And now…let’s discuss the main Simone. I mean main event.
The most exciting part about the occasionally rinky-dink US Classic is that, for most of the top gymnasts, it delivers our first look at their “it’s getting real now” routine composition—their intended difficulty for the push toward worlds. This isn’t some Jesolo. The show is starting.
The 2018 horse race for the five-person worlds team is particularly ill-defined at this point because of a combination of depth and injuries and Simone, so classic will be our initial opportunity to assess who has the actual D tools to be in the main selection group versus who is being pushed to the side by the new crop.
That’s why I always say that US Classic podium training is the most important day of the gymnastic summer. That’s where you get all the real information. As for the competition itself, the Ghost of Simone 2013 is here to remind us that the results are 1000% meaningless and won’t be remembered or relevant in a couple weeks.
Can you even name the podium from last year? Of course not, because it was Shchennikova in first, Paulson in second, and a tie for third between Blanco, Steele, and Watkins. And I only made up one of those people.
But that doesn’t mean we don’t get scads and scads of useful information from this competition. Get excited.
OK. Enough of that. Simone.
The main Simone
In case you’re dead and haven’t heard, someone named Simon Bules is returning to competition on Saturday, her first opportunity to grace the lowly peasants with her gymnastics since the 2016 Olympics. Which went OK.
Initially, Simone was intending to compete only bars and beam here, but she later revealed that she’s too talented to function and has to do the all-around. Sorry, everyone. Hope you like silver.
As a victim of her own success, Simone will be expected to win the all-around every single day by a multi-point margin while wearing 8 tiaras because of Simone things, and anything less than that, even at her comeback meet, will be treated like “why are you so old and bad now, grandma?”
But digging deeper, what’s an actual, realistic benchmark for Simone to reach?
At her 2016 peak, Simone was 62ing all over the place in the all-around. Accounting for the reduction of CR by two total points and stricter execution standards especially on beam—but also reorganized composition and potential upgrades—Peak Simone will still expect to score 59s-60s this year.
Most of us sane people do not expect to see Peak Simone right off the bat at US Classic, though it would be very Simone just to show up like, “Hi, I’m already 100%. 15.500.”
Not showing full difficulty yet, having some rust and nerves (a fall, an OOB, that kind of thing) would be an expected—and on-track—performance. Anything more than that would just be Simone things.
There is a potential wrinkle in Simone’s decision to compete the all-around at US Classic because she is not technically qualified for nationals yet, despite being Simone. The rules state that athletes who compete the all-around at a classic meet are not eligible to petition to nationals, so she would have to get the AA qualification score here.
(The petition rules also discuss submitting a photocopy of your results because…what year is this? Fax me your compulsory scores. Mail me your floor orchestration. Also, shouldn’t the selectors already have those scores? It’s literally their job. I mean, I have all elite results on hand at any given moment, and I’m just me. You guys, I have so many problems with everything.)
Now, this whole qualification to nationals scenario isn’t actually going to be an issue for Simone because the qualifying score is only 52. Plus, USAG has never really been known for being aware of what its own rules are or letting them stand in the way of what it wants to market (which we would be OK with in this, and only this, one single situation). But it’s something to be aware of.
Qualitatively, all eyes will be on whether Simone busts out any of those upgrades that were teased in the spring (double doubles off bars and beam, Moors…TTY…).
Sure, those upgrades are not strictly necessary. Simone maintaining her exact routines from the last quad would see her comfortably return to the top of the podium at every meet, but it’s hard to imagine Simone being content (or remaining interested in this nonsense) just doing the same thing over and over again for another three years. Snoozer.
She’s going to want to spice things up, and the first spice I’m looking for is Laurent. And by that, I mean his coaching of bars. But also his face. But mostly bars. New composition, new rhythm, new comfort level? The whispers of Shap 1/2s and Fabrichnovas have not been ignored. “I CAN’T WAIT TO SEE YOUR BARS” isn’t often screamed directly into Simone’s eyes, but that’s going to be the prime ticket at classic. Get your opera glasses.
Dude, do you even all-around?
