The Balance Beam Situation

Because gymnastics is a comedy, not a drama

Things Are Happening – April 26, 2019

A. All My Coaches

Dear gymnastics, this was supposed to be my week and weekend off. So could you, like, maybe not?

If the first week of the NCAA offseason is any indication, this is going to be a juicy one. The biggest coaching news, of course, is the reveal that Arkansas won the Jordyn Wieber sweepstakes (Grand Prize: 1 Jordyn Wieber, restrictions apply, not valid in Hawaii). She is taking over for the retiring Mark Cook as head coach of the Razorbacks starting immediately—and has already flown in to be like, “RED PANTS. WHAT.” (The well-staged team meeting was probably about more than that, but if it was also solely about red pants, I’m totally fine with it.)

The gymternet suddenly just got a lot more interested in the scoring of Sarah Shaffer’s Y1/2 than it ever had been before, let’s be honest. Welcome, friends.

Wieber’s successful last few seasons as floor coach for UCLA have blunted much of the “this is just a PR move” criticism that might otherwise have ensued from the hiring of a super-young, famous Olympian who has never technically had a paid college coaching job before—a background that mimics the trajectories of the first generation of legendary coaches, back before there were standards and whatnot. UCLA’s floor lineup has enjoyed a drastic improvement in full-season endurance and consistency in the last two seasons, so Wieber certainly has a tangible coaching accomplishment to lean on. UCLA’s floor rankings since 2013 have been 6-7-8-8-7-1-1. The floor work seriously improved.

Of course, head coach is very different job with very different responsibilities, and we have no way of knowing how this will go, but that’s true for every newbie. We’ve been given no reason to think it won’t be a successful move yet. And just imagine the recruiting. You’re a 14-15 year old who obsessed over the 2012 Olympics when you were a tiny, and then Jordyn Wieber walks up, and you just start peeing, and she’s like, “I want you on the team anyway, I think.”

And if the private-jet-social-media announcement was anything to go by, the amount of extra in store for us is all of it.

Does suck to be Armbrust and the McCools, though, especially after Armbrust and Griffith got the Associate Head Coach promotions before last season. Arkansas was just like, “Yeah…no,” and went out and got someone even younger and greener. We don’t yet know what Wieber’s staff will look like, but I’m waiting for Gossip Girl to spot Chris Brooks getting on a plane any second now. xoxo.

In somewhat less dramatic news with fewer private jets and twitter video teasers (get more private jets, Megan!), Megan Marsden announced that she is also retiring so that she can focus fully on monitoring Greg’s social media time and behavior.

Utah competing without a Marsden. That would be like me writing about MAG without vague sexual innuendos. Is it even an option? Is it even worth it?

Like an appropriate royal dynasty, Utah has always ensured that a reliable line of succession is in place (heir and a spare), and Tom Farden will continue as sole head coach from here. Because of the continuity provided by Tom and Robert Ladanyi, I don’t expect significant hand-wringing over WHAT WILL UTAH BE LIKE NOW. Utah should still be doing Utah in 2020.

Except for that one thing…

B. Skinner 2020

She has been teasing the decision for a while now so it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, but MyKayla Skinner has officially announced that she’s planning to forego the 2020 season at Utah to try for the US Olympic team.

In Skinner’s case, I’m sure the typical “unfinished business, dream didn’t come true first time, would regret not giving it another shot while I can” thought process plays into this to a large degree, but uniquely for her, she also seems to have become increasingly unfulfilled by college gymnastics and a code that emphasizes execution. Skinner is an elite-code gymnast. There’s not much gray area there. Despite improvements in form in recent years, her main thing is difficulty, not execution. She’s never going to be the college gymnast who gets a 10 every week (which has exactly nothing to do with her “attitude”) because she could downgrade to the bare minimum difficulty and her routines would be about 9.850s.

Elite is her milieu. It’s where her gymnastics is best rewarded, so why not…do that, even if the circumstances of the US WAG qualification approach make it a long shot?

