The Balance Beam Situation

Because gymnastics is a comedy, not a drama

US Nationals – Senior Women’s Preview

Day 1 – Friday, August 9, 6:30pm CT (NBCSN)
Day 2 – Sunday, August 11, 6:30pm CT (NBC)

It’s the big one. At least until selection camp. Which, let’s be honest, is the bigger one. While Simone is Simone and blah blah blah, the supposed expansion of the senior national team to 10 members all named after nationals means that each of the 17 gymnasts in the senior field has something legitimate riding on this competition. Let’s go one by one.

Simone Biles

It may seem strange, but the least significant stakes in this meet accompany the performance of Simone Biles, the inevitable champion. She’s going for her casual sixth national championship, and it would take a catastrophic number of falls for her not to achieve that (I’m thinking at least four across the two days, probably more like five or six). Even if that were somehow to happen, it wouldn’t change anything with regard to her world-favorite status. Here, she just has to show up and give the people a thrill.

In that regard, let’s talk about that triple double. Because Simone showed us the triple double in podium training at Classic, that means she basically has to compete it at nationals, right? That’s the implicit agreement? Correct.

Sloane Blakely

Blakely’s goal here will be to try to make the national team, and as a member of that Pan Ams training squad of 8, she has to think she’s at least in the picture. But it’s going to be difficult. Blakely competed three events at Classic (VT, BB, FX) for a 39.900, and you have to think she needs to add back bars at nationals to have a shot at a national team spot. Bars isn’t always a great score for Blakely, but she did go 13.500 at Gymnix this year, which is her best score on the event as a senior elite. If we take that number and add it to her Classic total, that would put her at 53.400 in the all-around, which would have placed 13th.

We don’t know exactly how these national team spots are going to be assigned, if it will go directly by AA or if there will be some kind of thought and strategy used, but I have to think Blakely is the kind of athlete who needs to get there by AA placement. Blakely is capable of scoring much better than she did at Classic on both beam and floor—she didn’t fall but can realistically add at least a half point to her E score on both pieces—but she’s probably looking at needing to have an ideal meet both days of competition to get into that top 10.

Jade Carey

For the most part, Jade did Jade on vault and floor at Classic. Of course there are form things we can go into, but she tied for both the 2nd-highest floor score in the competition and the 2nd-highest vault score. Her argument to go to worlds to compete vault and floor for the team and for possible individual medals remains quite strong, and as long as she keeps it up on those events, she’s in solid shape.

To me, her bars and beam routines are essentially irrelevant to her prospects. Putting together worlds team permutations, I don’t see a possible realistic team where she does those events even in qualification. They have no bearing on her quest for an individual Olympic spot and should have no bearing on her position on the national team, which should be a lock. I say should.

Still, hitting bars and beam at nationals could put her surprisingly high in the all-around standings.

Jordan Chiles

Without much training time under her belt, Chiles set a solid progress point at Classic, particularly with a beam routine that looked more confident than we’ve ever seen her on that event.

That Classic performance was good enough for 11th place in the AA, but to get on the national team, and to make the selection camp group, we’re going to have to see Chiles level-up again at championships beyond what we saw at Classic. She’ll need to reproduce those strong bars and beam routines while also delivering the floor landings and difficulty—or, dare I say, bring back the Amanar again. If she does, she’ll have an excellent shot at getting on the national team, but Chiles is certainly not in a safe position. She has to hit, hit, hit at nationals to make it happen. Last year, she didn’t hit, hit, hit at nationals, placed 11th overall, and didn’t make the national team—though she did attend the selection camp as a non-national team invitee.

Kara Eaker

Following the results of Classic and Pan Ams, it’s now easy to declare Kara Eaker a legitimate all-around contender. I wouldn’t say she’s a favorite to win the non-Simone category at nationals this year, but it’s definitely within the realm of possibility, and that certainly wouldn’t have seemed the case only a couple months ago.

With her mostly great performance at Pan Ams (the team competition and event finals combine to outweigh the all-around, paper covers rock) there’s not a lot that Eaker needs to do at nationals to prove herself, because she just did that over back-to-back weekends. One of the most interesting questions at nationals will be how much the Pan Ams athletes do (or don’t) back off the training numbers and events and difficulty, although because Eaker remains so reliant on a big beam number for her AA scores, backing off on the repetitive pounding may not affect her as much as others who are more reliant on vault/floor.