Predicting the senior podium at classic is actually impossible and a fool’s game because we just don’t know how many of the top gymnasts will elect to compete the all-around. If history is any guide, it’s -1 of them.
On the other hand, there have been far fewer competition opportunities this year, so I do wonder if more gymnasts will elect to compete a full slate at classic in order to get back into competition mode and shake the rust off.
It won’t be all of them though, so instead of discussing the all-around favorites, this section is simply a look at the most significant characters in the 2018 season. Those who would be on the podium, should they decide to compete all events.
Anyway, the world champion is Morgan Hurd. So that’s a good place to start. Over the past year or so, the story has been how we all keep speculating about whether there’s even room for Hurd on international teams, and then she keeps going, “There is. Bye.” So, I’m resisting the urge to play the “But with Biles and Smith, can Hurd still make the worlds team to do the all-around?” game.
Instead, I’ll note that Hurd has the highest AA score in the US this year (56.599) and the highest bars score (14.600, after peaking out at 14.333 in 2017). In a tight AA field, it’s essential that major contenders show they have “take me for this event” routines in addition to competitive all-around scores, and those couple extra tenths Hurd has added could be a real asset for establishing herself as a top-3 bars worker. I’ll be watching that routine closely.
Now, Ragan Smith. If not for an untimely injury, Smith would have been favored to take the all-around title at worlds last year, and she still maintains the highest scoring potential of Simone’s royal retinue. We’ve seen Smith just once this year, at Jesolo, where she was a little downgraded and a little rusty, but nonetheless showed shades of the four-event 14s that are required to win world all-around medals.
Much of the mission of the next couple meets for Smith will be reestablishing the status she had a year ago, when she was the top gymnast in the country. She can get back to that “best other than Simone” symbolic victory this year primarily though beam and floor scores, where she is still capable of earning a couple-tenth edge over the other major challengers.
Smith doesn’t have a history of competing the all-around at US Classic (she didn’t in 2016 or 2017), but with less competition time this year…maybe?
Maile O’Keefe and Gabby Perea are missing in action for this competition, which means that “THE NEW SENIORS ARE HERE TO COMPLICATE THINGS” duty falls on Emma Malabuyo. Malabuyo currently boasts the #2 senior AA score in the US this year (55.868), which she earned in her breakout victory at Jesolo despite a large error on bars. That scoring potential brings her right into the fold of the top all-around contenders.
One of the significant questions that still needs answering this summer, however, is where Malabuyo fits into this Biles, Smith, Hurd conversation. Is she at the same level? Can she challenge for an AA place? Does she bring complementary events?
The skills are there for Malabuyo on all four pieces, and she has continued adding bars difficulty to shore up what had previously been a scoring weakness—not because of ability or execution but because of a lower D. I’m looking forward to seeing how that routine in particular measures up now because it’s certainly lovely but may still need a little more CV to keep pace.
(You’ll note a significant focus on bars in this preview because, well…that’s the event people tend to compete at US Classic.)
A key argument in Malabuyo’s favor for the last year or so has been her excellent floor work. In a senior elite field with a loooooooooot of 13.633s on floor, Malabuyo’s ability to cruise into the 14s sets her apart, but does it provide an actual advantage among the Biles, Smith, Hurd, and Carey crew? The answer will come soon enough.
You need my events!
The addition of bars to Jade Carey‘s resume has been the talk of the town in the early elite season. While it does give her a chance to place pretty well in all-around standings, she’s still all about the vault and floor. Her role on the national team, her role in potential worlds scenarios, hinges on what she can bring on those two events.
Carey did not show vault or floor at American Classic, so we’re still waiting to see how her Amanar second vault has progressed. It’s such an open vaulting year without Paseka and Steingruber that it doesn’t seem like it will take that much to medal at worlds, but with Biles back, will Carey’s vault-medal prospects for the US be deemed superfluous?
She’ll also need to show that her easy floor power is keeping her ahead of the other potential floor stars. Carey has the tumbling difficulty. We know that. The next step toward maintaining her floor place will be adding back those useful D dance elements (she counted a B at worlds last year) and ensuring that she’s avoiding a background music deduction—0.5 that probably wasn’t taken last year but could have been. I’m very interested to see how her floor scores compare to Smith, Hurd, and Malabuyo here and at nationals.
