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US Junior Nationals Preview

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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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