The Balance Beam Situation

Because gymnastics is a comedy, not a drama

We Need to Talk about Worlds

By way of a recap of the second day of women’s nationals, I’m just going to talk about the worlds team. Because that’s more fun.

Item #1: Ragan Smith is a lock

We know this. Smith won the national championship comfortably, is the top all-arounder the US has right now, and is the current favorite to become the world champion in 2017. She did her job at nationals, showing her upgrades with zero misses and just one wobbleburger across eight routines. She’s fine.

Item #2: The second all-arounder

Unlike the US men, who are best suited focusing on event medals even if the team itself is a little…huh?, the US women will be expected not only to win the all-around but to snatch two of the three medals, which happened in every AA final of the last quad. And then Larisa Iordache wins the other medal and everyone goes home happy. Done and done.

The surprise of nationals came from Jordan Chiles suddenly standing up (and accidentally going around three times) to take second place. She has improved tremendously across the three competitions we’ve seen from her this summer and has risen to take a place for herself in the second-AAer conversation, which she wasn’t even really in before nationals.

Also putting together a significantly hit performance was Riley McCusker, who went 8 for 8 to temporarily erase American Cup and Classic from our goldfish brains. SHE’S THE MOST CONSISTENT EVER.

McCusker finished third, but that’s a bit misleading. She would have finished second had FIG vault values been used at this competition. The FTY is a 4.6, but the US awards seniors only 4.4 for an FTY because of “Pull your ass together and stop doing baby trash, love Valeri and Rhonda” or something. Those extra four tenths would have put her into second over Chiles.

The expected upgrade back to a DTY for selection camp (presumably also aiming for her 6.1 D on beam instead of the 5.6 from nationals) keeps McCusker in a favored position for the second AA spot. She still has to show it and hit it—the DTY is not the most comfortable skill for her—but she does lead the conversation despite the rankings from nationals. The difference now is that she has company, and it’s not the company we expected it to be. If Chiles had hit her vault on the second day of nationals, she would have been at 57 in the all-around, which is not a casual score to beat. McCusker has to upgrade and hit at selection camp because the pressure will be on. She can’t cruise to an AA spot.

To say Morgan Hurd had a bad nationals is overstating it a bit. She had a bad first day on floor and vault, but she also hit beam better than we’ve seen her hit it this year and, on the second day, outscored McCusker in the all-around. Hurd is still very much in the pack of contenders, though it was McCusker, Chiles, and Thomas who improved their lots at this competition, while Hurd didn’t really.

Post-nationals, if we take the US seniors’ best scores on each event in 2017 and rank them, this is the all-around top 10.

All necessary grains of salt that these are very much best-case-scenario-plus-crack totals, but they do tell us that peak McCusker should have an edge on Chiles, and that when Chiles hits her Amanar, she should have an edge over everyone else.

Not to be lost in all this is Trinity Thomas, who was 4th at nationals, but finished second AA on the second day, and who is keeping herself competitive even with an FTY that got 13.3s. (Note: that 13.750 is from her Tsuk at Jesolo.) Thomas is healing from a stress reaction, which is a possible reason why vault hasn’t been so much, but if she were suddenly able to magic up a DTY, she’d more a more-than-legitimate all-around challenger.

Right now, Smith and McCusker do appear the most likely AA duo for worlds, but because we’re still waiting on some skills and some people to get back to full strength after injury, selection camp performance may be more determinative than it has been in past years when we’ve seen inevitable teams that were decided in April. Team selection is still dependent on what certain people bring to camp.

Item #3: The specialists

If we accept Smith and McCusker as the AAers (which is far from a done deal, but for the sake of argument), then the top-placing gymnasts other than those two on each event at nationals were VT – Carey; UB – Locklear; BB – Thomas; FX – Carey.

We’ll start with Jade Carey. She won vault (by default but still) and was second only to Smith on floor, which makes a good case for a spot since she has emerged as the top-scoring of the floor specialist options. The wrench in all of this was the Amanar at nationals, which was not at worlds level. The vaults we saw from Carey at nationals shouldn’t medal at worlds because if they did, that would be a really sucky vault final.

I’m not sure that makes a huge difference in her chances to make the worlds team, though, because as long as Carey is looking like a potential world medalist on floor, which she was with her 14.400 on the second day, she can get away with not being the queen of vaults. If she’s going for floor, vaulting may just be a bonus.

If you slot Carey into the vault and floor specialist spots, then you’re left looking for a bars and beam worker, of which Ashton Locklear has looked like the default option because of Ashton Locklear and bars. If she shows up to selection camp with her inbar skills and 6.0 D, I think she’s still probably the pick, but if not, it makes no sense to bring her to worlds. At which point we start looking at options other than the predestined team below.

