US Junior Nationals Preview

I’m beginning this preview of junior nationals with a look at the overall point or value of winning a junior national championship, which has come under scrutiny in recent quads as the power of junior national championships as a predictor of senior elite success has drastically declined.

Many of the most decorated US athletes at worlds and Olympics in the last couple quads—Simone Biles, Aly Raisman, Gabby Douglas, Morgan Hurd—never won a junior national championship. Meanwhile, of the champions of the last 8 junior national competitions, only Laurie Hernandez has (as yet) gone on to make a world/Olympic team as a senior. Of course, Leanne Wong is still TBD. There’s a lot of “never healthy enough to compete to full potential as a senior elite” going on in that group.

US JUNIOR NATIONAL CHAMPIONS

2018 – Leanne Wong
2017 – Maile O’Keefe
2016 – Maile O’Keefe
2015 – Laurie Hernandez
2014 – Jazzy Foberg
2013 – Bailie Key
2012 – Lexie Priessman
2011 – Katelyn Ohashi
2010 – Kyla Ross
2009 – Kyla Ross
2008 – Jordyn Wieber
2007 – Rebecca Bross
2006 – Shawn Johnson
2005 – Natasha Kelley
2004 – Nastia Liukin
2003 – Nastia Liukin
2002 – Carly Patterson
2001 – Kristal Uzelac
2000 – Kristal Uzelac
1999 – Kristal Uzelac
1998 – Morgan White
1997 – Marline Stephens
1996 – Vanessa Atler
1995 – Mina Kim
1994 – Dominique Moceanu
1993 – Jennie Thompson
1992 – Lanna Apisukh
1991 – Anne Woynerowski
1990 – Hilary Grivich

This recent trend is a stark departure from the period of 2002-2010,  when every junior national champion went on to make at least one senior world/Olympic team, and we had a streak of Patterson, Liukin, Johnson, Bross, Wieber, and Ross as junior champions that would lead one to believe that a direct correlation existed between the junior national championship and world/Olympic success. The expectation we used to have, that those who win junior nationals immediately go to the front of the conversation for future Olympic teams, is fully gone.

It’s worth noting, however, that junior national championships not necessarily translating into ALL THE MEDALS as a senior elite is hardly a new phenomenon. If you go back to Kristal Uzelac, and Marline Stephens, and Mina Kim, we’ve seen this story before. And it’s not as though athletes like Biles, Raisman, Douglas, and Hurd weren’t on the radar as juniors. Far from it. The year before they turned senior, Biles placed 3rd in the juniors, Raisman was 3rd, Douglas was 4th, and Hurd was 5th. They were right there. Just not THE CHAMPION and not nearly at the level we would later come to see from them as seniors.

That’s why I don’t think you can make a categorical argument one way or another about the value of winning a junior national championship. Kyla Ross was perfect from an egg and continues to be perfect in NCAA ten years after her first junior national title, and Laurie Hernandez won junior nationals the year before the Olympics and had a perfect trajectory to peak exactly on time for Rio.

But at a certain point, you have to look at these recent junior national championship results and think that if the goal is senior elite success, pushing to be good enough to become junior national champion at such a young age has got to seem…optional at best? Certainly not necessary. From Ohashi to Priessman to Key to Foberg to O’Keefe, we’ve seen too many recent junior national champions who showed their best elite gymnastics as juniors rather than seniors.

So on that note, let’s talk about who might become junior national champion this year. I’m just a ray of sunshine today.


The cool thing about these current juniors is that I don’t see anyone, even among the top-ranked athletes, who seems to be going full out or pressing the limits of her ability yet. There. There’s my positivity for the day. Phew. I’m spent.

With her title-winning results at Jesolo and US Classic, Konnor McClain must be considered the leader of the juniors right now. She is the strongest of the group on vault and beam—where she is truly next level—and was able to use those scores to carry her to the title at Classic despite a medium-sized error on bars.

Still, for title speculation, it’s worth looking at the entirety of the Junior Six—McClain, Di Cello, Blakely, Barros, Greaves, and Alipio. That’s the group that placed 1-6 at junior worlds trials and 1-5 at Classic (with Di Cello’s wolf turn nightmare taking her down the standings). It’s possible to see a title for pretty much any of them should circumstances play out just right.

In fact, if you take the top scores in 2019 on each event for the juniors, it’s Blakely rather than McClain who comes out just a smidge ahead. (Top 5 in any category is highlighted.)

Blakely finished 4th—1.650 behind McClain—at the US Classic, but that was with the wolf turn journey of hilarity on beam and a leg-break, extra swing on bars right before her dismount. A clean meet from her is going to get a lot closer to the top. Recall that Blakely dominated junior worlds trials to win that competition.

Di Cello is basically the elder stateswoman of this group—as much as you can be as a junior. She was part of the Junior Four last year with Lee, Wong, and Bowers, and expectations were that she would rise to the top this year as the only returning junior among the bunch. To a large degree she has, and with a hit competition at nationals, Di Cello is quite capable of winning the title. I’m fully comfortable chalking up the Classic performance as a fluke, and under most circumstances, she is the most even athlete across the four events in this top junior group. All of her scores are going to be good, solid, near-the-top—probably not winning any individual event, but very believably top 5.

