking for a solid-enough bars score to keep them competitive in the all-around will need to be at about 5.7 in difficulty, which is just where Thomas and Nguyen are.

Loose and rushed in places, sure, but it’s more than enough to avoid being a weakness or a detriment to her AA hopes. Thomas is a vault (and controlled floor landings) away from being a true contender in the all-around.

For now, a good hit meet should score into the 55s, around where she should expect Shchennikova and Nguyen to score.

Ragan Smith is supposed to run away with this thing, and McCusker and Hurd are the most likely to get into the 56s with good meets, but after that, there should be quite a pileup in the 55s. A number of people can get into that zone and end up in any order. The difference between the 56ers and the 55ers will be a significant distinction. The worlds people versus the national teamers.

The wildcards in that respect are going to be Marz Frazier and Jordan Chiles.

I’m quite eager to see what Frazier’s Amanar looks like since we haven’t yet seen it in competition. With that vault, and a possible 6.1 D on bars when she connects everything, Frazier should hang around the significant placements in the AA fight. If she gets through beam, she’ll be comfortably in the hunt with the 55ers.

As for Jordan Chiles, we know she has the Amanar and we know it’s very good. That score keeps her somewhat afloat in the AA race. The next step is seeing a hit beam routine (that alone would have given her an easy 2nd place at Classic) along with reasonable compositions on both beam and floor that de-emphasize dance elements and emphasize acro elements. She really should be comfortably ensconced in the all-around conversation, but it’s not happening quite yet.

The specialists

In addition to Locklear, whose podium-training bars routine will be one of the critical developments of the week as we’ll see what difficulty she’s throwing, most eyes will be on how Jade Carey performs.

Carey made a good argument for a place on the worlds team at Classic, but we’ve seen so little from her as an elite that nationals remains an important test as to whether she can do it every time out.

There’s also room for her to improve on her performance from Classic, with better control on the vault landings and hitting 14 on floor both possible. Doing that would solidify her role on the national team.

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