In terms of actually making an Olympic team, Skinner has three options. 1) Get a nominative individual spot from apparatus world cups—the Jade Carey route. 2) Be named to a non-nominative individual spot at Olympic Trials. 3) Be named to the four-member Olympic team at Olympic Trials.

At this point, #2 is the longest shot. The US women will plan to have 4+2 Olympic spots—4 team spots and 2 individual spots—but since it’s looking increasingly likely that Jade Carey will get a nominative individual spot for herself through the apparatus world cups, it would make exactly zero sense to name Skinner to the other individual spot if you already have Biles and Carey taking up the oxygen on vault and floor. You have absolutely no need for another vault and floor gymnast, even if Skinner is outscoring Carey on vault and floor by the time 2020 Trials roll around (a significant reason many of us were so critical of the US women’s program approach to qualification and the nominative individual apparatus spots—it locks you into a single athlete, even if that athlete isn’t providing the highest score on her events come 2020).

Now, option #1 would be the most exciting. Can you imagine Skinner going to the final four apparatus qualifiers and trying to get her own three wins and going head-to-head with Carey for a spot? (1 spot per country from the apparatus WCs.) I would be in actual heaven. But, many complications to that. A) The US totally isn’t going to send an athlete to individual WCs to try to snatch a spot from another US athlete. B) The US’s informally named “No MyKaylas or Ashtons allowed” rules for sending athletes to apparatus qualifiers are very restrictive.

Those are…not easy to fulfill. Skinner would have to make the worlds team (translation – beat out Jade Carey for a spot on the team) and win an event medal there, OR beat Simone on vault or floor at nationals day 1, OR…make the national team based on results at the June camp (presumably also where she’ll attempt to get her elite qualifying score) and get named to the Pan American Games team and win an event there? Good luck.

[EDIT: Pan American Games is not an FIG event—but not sure how strictly they are interpreting “FIG competition”]

Route #3 has been sort of dismissed because there are only four people on the main Olympic team and Skinner is not going to have the bars and beam scores to be used in an Olympic team final. But if Carey is at the Olympics as an individual and not usable for team scores, it’s realistic that the US will be in need of someone else to provide vault and floor scores for TF. Skinner could go, complementing a Riley McCusker type, do bars and beam in qualification only, and then do vault and floor in TF.

I’m not saying it’s the most likely scenario, but I’m saying…you can come up with an argument. It’s a long shot, but even if it doesn’t work out, Skinner going back to elite seems fitting. I know it’s gauche to say you prefer elite to NCAA—because most don’t—but I kind of think Skinner does.

The first goal will be getting her qualifying score to Classic, a 51.000 AA or 26.500 for two events, which I don’t think should be too hard. She could literally just add a double tuck to her floor routine and get her two-event score for VT/FX without even upgrading vault, an upgrade that I’m sure she’s planning anyway. To get the AA score, she’ll have to add back content on bars and beam, but in the short run, she’d really only need 12s on those two events to get her 51 AA score. Very doable. Expect to see her competing at Classic, is what I’m saying.

It’s interesting that Utah has left the door open for Skinner to return next season should this not work out (presumably that means if there’s an injury, or if she doesn’t make national team this summer and the writing’s kind of on the wall that it’s not going to happen). By my count, that would make 13 people on scholarship in 2020 if Skinner returns, but who ever knows with these teams and their scholarship counts?

Also interesting is that there was no mention at all of the possibility of going for 2020, things working out well, and then Skinner returning to the Utah team in 2021 to do her 4th season. It’s sort of…I’m going to start the Olympics process, and if that doesn’t work out, I’ll do a 4th year at Utah in 2020 as a backup plan, but otherwise peace out forever.

The absence of Skinner in 2020 would certainly be a major loss for Utah—and coupled with the departures of MMG and Lee, would leave the lineups in near-wasteland status—but Utah has what is probably the strongest incoming class in all of NCAA next year with O’Keefe and Paulson, as well as Jillian Hoffman and Jaedyn Rucker. It’s a lot of work to make up, but don’t go writing Utah off yet.


