The Balance Beam Situation

Because gymnastics is a comedy, not a drama

2022 US Nationals Preview

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The national championship is upon us, which means the summer elite season is officially live and in color—for realsies this time after the false start that was the Withdrawal Classic. Now, the gymnastics world gathers in Tampa for the annual right of passage where we learn which coaches are working out their emotional issues through the medium of leotard design and which gym moms are pouring into the hotel bar to speak some hard truths.

Also maybe a national champion will be crowned (or something, I don’t know) as the race to make the US worlds team enters its serious phase.

So let’s work through some of the major storylines and people to watch.

Item 1: Olympian comebacks

The most exciting development in the senior field is the presence of Jade Carey and Jordan Chiles, both of whom competed NCAA this season but have not performed elite routines since the Olympics, which was a year ago. Which is basically 8 years ago. Which is forever. But now they’re back.

If both are able to translate their 2021 level to this summer’s competitions, they’ll be in excellent position to make the worlds team and will contend for a national all-around title here.

Konnor McClain has taken over as the all-around leader for the US in 2022, but since she has been out since Jesolo, she’s not without her own questions about how close to 100% she’ll be at this meet, presenting a fairly wide open race for the title with both Chiles and Carey in the lead pack. Chiles was the clear third domestically in 2021 behind Biles and Lee (neither of whom are competing this year) while Carey pretty much took over that position at the Olympics as the third behind Biles and Lee, when she ultimately got into the all-around final as a non-team gymnast.

We don’t tend to think of Carey in the all-around champion conversation because of beam and whatnot, but the high score for US gymnasts so far year is 55.6 and Carey went 56.2 on Olympic qualification day. Start values on vault are down four tenths in the new code, but the changes overall are not so drastic as to render last quad’s scores completely irrelevant. If her four-event difficulty is back—which is an assumption leap for the purpose of a preview, though she seems the type for whom it would be—Carey should be among the top scorers with a hit meet.

Chiles has typically been the less predictable gymnast of the two in that we’ve never really known whether we’re going to see 2017 Jordan or 2018 Jordan, Trials Jordan or Olympics Jordan.

The spectrum of possibilities is wide, which makes her performance the most exciting prospect at nationals. But like Carey, Chiles’ college routines and composition would lead one to believe that as long as she is ready to compete all four at nationals, the necessary skills remain intact to help her score 55+ in the all-around.

In considering their worlds prospects, Carey’s vault and floor will always make her deeply valuable on a five-member team. Her vault is a reliable, automatic +0.4 over anyone else (as long as we collectively decide the Olympic vault final doesn’t exist), and even if she’s getting more than a point in artistry deductions on floor, she’s still gaining you tenths. Early indications from Pan Ams are that tenth-gaining on individual events could be an important factor in selection again now that the Forster era has been destroyed.

(On that note, however, the worlds selection procedures have been released and list Dan Baker—but neither Alicia Sacramone nor Chellsie Memmel—on the selection committee with Tatiana Perskaia and Jessie DeZiel.)

As for Jordan Chiles, her biggest team asset is her routine usability everywhere, but keep an eye on how bars is looking in particular this week because her ability to contribute a team final bars routine would be vital this year when trying to figure out how you fill events on a team that includes McClain and Carey. Potentially. One might imagine.

On that note…

Item #2: McClain as favorite

Konnor McClain easily ranks as the top US gymnast this year after her all-around victories at Winter Cup, Stuttgart, and Jesolo established her as a dominant force in international gymnastics. Her only loss this year came to Shilese Jones at the Jesolo selection camp, where she placed 2nd, and her score from Stuttgart ranked as the top AA score in the world until Rebeca Andrade blew it out of the water over the weekend at Brazilian Championships.

All of that speaks to someone who should be considered the most likely to win the all-around at nationals and slide easily onto the US worlds team. The main concern is that McClain did not go for Pan Am selection and went on to withdraw from the US Classic.

So there may be some leeway in terms of expecting a finished product at nationals. But at least she is on the roster for this event, which is an encouraging step. When it comes to the all-around here, McClain will have some serious competition with perhaps six gymnasts capable of producing a 55 on their day, though if you’re looking for a single gymnast whose name you would write in pen for the worlds team, right now that’s McClain.

Item #3: Eyes on progress

Among those other gymnasts who are capable of producing at least a 55, we have the stars of the US Classic, Shilese Jones and Leanne Wong, who both scored over 54 with falls there.

Jones is the only person to have defeated McClain this year, and she looked mostly in form at the US Classic with only her beam routine taking things to frown town. Even when she falls on beam, we’re currently seeing the best gymnastics we’ve ever seen Jones, so if she can add consistent four-event hits to that, there’s no reason she can’t win the all-around here. A hit meet at Classic would have gone comfortably into the 56s.

Plus, with the back injury to Zoe Miller that will keep her out of nationals, that makes Jones the undisputed best healthy, currently-competing-elite bars worker in the US, even without the potential upgrade to the Stalder Nabieva. And that matters, especially in terms of taking pressure off the other events. Right now, you need that bars regardless of what’s happening elsewhere.

