Junior nationals! It’s like senior nationals, but doesn’t matter as much.
Reinforced by, well, everything has been the emergence of a junior Big Four—sort of like the Russia, USA, China, Romania version of the Big Four, except no one is Romania, may she rest in peace. Sunisa Lee, Jordan Bowers, Leanne Wong, and Kayla DiCello have created some real distance from the rest of the pack and every expectation is that they will fight it out among themselves to see who is the 2018 junior national champion.
Juniors compete on Friday and Sunday at 1:30 ET, streaming online.
For the win
What’s exciting is that each of the four looks just as realistic as any other to win the title. A convincing argument can be made for all.
Scoring Potential – This is where Sunisa Lee has the advantage. When she is hitting her intended D scores on all four pieces, she cannot be caught. Her potential bars difficulty is worlds ahead of the other juniors right now, but she also boasts the top floor score of the group with 13.800. I wouldn’t have guessed that without looking, but it proves that it’s not all about the bars and beam for Lee. The big test for her will be bringing all that difficulty back (she did not show full D at US Classic) and doing it in hit routines across two full days of competition, therefore not rendering herself vulnerable to the Sturdy Gurdys who don’t have such big routines.
Winning Pedigree – The best way to figure out who’s going to win is to look at who has won before. The top juniors have ventured to a couple major international competitions already this year—Pacific Rims and the Junior Pan American Championships—and on each occasion Jordan Bowers has come home with the all-around gold medal, outscoring the very people she’ll be expected to outscore to win a junior national championship this week, and doing it in front of the discerning judging panels of international competitions.
In Form – These same gymnasts with these same expectations all gathered just a few weeks ago at US Classic, and it was Leanne Wong who came away with a clear victory, looking the most secure and most prepared of the group while others were still holding back on difficulty or working through routine composition in the hope of peaking later on. Twenty days before this competition, Wong was the best of the bunch. Can that much change in twenty days?
No Weakness – Let’s be real here, it’s junior nationals. For an much as we can talk about ability and potential, we’ve seen many a junior national competition (most?) be decided by which of the favorites ends up falling apart the least when dealing with many new sets of eyes on them. Kayla DiCello’s even difficulty and comfort with that difficulty is an asset in that regard. There’s no event where she’s falling behind the others on D, but also no event where she looks like she’s trying to upgrade past her ability level in order to keep pace.
So, what’s even riding on this competition? Without an event like Junior Japan on the schedule this year, with junior worlds not happening until 2019, and with the US still not scheduled to send a WAG athlete to the Youth Olympics, what does having a good meet even mean besides bragging rights? (And winning a national championship, but snore, it’s not even worlds.)
The National Team
The top 6 finishers in the junior AA and the top 6 finishers in the senior AA automatically qualify to the US national team—which means funding, a place at selection camps, and first dibs on international competition opportunities.
(There are 8 additional discretionary spots available for juniors and seniors combined, most of which will go to seniors this year—or be temporarily unassigned until the early 2019 camps—because the seniors have multiple team competitions coming up and the juniors have nothing coming up.)
The Big Four should get 4 of those 6 junior national team spots, but after that, it gets real. The next favorite for a spot will be Tori Tatum, someone who is on the cusp of that top group, not quite showing the same scoring potential but very nearly there and capable of catching any one of them depending on the day. Beyond Tatum…who’s going to have a big meet an earn it? There are nearly a dozen different people who could do it, so keep that number 6 in mind when watching the scores come in because there is major significance in placing 1-6.
For reference, here’s a list of the best scores recorded on each event by each of the juniors this year (top 5 in each category are in bold).
JaFree Scott and Sydney Barros are the two other current members of the junior national team looking to reconfirm their spots, but the field contains so many other viable nominees for the title of New Favorite Child who could get in as well. Skye Blakely took 6th at US Classic, just ahead of Aleah Finnegan and Karis German, but Olivia Greaves finished less than a point behind Blakely even with a fall.
A couple of those other bold scores indicate some of the most essential routines to watch—and the few people who can hope to snatch an event title away from the Big Four. Greaves fell on bars at US Classic but will have among the highest Ds of the whole club on that event, and that massive score for Ui Soma on beam sure stands out. Now, it was earned at an elite qualifier, and we all know to treat elite qualifier scores with the seriousness of a sasquatch sighting. But, Soma did not compete at the US Classic, meaning there’s still some air of mystery around her as we wait to see how that beam routine measures up in real life.
Birth years are also included in the above list for a quick glance at who is turning senior next year (the 2003 babies) and therefore who becomes most important to watch when you inevitably get to that point in the meet when you’re already bored with 2018 and start fantasizing about 2019 and 2020. Most of the top juniors will be seniors next year, though DiCello will have another year as a junior, when every expectation will be that she emerges as the leader of the junior ranks.
And what of the juniors who will turn senior next year? For many of them, this will be our last chance of comparison before they’re seniors and suddenly competing for the same team spots as the names we know very well. Come January, we’ll be speculating about who can break up the established club, and this competition will be our best point of reference. The game of “She would have placed [IMPRESSIVELY LOW NUMBER] in the seniors” will be live.
But at the same time, that senior group is so strong that I don’t really expect the best junior scores at nationals to challenge what the worlds team contenders put up in the senior competition. Typically, especially early in quads, at least a few juniors get the “she would totally go to worlds if she were senior” treatment—in 2017, O’Keefe and Malabuyo would have been 2nd and 3rd at nationals if they were seniors—but I’m not sure that sort of thing will happen this year. It’s a different senior/junior dynamic, and my expectation is that the top five or six AA scores over the whole competition will come from the seniors. We’ll see if anyone defies those expectations.