We’re less than a week away from the end of our long national nightmare. The GK US Classic has finally appeared on the horizon and is slowly chugging its way toward us to usher a glorious month of nonstop meets (real, actual meets with rules and standards!) back into our lives. And none too soon.
So let’s begin Celebration Week with a preview of the hors d’oeuvres. I mean junior session.
The highlight of any domestic junior competition is, of course, the wildly different heights and skill levels that populate the field. There’s nothing more entertaining than when Amelia Hundley is still somehow a junior in 2013 despite being age 37, and she’s introduced next to an actual 3-year-old who’s like, “I have a kip!” And they’re just in the same meet for some reason, and you go, “Is this a dream?” Yeah. Junior Classic.
This year, none of the juniors are being promoted to compete with the seniors (last year Malabuyo, O’Keefe, Dunne, Lee, and Kenlin competed in the later session with the big girls). I prefer this way. We have age group delineations in place, so let’s follow those rules and not confuse things. If you’re a senior, you’re a senior. If you’re a junior, you’re a junior—even if you can score better than most of the seniors.
Let’s discuss those gymnasts first, the ones in contention to win the juniors and who would make the senior national team if old enough.
We have a pretty amorphous and open junior field in the US this year because so many of the very best juniors aged out of the system after 2017, like Malabuyo, Perea, O’Keefe, Kenlin, and Dunne. A bit of a power vacuum was left in their absence, but in the last few months, we’ve seen a solid four rise up to establish themselves as the new junior cabal, and they’ll be expected to fight it out for the title here.
Coming in with the highest scoring potential of the entire bunch is Sunisa Lee. With the D-score advantage that Lee possesses—performing 6+ difficulty on bars and beam—her performance typically dictates how these junior competitions play out. If she hits those big routines, the others will not have the difficulty to catch her, even if they perform perfectly.
Hitting, however, is the big question. Lee can be susceptible to a fall that allows the lower-D competition to pass her, and mistakes on both bars and beam at Pac Rims took her down to 4th in the all-around standings.
That could be where someone like Kayla DiCello comes in. Her D scores alone will likely see her give up more than a point to Lee (maybe closer to 1.5 depending on how things play out), but going 4-for-4 at American Classic allowed DiCello to dominate the field with a 55.400, a score not too far off the pace of what Lee should earn for a hit meet. DiCello showed precise work and execution upon her elite debut last season, and in the past year she has upped her D scores from the 5.0 territory to the 5.3-5.5 territory, which allows her to stay right with the top scorers.
Life changes quickly in the junior ranks. Last year at Junior Classic, DiCello placed 24th, ahead of Jordan Bowers in 32nd, and now they’re two of the most convincing favorites for the title in 2018.
Bowers won the all-around at both Pac Rims and Pan Ams this year (outscoring DiCello and Lee at Pac Rims, and outscoring Leanne Wong and Tori Tatum at Pan Ams) which speaks to her solidity and equal strength across the four events. Bowers does not rely on any one or two apparatus scores to pick up her all-around total, which means she is better able to absorb any mistakes that might crop up because she can make up those tenths on any of the other three events.
Somewhat uncharacteristically for the US, this isn’t a huge floor year in the juniors with most of them huddling around 5.1-5.3, but Bowers does have some real pop, winning the floor title at both Pac Rims and Pan Ams. Watch out for that as a place where Mini-McKayla can gain some ground on other favorites.
I’m also putting Leanne Wong in this favorite category, another who won’t have the highest D scores of the competition but whose execution can bring her into that sought-after 55+ zone nonetheless. Wong doesn’t give away a lot of silliness in execution on bars and beam, which should keep her scores afloat, and she’ll be a serious contender for the highest vault score of the junior field. We’ve seen video of Wong training an Amanar, which would be a game-changer if it appears in competition, but it also reveals exactly how comfortable that DTY is for her.
I do expect the winner to come from that first group of four—depending on who elects to do the AA—but there is another chunk of gymnasts running just behind that group that can sneak into the 54s on a good day, can spoil their way onto a podium, and will be looking to earn spots on the junior national team with their performances in August.
JaFree Scott is not to be ignored. She has become a fan favorite for her lovely olde-tyme classical style and well-executed leaps, and she boasts the amplitude and difficulty across four events (including the requisite DTY) to score with the very top juniors.
Scott performed on only bars and beam at Pan Ams (and did not show full difficulty on beam), so here’s hoping everything is fully healthy for a run this summer.
I’m also eager to see what we get from young’un Sydney Barros, a Texas Dreamer who surprised a lot of us with a 4th-place finish at April verification. Previous to that, she had not been in my list of top juniors, but she defeated both Wong and Scott there with her 53.550 AA score and showed equivalent difficulty to the top junior contenders. Barros had to pull out of spring assignments because of injury, so I’m not sure where she is at this point, but she has shown the necessary scoring potential when at full strength.