Barros came the closest to knocking off McClain at Classic, finishing just 0.300 behind and doing so with a pretty excellent competition overall. She can land her vault better than she did at Classic, but for the most part, repeating that Classic performance at nationals would be a win and would put her in contention to take advantage of the mistakes of others for a title.

Greaves is the strongest bars gymnast among the US juniors right now and is still quite reliant on that score—as well as a mostly clean, but not excessively difficult beam routine—to keep her up toward the top of the standings. But we’re also catching Greaves in a moment of transition as she tries to up the chops on leg events, upgrading to a DTY this year from the FTY she competed in 2018. The DTY is not quite there yet, as we’ve seen it score 13.950 and 14.100 in two instances this year, and that may keep her lower down the standings since the previously mentioned four have very comfortable DTYs of their own. Still, bars can make up for that.

Alipio is currently sort of borderline between the tiers. Is she among the title contenders, or is she in that very next tier with Butler, Pilgrim, and Lippeatt—the ones who have certain events here and there and will expect to make the national team but may not have the four-event scores to get a 55? Either/or? Alipio did win American Classic, and placed just a half tenth behind Blakely at US Classic and a tenth behind McClain at worlds trials, so I think that qualifies her for the top tier. Bars and beam are lovely and can score among the very best in the field, and she upgraded vault from an FTY to a 1.5 for US Classic, which mitigates some potential disadvantage on the leg events she might otherwise have faced.

Other routines to watch:
Karis German’s floor – with a tucked double double leading off her routine, she is the future of big floor in the US

Sydney Morris bars & beam – she’s got the inbar thing down on bars, and a back full on beam that’s going to give her the difficulty to challenge many of the higher profile juniors on those pieces

Anya Pilgrim floor – certainly someone who isn’t pushing the difficulty yet on floor (her 3rd pass is a 2/1 that finishes in the actual middle of the floor), but her 1.5 through to double Arabian opening pass is worth it

Zoe Miller bars – Her composition is basically senior-ready. If you want to see an inbar full finished in actual handstand position, here’s your routine.

Nola Matthews beam – She got the highest junior beam execution score at Classic for a reason

Mya Witte beam – That 15.000 you see on beam for her in the chart above is a total elite qualifier score, but she can get a real life 14 and score among the best beamers in the competition.

 

 

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22 thoughts on “US Junior Nationals Preview”

  1. A lot of people were asking about Jordan Browers – she posted an update on Instagram that says she’s had to withdraw from the 2019 elite season due to injuries, but she has the intent to continue to train elite.

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  2. Kayla DiCello reminds me of Trinity Thomas- not a standout on any event and most likely will not win an event, but places well everywhere.

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  3. if you can control your peaking (a big if a lot of time), then the best seniors are not the ones that wins the jr championships. Maybe the recent trend is toward later peaking so those that peak earlier never quite the best once they are seniors?

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  4. I’m watching out for Anya Pilgrim. I’m sure she has other upgrades up her sleeve. (not necessarily this year, but for the future) Wasn’t she one of the few people who do front inbars?

    Other than that, more than anything I hope everyone stays healthy!

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    1. I’m just listing the national team members because I don’t know where to get birthdates for everyone else.

      Alipio, Butler, DiCello, Greaves, Lippeatt, and Morgan were all born in 2004 and therefore eligible for Tokyo.

      Barros, Blakely, and McClain were all born in 2005 and therefore too young.

      Hopefully that is sufficient. I think it is probably unlikely that anyone is going to come from below these ranks to make the Tokyo team so this probably covers everyone relevant.

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    2. So I was bored and looked up a few more, everyone on the “to watch” list above. German, Pilgrim, Morris are all 2004-born and Tokyo eligible. Witte and Miller are 2005 and not eligible. Matthews doesn’t have a USAG profile but her Chalk Warrior profile says she is 12 and class of 2025 for college gymnastics, so I’m going with not eligible.

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    3. For a better overview, I listet all juniors from the chart above by birth year:
      2004:
      Greaves
      DiCello
      Alipio
      Butler
      Frazier
      Siegfeldt
      Little
      Pilgrim
      Lippeat
      Morgan
      German
      Morris
      Saltness
      Fatta
      Posen

      2005:
      Blakely
      McClain
      Barros
      Witte
      Robinson
      Miller
      Sears
      Parenti
      Rosen
      Zirbes
      Birt

      2006:
      Matthews
      Jung-Ruivivar
      Chio

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  5. I wish Ohashi and Key hadn’t been pushed to the point of career-ending injury, but I do think some gymnasts are just going to physically peak at younger ages and it’s ok to be better as a junior than a senior. It doesn’t necessarily mean you or your coaches failed.