One of the more fascinating and mysterious complications of the 2018 season will be Riley McCusker, your one-time dream for a better future who has been pushed down the depth chart because of an unyielding series of injuries. She’ll have to use this summer to prove she’s still part of a potential five.
McCusker is one of the few gymnasts to have recorded 56s in the all-around so far this quad and is more than capable of a podium finish at nationals. But, we’ve learned to be cautious about having any AA expectations because of her hollow bones.
So far in 2018, we’ve seen just bars and beam from McCusker. She’s set for nationals on those events but will need either to qualify or to petition in order to compete four at nationals. If that’s the goal. Regardless, bars is the story for McCusker. While we can talk all day about how much so many of the gymnasts listed above have improved on bars, most aren’t true BARS gymnasts. If McCusker is back to 15ing on bars this summer, that would be difficult to ignore.
Jordan Chiles‘ Amanar. Something else we need to talk about. One of the benefits of depth is that it tends to clarify things for a lot of borderline contenders. We’ve been in “oh but maybe and what if” territory with Chiles for a while now, but at this point, with these other top gymnasts crowding the field of contention, it’s Amanar or bust for Chiles. That’s her card to play.
With her Amanar, Chiles would be one of exactly three vaulters in the group with something more difficult than a DTY. That matters, especially because tenths brought by a vault specialist tend to be viewed as more of a sure thing than tenths brought by specialists on other events. As long as she’s hitting regularly this summer.
On the topic of those who can deliver a single huge event, Kara Eaker‘s beam will continue as an essential routine to watch, especially if we compare her potential 15 to the high 13s and low 14s that many of the other beam options have been scoring this year. It keeps her right in the mix—the caveat being the exact opposite of the situation with Chiles’ Amanar, where tenths delivered on beam tend to be considered less of a sure thing than tenths delivered on the other three events.
Something else to keep in mind with several of these gymnasts is the Senior Pan American Championships in September, an assignment that many of the newer or second-tier candidates will have their eyes on if they get pushed out of a deep worlds picture. As many will.
Classic is my chance
Historically, with some of the biggest names not feeling the pressure of getting a score or “proving themselves” [barf], US Classic has presented an opportunity for a podium finish for someone who may otherwise get lost in the shuffle once nationals arrives.
Grace McCallum is very capable of bringing an all-around score into the 55s, with 14s on most events, which should keep her in excellent stead in the overall standings at this summer’s events and in position to make the national team. Once everyone is truly firing, McCallum may lack an “I’m taking you for this event” routine when it comes to team selection, but US Classic has a chance to be her standout moment.
It was a standout moment for Alyona Shchennikova last year when she hit bars and won the all-around title. The hitting bars part is the critical factor this year, not just because bars is Shchennikova’s international-standard event, but as a personal triumph over the concept of a dismount. Wrenching around her old DLO was always a terror for Shchennikova, and she has since switched to the HuangCusker. It didn’t go great for her at April verification or American Classic, so hitting a bars dismount here is an essential step.
Shilese Jones is one we’ve been watching eagerly since she popped up as a little baby junior with a 1.5-twisting double tuck on floor all those centuries ago. She took the American Classic title with a 53.900 despite a meh on beam, revealing that she’s very capable of putting up a noteworthy number with a hit meet, the kind of number that holds up well in the all-around standings at a classic.
Several others like Shania Adams and Madeleine Johnston—the remainder of our AA podium from American Classic—have shown themselves to be 53-capable this year and able to reach that mark without being absolutely perfect. They’re not going to be strutting into the arena like, “I’m making the national team!” but they are worth following in the category of those who could have a moment at this classic.
Mama needs a new pair of qualifying scores
The remainder of the field has not yet fully qualified to nationals and will need to record the all-important 52.000 AA qualifying score if they intend to show four events in Boston. For those not caring so much about all four events, the three-event score is 39.750 and the two-event score is 27.000.
First, in injury-related news, Adeline Kenlin is planning to compete only bars at US Classic. She has already qualified to nationals on bars and beam but is hoping to show all four events in training at classic and then petition to compete all four at nationals.