Smith  Smith Smith Smith
McCusker  McCusker McCusker McCusker
Carey  Locklear Locklear/Carey Carey

This team would expect to contend for medals with Carey on VT, McCusker and Locklear on UB, Smith and McCusker on BB, and Smith and Carey on FX. It checks all the boxes, and I imagine it’s the one Valeri etc. hope works out. But, if Locklear isn’t looking medally on bars, things get messy. In a good way. For us, at least.

The thesis of team selection won’t simply be “who can fill in the spots where we have openings,” but “who can win a medal,” which is why I’m not yet sold on Alyona Shchennikova as the backup bars option should Locklear not have her difficulty. The 14.500 that Shchennikova has peaked out at this year is beatable by too many of the Russians, Germans, and Chinese who are likely to make the final. Shchennikova not being given an at-large bid to the national team also sends the message that she may not really be in the serious plans.

If Locklear isn’t looking sufficiently 6.0/9.000 by selection camp, the US may be better served ditching the bars specialist idea entirely and going with, say, hmm, Trinity Thomas. The problem for Thomas if she’s not a top-2 all-arounder is that her most competitive events are beam and floor. On floor, she currently trails behind Carey with room for only one of them to be a specialist. So…Thomas would go for beam? Which would be amazing, but she hasn’t been scoring as well as Smith or McCusker there.

Smith Smith Smith Smith
McCusker McCusker McCusker McCusker
Carey Thomas Thomas Carey

It would be more of a “and then Trinity Thomas just because Trinity Thomas” worlds team. Still, if you don’t have a medal-form Locklear, then Thomas looks like your next best choice.

Another complication is Jordan Chiles’ post-competition “bloop” revelation that she has a second vault (a Lopez, 5.2 D) that she plans to add to her Amanar. That would put her directly into competition with Jade Carey for a VT/FX specialist role.

Across two vaults, Chiles would have a four-tenth total deficit to Carey, but that’s not as huge a difference as it seems because Chiles should eliminate that deficit on Amanar execution alone. It’s impossible to make any kind of real determination because we haven’t seen the Lopez, but Chiles seems realistically capable of challenging/beating Carey’s vault scores. Where Carey possesses the true edge is floor, peaking at 14.400 this summer while Chiles has peaked at 13.700.

Of those four routines (Carey VT, Chiles VT, Carey FX, Chiles FX), the one that’s currently most likely to medal at worlds is the Carey FX, which bolsters Carey’s argument. Chiles would need to continue this exponential improvement on floor through the selection camp to change that scenario. Potentially, you could send both Carey and Chiles (Carey for floor, Chiles for the rest), but that doubles down on vault and floor without giving much attention to bars and beam and doesn’t seem the most efficient team.

If you decide that Chiles has the preferred vaults and want to make more efficient use of the remaining spots, you’d want Thomas in on floor as the next highest-scoring option. We’ll call this Team Be Still My Heart.

Smith Smith Smith Smith
McCusker McCusker McCusker McCusker
Chiles Thomas Thomas Thomas

It’s not the most likely scenario right now because it would leave home the potential score Carey can get on floor, but if Carey doesn’t continue with the 14.4-type scores and Chiles and Thomas have good selection camps, this team is a possibility.

If Carey keeps up the floor numbers, however, Chiles’ best bet to make the team will be as an all-arounder rather than as a specialist. It could happen.

Smith Smith Smith Smith
Chiles Chiles Chiles Chiles
Carey McCusker McCusker Carey

Though we could slot Thomas into that spot just as easily.

Smith Smith Smith Smith
Thomas Thomas Thomas Thomas
Carey McCusker McCusker Carey

In fact, of all the teams I’ve mentioned so far, this last one is the team that contains the most top-3 finishers on each event from nationals, missing out only Locklear on bars and containing everyone else who went top three. I wouldn’t be mad at this team at all.

Basically, if McCusker isn’t your clear #2 AAer (in which case she should still probably go for bars and beam), selection will become an all-around free-for-all. FUN!

That free-for-all would include Morgan Hurd as well. I haven’t put Hurd in any of these options so far because her biggest obstacle right now seems to be that she doesn’t have “I CAN GET A MEDAL ON THIS SPECIFIC EVENT” gymnastics. When she’s on, she has very competitive scores on all four pieces, which makes her a compelling all-around threat and team contributor as this quad progresses. But for an individual worlds, if you’re looking for someone to go on bars, you’re looking at Locklear, beam you’re looking at Thomas, and floor you’re looking at Carey and Thomas based on the Trinity Thomas we saw at nationals.

Thomas’s improvements make it hard to get Hurd in there if she’s not an all-arounder because Thomas was better on beam and floor at nationals. Morgan Hurd needs some people to be not-great at selection camp.

I also haven’t mentioned the other newly minted member of the national team, Marz Frazier, who hit very well at P&Gs to make the national team but is the least likely of the 8 to make the worlds squad unless she shows up to selection camp with an amazing Amanar. Even then, she probably doesn’t have the beam and floor scores to get in there.

So, this is where we are.

Is it anything?

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