As for Leanne Wong, she was the surprise of the roster at US Classic after having not attended the prior national team camp, but clearly she had been preparing intently, enough to show up and casually win the all-around.

Wong already looked in world championship form on vault and beam at Classic, so at nationals, watch to see how much the floor tumbling has progressed in the intervening weeks—as well as what is up with the Bhardwaj, which she was struggling on throughout the weekend at Classic. If she’s able to connect everything (toe full, Bhardwaj, Maloney, Pak, Van Leeuwen), putting the Bhardwaj in would gain 3 tenths in D over her worlds routine, which would start to make it a valuable upgrade. Then we might not have to throw a code of points at GAGE again.

Perhaps coasting under the radar here is Kayla DiCello because when we last saw her, she did not have her full routine composition. Still, she’s another one looking to show progress both in terms of the elements she’s competing and the hitting. If she has been able to use these intervening weeks since Pan Ams to bring the DTY back, she should at the very least be in the 54s and challenging several members of this top group with a hit meet.

Item #4: American dancing

Artistry deductions have been the single biggest conversation topic for Chellsie Memmel since taking over as technical lead, with the focus on reducing the ample and avoidable deductions the US women have been getting (word from Pan Ams was that the US women averaged 0.8 in artistry deductions). This is the biggest and best senior field we’ve seen in a while in the US, meaning it’s a chance to get everyone in the same place to see if the old motto about US floor routines

has been replaced with something a little more productive. And whether there has been tangible advice and tactics handed out on how to try to perform a little more.

If she’s doing floor, Jordan Chiles would be an excellent case study coming back from a season of college gymnastics. We saw in Chiles’ UCLA routines someone who has more than enough ability to engage an audience and perform a routine that should avoid the majority of artistry deductions, but looking back to the Olympics, Chiles was a major victim of the floor score apocalypse.

Are we seeing tangible changes in the approach to choreography—as well as skill selection for that matter—in these routines in reaction to the Olympics?

Item #5: Who’s out?

The best news for every other person in the field was Suni Lee’s decision not to compete this year.

As Olympic champion, she would have been the clear favorite to win and prance her way on the worlds team. That has opened up a spot for someone else, and while the most likely people to take that spot are the gymnasts already mentioned, there are others who might have a chance to take advantage but their current injury situations raise a cloud of doubt. Zoe Miller, whose bars score has put her consistently on the highest-scoring US teams this year, is out with a back injury, and Ashlee Sullivan, who made the US team for Stuttgart and was on the Jesolo team before having to withdraw, is also absent.

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Among others who might have been in the mix, eMjae Frazier has opted out in anticipation of joining college gymnastics next season.

Item #6: Who needs a good nationals

Several gymnasts are currently sitting on the borderline between the first tier and the second tier and are going to need to fight to get ahead of some of their bigger-name peers.

Gymnasts like Skye Blakely could really use a successful nationals to raise awareness of her gymnastics in the community and provide actionable resources and a pamphlet or two. Most potential teams based on 2022 scores do include Blakely, but she’s always bumped off the highest-scoring team when adding the likes of Chiles and Carey into the mix. I’ll be looking at Blakely’s routines here to see if her scores still stay in the top 5 after this competition.

Lexi Zeiss is another who rose from the ranks of the middle this year, climbing over supposedly stronger gymnasts to not only make the Pan Ams squad but be the best one on the team when it came to competition.

Only two US gymnasts have scored over 54 this year outside of US domestic meets, and one of them is Lexi Zeiss, so her competitiveness shouldn’t be overlooked. Still, she isn’t really on the highest-scoring-team radar yet and will look to change that at nationals.

Item #7: Wildcards and spoilers

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Junior champion Katelyn Jong, who finished out her junior career in 2021 with five consecutive all-around victories, keeps finishing 5th at camps and selection meets and being…almost on teams. We’ll see if her scores can keep up with the top athletes as we put everyone in the mix together. Her 14.350 on vault from the Stuttgart mixed cup is close to the top vault score for any US gymnast this year at 14.400.

Meanwhile, there’s also the trio of Elle Mueller, Nola Matthews, and Joscelyn Roberson to watch out for.

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Elle Mueller has earned a couple coveted assignments this year with Jesolo and Pan Ams, which speaks well of both her potential and her ability to deliver hit routines in pressure-filled selection contexts, while Nola Matthews is the only gymnast in the field besides Jones to have gone over 14 on bars this year, and Joscelyn Roberson’s new 1/2 on layout full has the potential to outscore the typical DTY to make a mark on vault.

The single unexpected development of the championships roster was the presence of Olivia Greaves, who hasn’t been seen since her injury during the post-worlds consolation tour of Switzerland.

Expectations will be nonexistent because we just haven’t seen her at all, but remember that one time at that camp when she scored with Wong and DiCello?

Event Schedule

Thursday, August 18 — Junior Men 1:30pm ET, Senior Men 7:00pm ET
Friday, August 19 — Junior Women 1:30pm ET, Senior Women 7:00pm ET
Saturday, August 20 — Junior Men 1:30pm ET, Senior Men 7:00pm ET
Sunday, August 21 — Junior Women 1:30pm ET, Senior Women 7:00pm ET

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