The Balance Beam Situation

Because gymnastics is a comedy, not a drama

2018 US Nationals – Senior Podium Training & Preview

Item #1: Morgan vs. Ragan vs. Riley

Yes, I’m beginning this preview with a little twist and not starting with Simone. Now that Simone is back and already looking inevitable again, the big story shifts to figuring out who will be her all-around partner in the role that Kyla Ross and Aly Raisman inhabited so diligently last quad. It’s going to get real.

Morgan Hurd is the defending world champion, Ragan Smith is the defending national champion, and Riley McCusker is the only non-Simone American to have gone 57 this year.

Only 2 people will be able to go in the AA final at worlds.
Only 3 people will (most likely) go in the AA in qualification.
This town ain’t big enough.

Well, it’s big enough for them all to go to worlds, potentially. That would be…sort of a good team. But this town definitely isn’t big enough for everyone to fulfill her AA dreams at the same time.

On both difficulty and execution, all three are tightly packed and could end up finishing in any order. At US Classic, McCusker ended up a little more than a point ahead of Hurd, who had a fall, while Hurd had 0.3 more difficulty than McCusker. If Smith had done AA, she likely would have been ahead of both on difficulty but behind both in the final scores because of her miss on bars.

(Smith did have some more Stadler Tkatchev-ing problems in podium training today—I saw two mat slams and a tuck-to-save—but worked it out occasionally. That Ricna will be one of the key skills of nationals.)

While an actual decision about where all three stand in the all-around picture will be made based more on selection camp and closer-to-worlds training than on this competition, nationals should still give us an indication about which way the wind is blowing. Does McCusker have the floor composition and vault consistency to keep up with the other two? Is Smith back to full strength? Is she adding the upgrades she teased at Classic? I didn’t notice any upgrades in podium training for Smith for the moment, save for a triple wolf on beam instead of double wolf. Even without upgrades, she’s still looking at a modest D-score advantage. But is she ready to beat the others?

From the PT stream, it looked like Hurd went back to the double double tucked instead of the layout version. It’s a tenth downgrade in difficulty if that’s her competition plan, but I’m not opposed to it. It may very well be the E-smart decision for her. Competing as the sturdy one throughout this process will be a big deal for Hurd, especially with Smith not as far along in her preparation as the other two and McCusker’s ability to stay at the same level of performance and health through a whole season still an unknown quantity.

With this trio, it certainly feels like “The one you know you can rely on” is still an identity open to be claimed by someone with her upcoming meet performances.

Item #2: The vaults

Now, to Simone. It would be a massive shock if Biles doesn’t win the all-around title here, of course, and with her already showing her upgrades at US Classic, we pretty much know what we’re going to get. Although, she did manage to tease some further later-year upgrades in her interview, so everyone start freaking out about double doubles off beam and TTYs or whatever.

The only real difference we saw from Simone in podium training this time around (aside from suddenly and momentarily forgetting how to Weiler on bars, but don’t worry about it) was the addition of her second vault. Surprise, surprise, she can still Amanar.

This is clear world-vault-champion stuff when added to her Cheng, but it’s also an important factor for someone like Jade Carey, whose ability to get vault medals has been her main thing for the past year. “Second-best vault specialist” isn’t usually a title that gets people on to teams. But not so fast. Perhaps the most significant development of podium training was Carey going all-in on the floor passes in an effort to make her floor routine a necessity.

Carey upgraded two of her passes from the FX she competed at US Classic, upping the DLO to a DLO 1/1 (F to H), and upping the final pass to a full-in, a total tumbling addition of three tenths. That puts her directly into near-Simone territory and creates some distance between her and the rest of the floor workers.

Those upgrades could be quite necessary for Carey because we’ve been taking it for granted that she would have a better-than-DTY vault to be used in a team final, but that’s not a given. Carey is attempting to add back that essential Amanar here, but of the two I saw in PT, one was strong with a step forward, and one she jusssssst pulled out, landing it in a very deep squat. Her Amanar is a piece the US team definitely needs, but only if it is 1000% consistent. (And it appears the Kas is dead? At least for now?)

Nothing is set in stone. There’s still a potential vault opportunity for someone else (even if Carey is hitting that Amanar), though its not immediately clear who that would be. Jordan Chiles started with a couple DTYs in podium training then moved up to Amanars, sitting the two attempts that I saw.

Item #3: The Pan Ams Team

Getting less play than the worlds team (because it’s less important) is the selection of the team for the Pan American Championships in September. Yet for many of these seniors—those who know they don’t have a super-great shot to get onto the worlds team—there’s a ton riding on these national championship performances because of that meet. These are the routines that will be used to select the Pan Am Championship team, and making that team would be a crowning Team USA international assignment in the elite careers of many of them.

I’m assuming Pan Ams will still be a six-person team as it was four years ago, and my preference would be for selecting completely different Pan Ams and World Championships groups (including alternates) in order to get the most out of the limited number of competition opportunities in 2018.

Even with that premise in mind, the group of six could go many different ways. It could be an elite swan song for gymnasts like Marz Frazier and Trinity Thomas should they decide to focus solely on NCAA after this summer. Although, if you’re in the “MUST GAIN INTERNATIONAL EXPERIENCE FOR FUTURE OPPORTUNITIES” camp, that wouldn’t be the most prudent use of these spots.

This could also be “the test” for athletes who have been seniors for a couple years now but are still just on the outside, like Jordan Chiles or Alyona Shchennikova. Are they still in the mix, or no…? Complicating that, Chiles and Shchennikova will still have to decide whether they want to defer NCAA for a season to try to make Olympic Trials or just head to their colleges as planned and compete in the 2019-2020 season. Getting opportunities (or not) this year could help influence that decision.

Another convincing option would be to informally limit the Pan Ams team to only first-year seniors. From a pragmatic standpoint, they’re the group you want to keep in the fold for possible Olympic opportunities (because their bodies are most likely to be still working), the ones you don’t want getting disillusioned with their team-making prospects so that they drop down to L10 before doing NCAA.

I don’t necessarily know that the selection committee will be pulling out their olde tyme accountant visors to crunch the numbers in selecting this team—or whether they’ll just go by who would benefit most from the competition experience. By the numbers recorded so far, you’d definitely pick your Frazier/Chiles/Shchennikova gymnasts along with some of the new seniors because their 2018 scores (and overall scoring potential) are among the best of this not-necessarily-going-to-worlds group. But, if the team is ultimately selected based on giving athletes experience and gaining answers for selecting future teams, it’s not going to be the end of the world—or really even change the results—if you take a vague scoring hit in order to learn something about possible team members.

But the real results-based argument won’t be able to be made until after nationals. One of the key pastimes I’ll be undertaking as the competition progresses is weeding out all the Biles/Hurd etc. scores to see who among the rest would make up the best-scoring Pan Ams team. That group looks very amorphous, and there are plenty of spots to be won.

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