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Winter Cup Preview


Winter Cup—now with added women for heart health!—has arrived. The men and the Nastia proteges will get things started on Friday, with the elite women competing Saturday and Sunday. Full weekend gymnastics schedule.

If we’re being honest, there’s not a ton riding on the women’s competition when it comes to Olympic prognostication because it’s still so early in Selection Time—especially as national team spots can now be earned here, at March camp, or by petition. Also, most of these people haven’t competed since they were several feet shorter, so I’m going to try to cool it on TEH STAKES. (When has that ever worked.) But there are still some athletes and concepts I’m eager to see play out this weekend.

Laurie Hernandez

A shining treasure and the dove of peace, Laurie Hernandez is finally set to make her return to competition at Winter Cup, 54 months since the last time we saw her get a score. In large part, Hernandez’s participation in this competition is about the fact that she’s there and that’s exciting. She’s a star of the sport who has overcome the Haney of it all to make a return.

As yet, we haven’t seen any D-score-based indications that she’s making a capital-O Olympic push, but we also haven’t seen any actual competition work. This performance, then, will be revealing in terms of what track she’s on and whether the timing looks realistic. Hernandez is preliminarily expected to compete beam and floor here, understandable as the two most likely events on which she would be up to competition level.

Riley McCusker

For MG Elite refugees in general, this competition can be a significant benchmark because the last time we saw McCusker compete, she was being escorted off the floor after bars so that no one could see how rhabdo she was. Time has passed.

McCusker has shown video of a new double front 1/2 out bars dismount that looks very competitive, and she could use this opportunity to remind us all of how well she can score on bars and beam. Well enough, perhaps, to be re-entered into the first-tier conversation. If McCusker elects to compete vault, I’m also interested to see how that looks following her course at Careytown U. McCusker’s DTY was never ideal, which kept her all-around hopes somewhat muted despite huge potential bars and beam scores. Is that still the case?

We’ll also see Olivia Greaves, though this is not her return meet. Greaves competed at the WOGA Classic a few weeks ago and, at that point, did not have her full difficulty back yet, which should tamp down expectations somewhat for what we’ll see at Winter Cup. She did score well on both bars and floor there, however, even without a bars dismount.

Konnor McClain and the 2005s

Since competitions last existed, life has changed for Konnor McClain given that she is now suddenly age-eligible for the Olympics. At the point we last saw her, McClain’s story was one of tremendous potential that would be expected to develop for her senior international debut at 2021 worlds, or whatever.

Well, we basically missed the entire period in which McClain would normally have transformed from keep-an-eye-on-that junior to senior star. Imagine if we had last seen Simone at 2011 junior nationals (14th AA), and then the next time she was able to compete was the 2013 American Cup. We would have been like, “Wait what now?”

There’s so much room for those new 2021 seniors to have progressed dramatically—at least depending on how training has gone—and render our previous impressions of their gymnastics obsolete. McClain seems the most likely to make that push given her prior potential, but others like Skye Blakely and Sydney Barros are also on the list to compete here and could do the same.

Not here to make friends

The quest for the win is actually fairly wide open in this one with many of the top names absent and others, like Sunisa Lee, confirming they’re not planning to compete all four. Lee doesn’t really have that much riding on this competition because she’s already among the Olympic frontrunners, though it will of course be interesting to see what her D scores look like and how they might have changed since 2019. Nabieva to Bhardwaj or bust.

Among those who could win, Kayla DiCello’s 2021 path seems to be about donning sneak-around clothes and going, “Shhh, I just beat you in the all-around and suddenly I’m top four and going to the Olympics whatttt.” She has the believable four-event composition to win this meet, and a Winter Cup all-around title would lend some credence to that path.

An all-around win here would also be significant for someone like Jordan Chiles or Shilese Jones, two athletes that have been on the outskirts of the conversation in that “well, she’ll make Trials and good for her” group, but will probably have higher personal aims than that. Chiles showed three strong events at the WOGA Classic, and if floor has come along a little bit more in the intervening weeks, that would make for a competitive all-around showing. Chiles is one of the few athletes here for whom we actually have something to go on because she competed recently and it went pretty well.

Also, this is absolutely the kind of meet where Jade Carey could score exceptionally on vault and floor, stay on bars and beam, and suddenly be at the top.

