Simone Biles is the star of the world. Obviously. She's just better than you. And by you, I mean everyone. She's a thoroughly enjoyable national champion. I even had a moment where I was eager to hear Simone's post-meet interviews, which is strange and new territory. Can you believe it? I want to know what she's going to say! Who was the last US gymnast who was engaging enough in interviews to make them worth watching? Alicia Sacramone? That's a victory in itself. Who even cares about the meet?
Especially because Simone's excellence made the whole thing not super exciting. We were left to try to enjoy the scraps of the fight for second, which is inherently non-dramatic. It's like when you're playing a board game with a group of people, someone wins, and then someone else inevitably says, "Do you want to keep playing for second?" and you're like ". . . no." That was this national championship. At least Sam Mikulak had the decency to kind of screw up on the first day so that he could mount a glorious and dramatic comeback on day 2 to make it competitive and down-to-the-wire and all the other things we like.
My favorite part of the men's second day was listening to Tim Daggett try to balance his commentary between "Jake Dalton is obviously not going to win—he finishes on pommel horse" and trying to force himself to pretend like Dalton was still in it for the title to feed into the Trautwiggy/NBCy need to turn up the drama and make everything into "THE BIGGEST MOMENT OF HIS LIFE," which I think Al said at least six times. Well, at one point he said, "the last rotation of his life," which was weird and morbid and I didn't know what was happening. Someone who has a lot of time and energy should go through all the old NBC broadcasts and cut together every time Al says that a routine is the biggest moment of someone's life. It would be an epic miniseries. Nastia alone probably had between 12 and 15 biggest moments of her life.
But the thing is, they had a much closer and more exciting finish between Mikulak and Orozco that they barely mentioned because they were busy staring into Jake Dalton's Twilight-fan-art eyes. I understand. Tim even declared the meet for Mikulak (and Dalton in second, which didn't happen) before Orozco finished, and I would have loved it had Orozco actually gotten the super-high floor score he needed, just to force them to backtrack. I should really work on my obsession with everything going terribly.
Still, it was close and worth caring about to the end. Hooray! Men's gymnastics definitely has better writers than women's gymnastics. Simone, on the other hand, was winning before podium training and didn't manage to fall until her last routine, which carried with it no drama whatsoever. Granted, she would have had to fall about 11 more times for the event to start inching into the word "competitive." She's just too much better, which we know because of how much time NBC spent showing her smiling. The same person who has time to make the Al's Biggest Moments of Your Life miniseries should go through and count how much time was spent showing Simone standing around versus how much time was spent showing routines. I assume Simone standing wins in a landslide.
Now let's talk about Rachel Gowey for a second. Because I need to. Rachel Gowey fractured her ankle at podium training because the world is stupid and everything is the worst and there's no joy in the world. I had started to rely on her beam and maybe her vault in my head as vital in the Worlds selection process, so without her, the conversation expands to include a few more people, namely anyone with a pulse and a split (or even not, apparently).
Which brings me to a point. The switch half on beam. STOP DOING IT EVERYONE. You can't. So don't. It's not even a skill what you're doing. It's just a thing. Skinner's gets the most attention because it almost achieves 7 degrees sometimes, but she's hardly the only one. Maggie Nichols has a really solid and enjoyable beam routine except for the switch half, and I noticed Hano this summer also suffering from not-even-close-switch-half fever. On what planet do these coaches think that the inevitable execution deductions and likely downgrade of the skill are worth the one tenth in difficulty you get for that over a regular switch split? IT MAKES YOUR ROUTINE WORSE. Have you learned nothing from Kyla Ross? DO EXECUTION. BUH. Done.
Moving on, bars. After night one, I think everyone had the collective and horrifying thought that bars might be an OK event for the US right now. Even one of the better ones. There were more bars specialists than Amanars in this meet. Think about that. But don't worry, because our world view and comfortable narrative fell back into place on night 2 as the mistakes reappeared the way we always knew they would. Still, the bars discussion is probably the most interesting part of the Worlds selection chatter for the next month or so.
We're still waiting on Kyla and Simone to upgrade back to their 2013 bars routines, but who knows what the possible timeline would be on that. It's not like Simone even needs to. But on night 1, the three main contenders for the title of bars queen were Ashton Locklear, Brenna Dowell, and Madison Kocian, all of whom scored comfortably into the 15s. Locklear did herself a world of good by being the highest scorer of the group, and therefore the most likely to assume the title of bars specialist, but it was also an important night for Dowell because she needed to prove she could hit a high-difficulty routine for a solid score, which she did. The one who didn't come out in a great position on night 1 was Kocian because even though she hit a clean routine, she was third on bars, which makes it hard to state a case as a bars girl, especially because we can assume Kyla will be one of the three at Worlds. But then night 2 happened.