Aleah Finnegan

We’re mostly on post-concussion watch for Finnegan after she had to withdraw from the event finals at Pan Ams with a suspected concussion. Wariness about that concussion adds an extra wrinkle to the affair for Finnegan because even though she did well at Classic to place 7th AA and get herself onto the Pan Ams team, she’s not clear enough from the challenging pack to feel that she has a locked spot on the national team. (As long as there’s no predetermined agreement about the Pan Ams athletes making this year’s national team, which there might be, we just don’t know about it.)

If things go a little differently at nationals than at Classic—Chiles and Jones hit, Finnegan has a miss or two—suddenly she’s in the national team danger zone. How do you then balance concerns about that concussion and having just been through Pan Ams with the pressure to get an all-around score and Finnegan’s reliance on vault and floor scores to get that AA number up?

Morgan Hurd

The success Morgan Hurd has enjoyed the past two years comes with perks. In this case, it has allowed for a lack of drama or concern—or less than one would normally expect—when a worlds team favorite places 6th AA at Classic and misses the all-around final at Pan Ams despite producing a hit meet. The precedent of 2017, when Hurd finished 5th at nationals and later became world all-around champion, taught us that this trajectory is not unusual and not cause for hyper-analysis. Yet.

At some point, and some point soon, we will need to start seeing more from Hurd on floor because that is an essential event for her individual and team-contribution hopes. It doesn’t need to happen until selection camp, but will it happen at nationals? Even though Hurd did compete in the team competition at Pan Ams and had to go through all the training and the exhausting rigamarole of travel, she did not compete as much as the likes of McCusker and Eaker and therefore may have been less taxed by the experience, and less in need of taking it easy at nationals.

Shilese Jones

Because so much of the worlds team decision-making process won’t happen until selection camp, the race for the national team spots and the selection camp spots takes center stage at nationals. And in that respect, Jones figures very large as one of those borderline gymnasts whom you can absolutely see making the NT, but it also wouldn’t be a shock if she’s left off.

Jones finished 9th all-around at Classic and came just a smidge from making the Pan Ams team, even with a beam-grab. That tells us that a super-clean meet from her at nationals should suit her quite well and get her comfortably into the 55s. If Classic is any indication, gymnasts are going to need to be able to score 55s in the all-around to be in the mix. Because this is the world we live in now. Vault is Jones’s best event, so a controlled landing is critical for her there to gain a couple tenths on the other DTYers.

Emily Lee

In a field of just 17, there aren’t many “just happy to be here” gymnasts, though Emily Lee comes the closest. It’s a significant accomplishment for her just to make it this far and compete with this caliber of gymnasts at nationals, though I wouldn’t go about completely writing her off.

Lee finished 12th AA at Classic with a 54.450, just a couple tenths behind Jordan Chiles, and that was with a hand-grab of her own on beam. With a full hit on that event (her best one, although her very strong floor performance at Classic might be changing that narrative), she’d be really close to that coveted 55 zone. Especially if some of those Pan Ams athletes do back off a little, an opening could arise for someone like Emily Lee to sneak up the standings. There’s no one in this competition who’s truly out of the national team mix.

Sunisa Lee

Is she doing the all-around? That’s the major question for Lee, whose two-event, no-beam-dismount performance at the US Classic has provoked questions about whether she’s going to be at full strength on four events come nationals since…not very much time has passed since Classic.

If we see a repeat of the gymnast who competed at Jesolo and won the title there, then Lee could place as high as 2nd place in the all-around here. After that Jesolo competition, we were all ready to put her on the worlds team to do three events in the team final, but having the attention span of goldfish eggs, we can’t be expected to remember those feelings. At Classic, Lee competed two events and was not named to the Pan Ams team, while simultaneously that top six competed so well in the AA…and just like that Lee suddenly looks like she’s on the outside again. Whether she does four events, and how much difficulty she’s doing on those potential four events, will determine quite a bit—not just for Lee but for other top all-around athletes who might be thinking they, too, could contribute a bars routine.

Grace McCallum

McCallum recorded a 57.700 at Classic for what was just an OK performance overall, one she’ll expect to improve on at nationals. I’d say that’s especially true on floor despite the high score. Because McCallum did not go to Pan Ams and therefore will have had more time to focus exclusively on preparing for nationals, expectations will be quite high. Particularly if McCusker does not go all out at this meet, it’s easy to imaging McCallum sliding in as the favorite for 2nd place.