Emma Malabuyo

First of all, how’s it going? Blink twice if you no longer have a spine. Malabuyo’s presence was one of the surprises of the roster—along with just how many of these now-senior elites none of us have even heard of or seen before. Despite Malabuyo’s tremendous junior success, I don’t think I’m alone in having fully written her off from Olympic contention because of constant health issues. Somewhat similar to Hernandez, Winter Cup will be a useful gauge of whether her continued presence in elite is a “I like to compete and want to keep doing it!” situation or whether she’s aiming to be in the conversation for ‘Lympics.

The Nastia Liukin Cup provides our annual look at the next slate of high-scoring NCAA gymnasts, and actually doesn’t clash with any NCAA meets this year, which is cool. Last year, Haleigh Bryant was the senior champion, Andi Li was third, Skylar Killough-Wilhelm was fifth, Rylie Mundell was seventh, Chae Campbell was ninth, etc. You get the drift.

Here are the NCAA commitments we know about for this year’s top seniors in the field:

Nastia Cup
Sloane Blakely – Florida 2021-2022
Amari Celestine – Missouri 2021-2022
Lilly Hudson – Alabama 2021-2022
Moorea Linker – Oklahoma 2021-2022
Hannah Loyim – Iowa State 2021-2022
Jocelyn Moore – Missouri 2021-2022
Leah Smith – Washington 2021-2022
Miranda Smith – West Virginia 2022-2023
Alex Theodorou – Arizona State 2021-2022
Tory Vetter – Ohio State 2021-2022
Madelyn Williams – Cal 2021-2022
Bryce Wilson – LSU 2022-2023

Speaking of which, here’s the college list for the senior elites competing at Winter Cup:

Senior Elites
Sydney Barros – UCLA 2023-2024
Jade Carey – Oregon State 2021-2022
Jordan Chiles – UCLA 2021-2022
eMjae Frazier – Cal 2022-2023
Karis German – Alabama 2022-2023
Olivia Greaves – Florida 2022-2023
Shilese Jones – Florida?
Alonna Kratzer – Missouri 2021-2022
Emily Lee – UCLA 2021-2022
Sunisa Lee – Auburn 2021-2022
Emma Malabuyo – UCLA 2021-2022
Riley McCusker – Florida 2021-2022
Katelyn Rosen – UCLA 2023-2024
Lyden Saltness – Auburn 2023-2024
Faith Torrez – Oklahoma 2022-2023

And there’s NCAA!

We have several actual solid competitions on the Friday docket this week, including three meets between top-10 teams. Cal, now the #2 ranked team in the Pac-12, goes to Utah with the hope of doing exactly what UCLA did last weekend and making things a lot closer than expected. Utah will hope for a stronger score than it got last week as the team aims to keep pace with the 198ies.

Arkansas hosts Alabama in what should be a very tight meet. As of now, Arkansas is .012 better on average, but Alabama is .068 better on NQS. So there’s been basically no difference between the two through the first six meets of the season. It’s not one of the SECN meets because it’s being broadcast later on delay (sigh), but it’s the SEC meet to watch this week.

Denver also visits Oklahoma again as part of a quad meet, with some actual score pressure on Denver’s performance as the team’s ranking has been trickling away in recent weeks. With nearly the full team back in action, Denver will expect to get back toward that 197 mark in this one.

The Big Ten schools will compete in the annual Big Five meets this weekend, although one of meets is already a Big Four as Michigan State has been forced to continue withdrawing from meets because of COVID thingies.

Per Michigan State’s schedule, the team has had to pull out of the next two meets, which leaves just two meets remaining on the schedule. As MSU has completed only two meets so far, it’s now a question of whether the team will be able to conduct the required four meets to get a ranking this year. It will go down to the wire. The cancellation of next week’s dual meet with Michigan is bad for both as Michigan was relying on that to be its second road meet of the season, a necessity for being eligible to have a ranking. I imagine Michigan will try to slide into a different meet at the last minute to be able to get an away score that weekend.

Michigan and Minnesota will expect to win their respective Big Five (Four) meets, though Iowa has been drawn into Michigan’s meet and will aim to make things interesting.

Speaking of interesting, Stanford is starting on Saturday. Both Stanford and San Jose State are finally getting their seasons underway, and…well…who can say. It won’t be boring.

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