We’ve seen Tori Tatum pretty recently as a replacement on the Pan Ams team, where she stood out with a very international-ready DTY with impressive leg form that earned her the vault title.
That’s how you DTY. Tatum probably doesn’t yet have the beam and floor composition to get a huge AA score and really challenge the top finishers, but a good day for her can warrant a solid 53.
Konnor McClain is a single year of age (meaning she’s not even age-eligible for 2020, like Barros), but we’ve seen the potential in her for a while now, especially her beam, and her second-place showing for 53.950 at American Classic means she can’t just be lumped in with the babies anymore. She’s a baby with a cause. McClain may not have the four-event difficulty quite yet (i.e., Yurchenko full), especially to absorb a mistake if she doesn’t have a great day, but there’s time, and her beam should be among the top routines of the entire competition.
Ones to Watch
Those in this next group of gymnasts might finish 7th and might finish 25th depending on the day, but they’re the ones to put a pin in and be sure to watch when their routines pop up on the stream.
Lilly Lippeatt burst onto the scene as an actual fetus last year but has since put a year of competition under her belt, moving closer to the realm of the top contenders. She’s still pretty new and tiny and hasn’t yet shown the difficulty to move out of the 52s AA, but she’s progressing well enough to be in contention for a national team position later on should she go through these meets cleanly.
One of the newer names we’re learning this year is Olivia Greaves, who showed up at the Nastia Cup attempting an elite-composition bars routine to inform the world that she wasn’t staying L10 for much longer. Greaves used that bars composition to record a meet-leading 14.150 at American Classic en route to a 4th-place finish AA.
Speaking of bars, Ciena Alipio is a name you might recognize, maybe just because it always pops up first in the alphabetical field of junior competitions, but you may not be able to put gymnastics to the name yet. Make a point of doing so this year, particularly on bars. She has the fledgling lovely inbar and stalder work (and Shap 1/2 and piked Jaeger options too) that tells me she could be a special bars worker in time.
And then there’s Aleah Finnegan. Finnegan Finnegan Finnegan Finnegan. She’ll do Finnegan things, especially on beam. I don’t expect to see enough difficulty for her to challenge the higher echelons of the final standings, but she does have a DTY now and should otherwise be in contention for the E-score crown, if not the overall meet crown.
I’m not sure what to do about Lauren Little. This is her third year of junior elite—having burst onto the junior scene at the age of 12 with a senior-ready DTY. She has been invited to national camps in the past and is going to bring one of the more complete repertoires of difficulty in the field (she can record D scores matching some of the favorites), but we haven’t yet seen her put all those routines together in a hit fashion. Still one to watch.
This competition will also allegedly present another chance for us to see Annie Beard. Beard has not made an appearance since nationals last year, but she was able to enter this Classic field based on her scores from that meet, where you might remember her showing up with a DTY and the expected high-level Texas Dreams beam as we all crowned her the new Ragan Smith.
New Small Baby Children
One of the joys of the US elite season is meeting the newest junior elites and then speculating about how much of A THING they’re going to be, so this section is reserved for our newest 2018 elite friends who are not even 2020 age-eligible but who are already great and will become A THING later on (slash now).
First of all, it’s going to be very important for you to spend the summer getting to know your new life obsession and adopted daughter, Levi Jung-Ruivivar.
I know. You’re welcome.
In terms of top finishes for the babies, watch out for Skye Blakely, the younger sister of Sloane Blakely, who got our attention when she managed to score 53.400 at American Classic, even while having a bit of a time on beam. That was good enough for 3rd place in the juniors and would keep her toward the top of the standings again if repeated at US Classic.
Ui Soma took 5th at American Classic, another in our long line of very very tiny juniors who are physically able to walk under the low bar without ducking but who have also got it going on bars.
The newest of the very youthful junior elites to watch is Kaliya Lincoln (who WASN’T BORN YET when the open-ended code was introduced). It will be some time before all the events get there—she won’t turn senior elite until 2022—but her floor is already legit and can score up with the very best juniors. Get ready for this one.
That’s only 18 of the 48 juniors entered in this competition, and hopefully we’ll also be surprised by the sudden emergence of some other new glory. Such is the point of Classic.
As a reminder, juniors need a 51.000 AA score to advance to nationals.
Of the gymnasts mentioned above, only Lincoln, Beard, and Little still need to achieve that score at Classic to advance. The others already have their scores, as do Karis German, Zoe Gravier, and Sydney Morris, three more who should fare pretty well in the standings. Everyone else needs to score 51.000 at this meet otherwise cannot compete at the national championship.
Junior Classic is Saturday July 28th at 1:30 ET.