In other “not competing NCAA in 2020 news” McKenna Kelley was on the Today Show—did they just now get the OMG MARY LOU DAUGHTER AHHHH memo?—and she revealed that the reason she was very much acting SENIOR NIGHT on senior night…is that it was her senior night. She’s not going to take her 5th redshirt year.

That means LSU is losing three vaults (Finnegan, Kelley, and the Priessman/Cannamela spot), two bars (Finnegan, Priessman), one beam (Finnegan), and 2.5 floors (Finnegan, Kelley, Priessman sometimes). It’s still manageable for LSU because both Kai Rivers and Kiya Johnson are expected to contribute huge vault and floor next season, but it puts a little more pressure on them to be ready to go right away, and on Bailey Ferrer to have vault and floor come along next season.

Oh, and also Mary Lou was there and did another bad.

C. Just. Stop. Talking.

In the interview, Mary Lou was asked about Dumpster Fire, and it started out well—it started out OK—but then she was asked what concerned parents should do, and she elected to go with, “I think if you go to a reputable gym, you’re going to be OK” because she never had any problems.

Yes, you need to be coached by someone reputable, like Bela Karolyi, and definitely not someone disreputable like Aimee Boorman or Chow. Abuse solved! You will have no problems!

Also gaining some traction from this interview is MLR’s mention of Li Li Leung wanting to talk to her to pick her brain (ouchie). Personally, I didn’t really think much of that. The CEO is going to have to…pay homage to the major figures in the sport and talk to a bunch of people and keep everyone on side. As CEO, you have to talk to a lot of people and pretend their opinions matter. It doesn’t mean MLR is suddenly Most Trusted Advisor.

I think no one would care or be concerned if it weren’t for what else happened with Li Li this week.

She had been cruising along so far (a.k.a. doing nothing aggressively terrible—which is an A+ on the USAG curve) until she did her first bad, saying in a Today interview, “I was not abused by him because my coach was by my side.”

Can these people please stop piping in with their theories on what you need to do to not be abused? I’m sure it might make you feel better in that “it could never happen to me” kind of way…but it could. You aren’t special. You weren’t in a better or safer environment than those who were abused. Shut up and stop it.

This comment from Li Li is a problem, first of all because it’s wrong, and second of all because it displays a lack of familiarity with the stories of survivors, a number of whom were abused with parents or other trusted figures in the room. If you’re the CEO of USAG, you better be a damn expert on That Guy and abuse in general, and that kind of comment tells us that she very much isn’t.

On the plus side (and I know not everyone will agree this is much of a plus), she did recognize the problem and attempt an apology. Such as it was. The apology has a whiff of “I’m sorry if you’re so dumb that you were offended…” but at least it was a try. Compared to the usual USAG press playbook of never acknowledging any mistakes or apologizing ever, “we’ve never done anything wrong, you’re the problem, you either support everything we’ve ever said and done or you HATE gymnastics, those are the two choices, goodbye”…this is better? Or something?

At least, it makes me feel like she’s not in the “too far gone to be saved, must immediately resign” camp, which is pretty new for USA Gymnastics. They usually hire people who are so arrogant and stupid that there’s no way forward, and that doesn’t seem to be the case here.

But also, this “oh, I’ve never had my words scrutinized before, this is just so new for little ol’ me, I’ve never been to the big city before” defense is such an eye roll. Cry me a river.

“I’ve never had a job where I had to make sense and be informed and tell the truth before” isn’t a great thing to say…

D. Meets?

The All-Japan individual championships are underway with qualification concluding today. The big news from the men’s side is that Kohei decided to take a page out of the Oleg playbook and compete all six events despite being extremely, very dead.

Anyway, he finished 37th, which—turns out—isn’t great. Kenzo also had a disaster and finished 21st. Japan…you OK? The Tanigawas are the only ones who can save us now.

On the women’s side, no legends physically gave out and ascended to the spirit realm in the middle of the competition, so that’s solid news, but it’s worth noting that Asuka Teramoto did outscore Mai Murakami in the AA in qualification. Eyes on that.

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