At the same time, McCallum still has to fight for her life for a potential spot on a worlds team because there’s no single event where she boasts a “you have to take me” score, the way Eaker can on beam, or McCusker can on bars and beam, or Carey can on vault and floor. That’s why it’s more important than it might otherwise seem for McCallum to place 2nd in meets this summer and fall. Once you drop down to third, you start being susceptible to “well maybe this specialist makes more sense” thinking.

That’s at least if a team is being selected that way. If it’s all about the all-around standings, then all logic is out the window. But that would benefit an athlete like McCallum.

Riley McCusker

In the review of Pan Ams last week, I stated my case that the IS RILEY MCCUSKER INCONSISTENT question can probably be answered in the affirmative at this point, but it’s also not particularly relevant to the selection of a US women’s team that can afford to be inconsistent without consequence.

At the same time, it never hurts to erase any kind of potential argument that can be used against your placement on a team (or to do the all-around in qualification on said team). Hits on bars and beam both days of nationals would help undermine the fervor of any kind of McCusker inconsistency questions (see attention span of goldfish above). That’s therefore the task for McCusker at nationals because after finishing 2nd at Classic, qualifying first AA at Pan Ams, and finishing as the top American in the AA final despite a miss, McCusker is comfortably in the first tier, will be on the national team, and will be at the selection camp with a strong argument to make the worlds team even if nationals doesn’t go great.

Gabby Perea

In Perea’s comeback performances this year, we have not yet seen the gymnast we saw when she was a junior, save for a few flashes on bars at Classic when we all collectively had a “oh, THERE you are Peter” moment. Good thing there’s nothing going on with her gym or coaching situation that might be a distraction at nationals. La la la, no news to see here.

Coming off a 52.050 performance at Classic (with a fall on beam), Perea is certainly an outsider to make that national team group since there’s a lot of ground to make up to reach that coveted 55 plateau. It’s hard to see that happening with the current vault and floor difficulty, but there’s still tremendously high potential from those bars and beam scores. That can go a long way.

MyKayla Skinner

Vault went as well as could be expected for Skinner in the Classic competition itself, where she scored a 14.900 that tied Jade Carey’s first vault, but that was just stage 1 of the process. Skinner’s performance at nationals will be about whether the extra three weeks of training she’s had in between events has allowed the other events to catch up. Floor was not there yet at Classic as it unraveled in that final pass, and while she showed bars in podium training, she did not compete it.

With limited national team/selection camp spots up for grabs in this deep group of seniors, a lot is riding on this performance for Skinner. If floor has progressed and she puts up a hit bars routine, 55 looks quite doable for an all-around performance, but she’s also still a borderline figure with no guarantee of a national team spot. There are a few gymnasts like Chiles and Jones whom I think have a lot riding on hitting their meets at nationals, and Skinner is in that group.

Trinity Thomas

Because Thomas is an NCAA gymnast who’s kind of in and out of the team selection picture as her schedule permits, it’s easy to overlook her chances, but she swooped in to make the national team last year and could very well do so again this year, especially if those 14s on bars and beam from Classic are any indication. Add a Y1.5 and some Trinity floor passes and leaps to that equation, and the path to 55 opens up ahead with lots of well-lit signage.

But of course the most important thing is that we see Thomas finally stop being polite and start getting real when it comes to her floor difficulty. Because we know she can do more than she’s ever really gone for in competition, and why not?

Faith Torrez

When trying to pare this group down to what looks like it will be a national team of 10 gymnasts (go on, try, I dare you), it’s easy to trim Torrez from the list in one of those last-minute cuts because she’s a less recognizable name than most of the rest of them, being so new to the elite field. But, Torrez followed a 54.850 at American Classic with 55.250 and an 8th-place finish at US Classic. Those aren’t the scores (or the routine compositions) of a gymnast who gets easily cut from the national team picture. Those are the scores of a gymnast who beats some bigger names for a coveted spot.

So don’t write off Torrez.

Leanne Wong

The Mystery of the Not Doing All-Around at Pan Ams. Was it truly because Kara Eaker was just so good in training that she had to be used on all the events in qualification? Or was there something going on to cause the team to leave Wong off floor (where she had the highest D score of the squad) and vault (where she typically has the cleanest DTY of the squad)? Nationals will tell us.

Best-case scenario, Wong is yet another among the very realistic contenders for 2nd place at this meet—she has the execution and the composition to do that—but it’s going to take not just a hit but a comfortable hit of that very challenging floor routine for her to place close to that high. Eyes on that routine.


If you’re feeling like some numbers, here’s an update of the scoring charts following Pan Ams, arranging the seniors here by top score recorded on each event in 2019

and by average score recorded on each even in 2019

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