By Saturday, things turned upside down a little bit. Locklear missed a connection and was just a little bit sloppier than in her other routines. That alone shouldn't hurt her very much, but since she has one main contribution event and still has to prove consistency as a newbie, every little error is magnified. Kocian, meanwhile, stepped up her routine by a couple tenths and was suddenly the top scorer, which helps her case as the most consistent option of the 15ers, even if she may not have quite as high difficulty. The one who was really hurt by night 2 was Dowell. She needed to prove she can hit that routine over and over again, but on the second day she regressed almost all the way back to Classic level. Yes, she can potentially hit a high score with her huge difficulty, but she's less consistent and sloppier than both Locklear and Kocian, which is doomsday. Dowell is not going to Worlds for that bars routine. The way she gets to Worlds is by showing up at selection camp doing the AA and proving that her vault is valuable enough to be necessary as a top 3 vaulter and that she's usable on floor. Bars would just be a possible but risky bonus. Tough road.
Right now, most people seem to be putting together a team looking something like Biles, Ross, Locklear, Kocian, Skinner, and beam? Baumann? With Nichols as the alternate. Which makes sense. Skinner is Skinner, but I don't see how you don't take her if she hits vault and floor at Pan Ams—if she wins VT and FX, that's the ballgame. People are making the "She'll never get those scores internationally" argument about Skinner, but the problem with that argument is that it's not really a thing. She probably shouldn't be getting the execution scores that she's getting in the US, but what makes you think it would be any different at Worlds? In recent years, the international judges have proven no more willing to destroy a routine for execution that the domestic judges. Aly Raisman's bars is the best example. Yeah, her form was insane and you could find a billion deductions if you wanted to, but the Worlds judges didn't evaluate it any differently from the US judges, and I assume Skinner will be much the same. Maybe a couple tenths lower, but nothing extreme.
In other news, I became a Maggie Nichols fan on night 2 of the women's competition. I'm not sure when it happened, but it happened. I simply enjoy watching her gymnastics (when she's not doing a switch half on beam or going on a little flappy-wrist excursion). Can you imagine when she gets to Oklahoma? She's going to destroy everyone in the face. She was made for it. And marrying KJ's style with hers? Yes please. I'd like to see her on the Worlds team this year, but I admit she does make an excellent alternate and is probably fourth-best on a lot of events. Hopefully she wins the AA at Pan Ams to help bolster her case. We shall see.
As for the junior women, the competition had a slightly different feel this year. We're used to the top couple juniors scoring right with the seniors and renewing the discussion of age limits because they could easily go to Worlds and dominate if they were age eligible. That didn't really happen this year. To be fair, it probably would have if Bailie Key were healthy, but as it was, the junior competition showed us a lot of people who aren't ready to be seniors yet. We saw works in progress. Jazmyn Foberg won the title, and first let's talk about what a big upset that was. No one at all had her winning this thing going into the competition, and in a sport that has become basically devoid of upsets, that gets a minor round of applause from me. But the reason she won was that she hit 8 routines of competitive difficulty and was the only person to do that. There was no huge scoring or blowing out of the water situation.
Foberg could very well be a factor once she's a senior, but because she won with a "slow and steady wins the race" kind of meet instead of a "Bam! 60 in the AA" kind of meet, she's not getting the SHE IS THE FUTURE QUEEN OF EARTH reaction that US junior champions usually get. Four years ago Kyla Ross won and eight years ago Shawn Johnson won, and in both cases it was "You're going to the Olympics, obviously." That's not the case this year.
Of the other juniors, Nia Dennis is the farthest along. And by that, I mean her gymnastics has the look and composition of a senior gymnast. She would have fit right in, but but she was still falling, falling, falling and Martha will give that seven side-eyes I'm sure, and others like Norah Flatley are on a track (a smart track) that doesn't have them peaking anywhere close to now. Flatley has the pieces layed out on every apparatus but not the full routines put together for huge scores, yet. It's a game of pacing.
I was thinking, if there were no age limits, would any of the (healthy) juniors be on your Worlds team? Possibly Norah Flatley for beam even though she struggled at Championships because the US needs that third beamer, or Nia Dennis for vault/floor depending on consistency, but there aren't any of those juniors who would 100% be going and starring if they were 16, which is unusual for this point in the quad.
More stray thoughts:
- Media training for US gymnasts should contain a "What tattoos to get, and what not to get" day. It's really important information to get out there. Panels will include "Classy is spelled with a C," "Don't let Geddert happen to you," and "The neck: a minefield."
- Evan, Sam, and Raj on the USAGym streams were delights. I learned more about men's gymnastics deductions in ten minutes from Evan and Raj than I have from years of other broadcasts. And Evan and Sam's dynamic would be perfectly suited to NCAA gymnastics broadcasts. Please do all of them (once you're done competing, Sam—UCLA needs another year of your beam).
- The women's senior competition was basically a Florida/UCLA dual meet in 2017. Those are the lineups. Those two teams essentially have the elite market sewn up, with a couple Sooners thrown in. Florida's 2017 class is Gowey, Locklear, Baumann, and Hundley. Yep.