Two essential characters in this race for qualifying scores are Olivia Dunne and Audrey Davis. Dunne, whose 53s saw her place 9th at junior championships last year, is the best gymnast in the country who’s not currently qualified to nationals (besides Simone). She certainly has the ability to be there and outscore several others who have already qualified. I would expect her to make it at least on a couple events, but she still has to do it on the day. Misses at both April verification and Jesolo saw her go 50.550 and 51.133, scores that would not make the cut.
Audrey Davis did manage to get her two-event qualifying score on vault and bars, but qualifying for just those two would be kind of a letdown. She’ll intend to get the necessary all-around score with her performance here. You’ll often see event qualifiers advance to nationals for vault, not because it’s a particular specialty but because it scores higher than the other events, which makes it a lot easier to get to that 27.000 (or 39.750) plateau. That’s the case for Davis, who was able to combine her vault score with her actual strength on bars (layout Jaeger!) to hit exactly 27.000 at American Classic.
Madelyn Williams will also make an appearance at nationals after getting her three-event score for vault, bars, and beam. If she wants to compete AA in Boston, she’ll need to add floor (and she did compete floor at the qualifiers in January and May), but bars is the real showpiece event in her repertoire anyway.
Eight others are not qualified in any capacity and will need hit performances at US Classic to move on. Often, these are the most entertaining characters to watch because there’s something real riding on their routines. There’s urgency. It’s not just about knocking off rust or setting up for next month. It’s this or never.
Emily Lee – Lee is among the most likely candidates to get the qualifying score, particularly since she was on pace to do so at American Classic before a bars mishap took her out of the meet. Lee scored 53.350 at an elite qualifier earlier this year, so she could tack an extra fall onto that performance and still get the number necessary to make nationals.
Deanne Soza – The toe-point queen missed her 3-event score at American Classic by just 6 tenths after falling on beam. We’ll see if she adds back floor at US Classic, which would make the average event score she needs a little less onerous. It’s a 13.250 average for three events, but a 13.000 average for four events. Regardless, she’s capable of getting her number with a hit meet.
Jaylene Gilstrap – Even closer, Gilstrap missed her 3-event score by just 4 tenths at American Classic. Gilstrap doesn’t show elite bars, and couple that with her lower D scores overall, she probably has to go through cleanly in order to get the score. But, she did stand out at American Classic with beam execution and the fact that she doesn’t perform a Yurchenko.
Isabel Mabanta – Mabanta was in a similar pickle to Gilstrap at American Classic. She didn’t compete bars, which put just a little too much strain on the other events to be huge numbers. She has the execution, but Ds like 4.4 just aren’t going to produce the necessary scores. Mabanta did, however, perform bars at elite qualifiers earlier in the year to get her classic-qualifying total.
Luisa Blanco – You’ll remember Blanco from last season, when she recorded some of the best beam numbers of the entire US summer, going into the 14s on multiple occasions. If she’s able to repeat those kinds of performances, she should at least get an event-qualifying score, if not an AA score.
Sloane Blakely – We saw Blakely compete four events at American Classic, and while she may not have the bars composition to get the needed all-around score, a hit day for her on the other three would be believable for a 3-event number.
Olivia Hollingsworth – Hollingsworth has made the switch from Stars to WCC since we saw her during the last elite season. Based on the D scores she showed at American Classic, Hollingsworth is another who will have to be perfect at US Classic to get her 52. That is, unless she adds back the DTY that she showed at junior nationals last year, which would give her a lot more leeway.
Stephanie Berger – The unknown factor in the US Classic field. Berger qualified here with a score of 51.850 at her home Brestyan’s qualifier, and as such, it would be easy to dismiss her with a “oh yay you made classic cool.” But, you’re going to like what you see from Berger on beam, and while she only vaults a full, she does it with Brestyan’s amplitude. With hits, I could see her getting a 2- or 3-event qualifying score, the potential obstacle being a lack of elite difficulty more than a lack of elite execution. Even her Brestyan’s bars is only semi-Brestyan’s-y.
Note that the senior competition has been bumped to 8:00 ET on July 28th. It was previously scheduled for 7:30 ET.