For today’s freshman feature, I’m looking at the top JO athletes in this year’s incoming class that I haven’t yet previewed as part of a team’s overall freshman outlook.
Chloe Widner – Stanford
Widner is a Texas Dreams athlete who won the Senior F title at JO Nationals this year, which followed a 6th-place finish in 2018 and a 2nd-place finish in 2017. She’s joining Canadian elite Jade Chrobok in this incoming class for Stanford, one of the most exciting the team has brought in for years.
This year’s four freshmen comprise one of the best single classes Utah has pulled in for a while. In some ways, that makes it difficult to preview because it’s just sort of…”yeah, they could all do the all-around. The end.”
The name brand in the class is junior national champion Maile O’Keefe, who had a meteoric rise in the elite ranks to spend a couple years looking like a potential 2020 Olympian—but went from potential Olympian to mysterious wisp of smoke disappearing into the atmosphere almost overnight. O’Keefe did return to compete JO in 2019 with successful scores, so there shouldn’t be as much “is she still good?” mystery as there might have been otherwise.
O’Keefe’s former elite classmate Abby Paulson took a similar route, competing elite as a junior and young senior before stepping away and returning to L10 for the 2019 season. Paulson finished 7th at JO Nationals this year, with a 2nd-place result on floor, and should end up as one of those second-tier elites who is so sought after in NCAA because she has a bunch of skills from which to choose only the best ones—and yet is also still fully alive.
Gymnasts deferring until after the Olympics have left UCLA with an unbalanced duo of classes entering for the 2020 and 2021 seasons. A gargantuan phalanx of stars will march in for 2021 (as we wait for the official announcement on that), leaving a somewhat sparse and less heralded group entering to compete in 2020.
That’s not to say they won’t be significant. The high-profile athlete in the bunch is former elite Kalyany Steele, who finished 13th AA at nationals in 2017 with pretty competitive difficulty across the four pieces that would serve her very well in coming up with NCAA routines. She hasn’t competed since that nationals in the summer of 2017, however, so she carries a bit of “where is she now?” along with her.
The remaining freshmen fall into the category of walk-on projects. They’re not big names or obvious lineup prospects, but there’s reason to think we’ll see at least routine options from each one. Emma Andres notched the best JO finish of her whole career in 2019 by reaching nationals and placing 25th AA. Plus, she has the leaps.
There was a time when LSU’s new 2020 class looked like it would be a problem. The team was losing Finnegan and Priessman and Kelley and just flat-out didn’t have the routines coming in to replace that quality. And then they went to work.
I’m old enough to remember when Kiya Johnson was a Georgia verbal for the 2021 class. Yada, yada, yada, now she’s at LSU for this season and enters as easily one of the top five JO gymnasts in the national class. Johnson has won two consecutive JO national AA titles and projects as a weekly all-around contributor for LSU.
Also new to the class is Alyona Shchennikova, who switched over from Michigan to LSU this year and brings with her…you know, being Alyona Shchennikova. Her Achilles tear this summer is a big asterisk, though LSU is promising that we’re going to see Shchennikova on a couple events this season.
The headliner of Oklahoma’s incoming class is of course Ragan Smith, and I’m not going to spend a ton of time here breaking down “oh, well, she has this skill on this event” because it’s Ragan Smith. We know what she could do. Her contribution to Oklahoma and overall success in NCAA will be based entirely on how many pieces her back and legs are in on a daily basis (ideal: 1). If she’s at full health, she can give you four big events—and if she’s at medium health, she’s probably still giving you two excellent events—but it all depends on avoiding the broken-elite path.
Because let’s be honest, if everyone were confident in Smith’s health state, she’d probably be trying for 2020 right now. Heading to Oklahoma this year (a move I wholeheartedly endorse) reads as, “Yeah, I’m physically dust, and I can’t do more elite.” The hope is that starting at Oklahoma now, instead of after another year of hard grind in an Olympic attempt, will preserve her for a successful NCAA career.
Florida’s class is named Payton Richards. The Gators are in an odd (though not that odd for the year before the Olympics) position wherein verbal commits Morgan Hurd and Riley McCusker both elected to push back their entrance to pursue Tokyo, so the team is left with an entering class of only one.
Richards is an accomplished JO recruit who placed 4th AA at JO Nationals in 2018 (3rd FX, 4th UB), which followed a 2nd-place finish in 2017 (1st BB, 2nd UB), and a championship in 2016 in the junior division. She has been racking up the titles for years and years with pretty equivalent placement across the events, one score unlikely to stand out over the others.