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    1. True. And I think sometimes it’s good they got to have those experiences and successes – because the Olympic team is small, and most will not make it anyway. I don’t know if seniors were necessarily paced correctly, or the stars aligned that they improved as they go older and/or avoided injury. Also, sometimes consistency comes with age or development of just one particular weak spot in the AA.

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      1. I also always think it’s interesting seeing these discussions of junior/senior success on here because Gymcastic has also praised Aimee for taking basically this philosophy– you shouldn’t put too much emphasis on peaking, because for all you know this might be your last year and so why hold back?

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      2. My point is just that everyone is different. It is good that there’s an overall trend towards “peaking” later and viewing a senior career as something that can easily stretch for 3 – 6 years instead of 1, but sometimes things are going to happen that you can’t control. Not every gymnast who has a strong junior career but little to no senior success is a victim of bad coaching or bad planning – sometimes that’s just how things shake out.

        Whether that justifies adding a lot of difficulty early or not is a decision that should be made by an individual and their coach (and probably their parents as long as their parents aren’t total idiots).

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  6. Timing is so key as to whether a junior has international success as a senior, it’s worth looking at the junior champs based on when in the quad they won the junior title.

    Compared to the other 3 years, winning the Junior title the 2nd year of new quad has by far produced the largest number of seniors with successful international careers. From 1989-present, the 2nd year of the Quad junior winners are: Grivich, Moceanu, White, Patterson, Johnson, Ross, Foberg, and Wong.

    Leaving out Wong, because she’s just starting her senior career, all of the above except Foberg and White competed at Worlds. All but Foberg and White competed at the Olympics, and keep in mind that many thought Grivich was lowballed at Olympic trials, and White actually made the Olympic team. Moceanu, Patterson, and Johnson won Senior National titles, while Patterson, Johnson, and Ross all won 2 World/Olympic AA medals.

    It’s worth noting that none of the 2nd Year Quad winners, except Shawn Johnson (and Moceanu to a degree), were particularly noted for their difficulty. But Johnson was rare in that she only trained 20-25 hours a week, giving her body more rest, while the others (Grivich, Patterson, Ross, White) were simply clean, steady athletes. This may support Spencer’s idea that pushing it too much is detrimental to juniors hoping for senior success.

    In total, of the 24 gymnasts to win Junior Nationals from 1989-2018:
    9 won Senior National titles. 12 went on to compete at Worlds/and or Olympics, and 7 won a World/Olympic AA medal (5 of those gold).
    Overall, winning a junior national title gives you a 50% chance to compete at Worlds/Olympics, a 37.5 % chance to win the Senior AA, and a 29% chance to win a World/Olympic AA medal. But the odds go up if you won your junior title the 2nd year of the quad. The patterns thus bode well for Leanne Wong, but not necessarily for whoever wins the junior title this year.

    Of the Pre-Olympic year junior winners since 1989, 3 went on the compete at Worlds/Olympics (Liukin, Bross, Hernandez) but all did it in different fashions. Hernandez is the only one to make the Olympic team the year after winning juniors, and she was fortunate her strengths fit the puzzle pieces needed. Liukin made the Olympic team, but that was 5 years later, so she’s more the rare gymnastics career than part of a pattern. Bross won 6 World medals, but only made it halfway through the quad. So any Olympic hopeful who wins this year needs to hope they’re age-eligible for the Olympics, or have a coach able to keep them up through 5 more years. Because the odds are not particularly in their favor.

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    1. Morgan White competed at 1999 Worlds. She was the second alternate and competed after both Alyssa Beckerman and Jennie Thompson withdrew.

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    2. I love this analysis; this is exactly the kind of nerdy approach I was thinking about taking and then you did it for me. THANK YOU.

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  7. List of 10 out of the 11 USA World/Olympic AA Champions and where they placed at Junior Nationals. (Does not include S.Miller as I couldn’t find her stats)
    Kim Zmeskal: 1988 (tied 8th) 1989 (1st)
    Carly Patterson: 2001 (3rd) 2002 (1st)
    Chellsie Memmell: 2002 (3rd)
    Shawn Johnson:2005 (10th) 2006 (1st)
    Nastia Liukin: 2002 (15th) 2003 (1st) 2004 (1st)
    Bridget Sloan: 2005 (14th) 2006 (32nd)
    Jordyn Wieber: 2006 (tied 9th) 2007 (3rd) 2008 (1st) 2010 (42nd)
    Gabby Douglas: 2008 (16th) 2009 (31st) 2010 (4th)
    Simone Biles: 2011 (17th) 2012 (3rd)
    Morgan Hurd: 2014 (tied 32nd) 2015 (13th) 2016 (4th)

    5 out of 10 won Junior National titles, but none until their 2nd try. 2 out of 10 placed 3rd (Biles on her 2nd try, and Memmell). While 3 never medaled at all despite multiple attempts (Sloan, Douglas, Hurd).

    So just because someone doesn’t place here, or even didn’t qualify to compete at all, it’s not the end of the world. It could just be that next year is their year.

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