ANAHEIM, Calif.—This national championships was supposed to be the one with at least a little suspense. After all, Simone Biles, the gymnastics juggernaut, was on hiatus from the sport—though she did just announce that she has started working out again—and there were several gymnasts who, at least on paper, seemed to be pretty closely matched.
But on the competition floor, Ragan Smith, the 2016 Olympic team alternate, ran away with the things in true Biles fashion. She outscored Jordan Chiles, she of the incredible save on beam, by nearly three-and-a-half points. In doing so, Smith, 16, posted the highest all-around total of any female gymnast in 2017. Though the world championship team has yet to be selected—it will be chosen at national team training camp next month—it does seem as though Smith is not only a shoo-in for a spot on the squad also an early favorite for the world all-around title in Montreal.
(Speaking of great saves, Smith’s foot slipped off the beam on her standing full and yet she barely flinched.)
Chiles, a first-year senior, had one of her best competitions in quite some time and placed second. She had been a standout as a junior athlete and was notable for her power, especially on floor and vault. But she struggled with consistency toward the end of her junior career, a struggle that has persisted. But even though she counted falls this weekend, it was altogether a much more solid effort from Chiles. And if she continues to improve, eliminating falls in her program, she’s probably a lot closer to Smith in the all-around than the final scores from this competition indicate.
In third place was Riley McCusker from New Jersey. McCusker, a first-year senior like Chiles, has had a yo-yo season, starting with a disastrous performance at the American Cup, followed by an all-around win at an international meet in Italy, followed by a weak showing at the U.S. Classic due to injury. In Anaheim, the pendulum swung the other way for McCusker who hit eight-for-eight routines at this meet, albeit with watered down difficulty. Like Chiles, her potential all-around score is probably higher than what she earned in Anaheim.
The top three all-arounders made strong cases for themselves to compete at the upcoming world championships. But 2017 worlds will not feature a team competition; just all-around and apparatus finals. This means selection will not be geared towards finding the gymnasts who can help the U.S. amass the highest overall team score, as it was for Rio. Rather, the selection committee will be looking for the gymnasts who will be able to yield the greatest number of medal opportunities for the U.S.
The women are allowed to bring four gymnasts, three of whom are allowed to compete on each apparatus in the qualifications. That first round will determine who will make the all-around and event finals, with a max of two per country allowed in each of the medal rounds. If the U.S. goes with Smith as an all-arounder—and they will—she’ll also likely grab one of the beam spots in the final, since she is incredibly strong there. If they use McCusker as the second all-arounder, another beam spot will likely be spoken for because of her prowess on that event. In this scenario, the U.S. wouldn’t bring a beam specialist because their all-arounders will have maxed out their medal chances on that event. If, however, they decide to use Chiles, who is not a beamer, as the second all-around competitor, there’s now an opportunity for a beam/bars specialist, or an all-around gymnast like McCusker with particular strengths in those events.
This is a very long way of saying we don’t yet know what the world championship team will look like in October except that, barring any sort of injury, it will absolutely include Smith.
The drama of the senior women’s competition stemmed from its significance to the eventual world championships team selection. As a display of gymnastics, there were definitely a lot of bright spots—Smith’s overall performance, Trinity Thomas’s polish, McCusker’s comeback—but if you wanted to see the best women’s gymnastics being performed in Anaheim, you had to show up to the Honda Center a few hours before the start of the senior competition to watch the juniors, because they were truly the class of the meet.
There’s a long history of female juniors outperforming their senior counterparts. The whole narrative of women’s gymnastics since Nadia Comaneci scored the first Perfect 10s at 14 and won the Olympic gold medal has been about younger gymnasts pushing and surpassing the older gymnasts. (Comaneci’s age in 1976—14—would’ve placed her in the junior category according to current age rules and restrictions.)
This year’s junior champion was Maile O’Keefe, a 15-year-old from Las Vegas. Her win was hardly unexpected. She was defending junior champion and had been performing well all season. But 14-year-old Emma Malabuyo from Texas has been nipping at her heels. Both O’Keefe and Malabuyo have been putting up high all-around scores all season, often topping what the best seniors in the world were recording. At the national championships, both recorded 57+ scores in the all-around, which would’ve beaten everyone in the senior field save Smith.
But more than performing a high degree of difficulty, what stood out about O’Keefe, Malabuyo, and Gabby Perea was the polish with which they performed. Everything was so clean and precise. They were hitting like pros, like they were ready to contend for the world championships this year, not just showing their potential for the future.
After a season spent watching them excel, you can’t help but to start playing a game of “if only” in your head.
If only Gabby Perea was one day older, she’d on the world championships team as an uneven bars specialists.
If only Maile O’Keefe was one year older, she could become world all-around champion.
When you’re watching gymnasts who are this talented, who are not only the class of the junior session but are also clearly among the best in the world—it would not be at all controversial to say that O’Keefe is one of the best all-around gymnasts in the world at the moment—it’s hard not to feel like they’re missing out on opportunities denied them only by their birthdates. (In Perea’s case, it’s basically heartbreaking. She is performing one of the most difficult uneven bar sets in the world at the moment and is just one day shy of eligibility.) But the age line has to fall somewhere and hopefully they’ll be just as sharp and healthy when their time to be on the big stage arrives.
There were some juniors that didn’t impress so much with what they did now as much as what they teased for their futures. Chief among them was Jay Jay Marshall. Though she only placed seventh in the all-around, she showed some of the most impressive tumbling of the competition—almost on par with the difficulty that Simone Biles competed during her senior career. She’s not yet pulling in the big scores because she lacks polish; she’s only 14. Biles was hardly polished at that age.
After the meet, Marshall’s coach seemed overjoyed. He noted that just two years ago, she was a Level 9 gymnast, which means she’s improved a lot in a relatively short period of time. If her coaches properly pace and prepare her, Marshall might be a force to be reckoned with in the future, especially since the senior ranks of U.S. gymnastics seems to be lacking power athletes at the moment.
That the juniors seem to be outperforming and outscoring many of the seniors does not mean that the current crop of “older” gymnasts is necessarily weak. The world championship team that will be selected to go to Montreal next month will likely pick up a bunch of medals, some of them possibly gold. They are quite talented. But the generation coming up behind them is something else altogether. They look ready to contend for golds today, not a year or two years from now.
All of this bodes well for the future of American women’s gymnastics, with or without the return of Simone Biles.