The best female gymnasts in the United States faced off at the U.S. Classic, the final opportunity for gymnasts to qualify to the upcoming national championships. For those gymnasts hoping to secure their berths at nationals, Saturday’s Classic mattered a great deal. But for the rest—the best of the best, who are pre-qualified to championships by virtue of already being on the national team—this event was like a dress rehearsal with makeup in front of an audience and TV cameras. Valeri Liukin, the newly appointed national team coordinator, said during a mid-meet interview, “This is just a step of the preparation for the world championships.”
With the exception of Olympic years when everything takes on heightened significance, the Classic always feels light on stakes. In 2013, Simone Biles completely choked at this meet, going 0-for-3. Her coach, Aimee Boorman, scratched from her last event, vault. “She just about tried to kill herself on her vault warm-up,” Boorman later told me. A month later, Biles won her first (of four) national titles and then in the fall of 2013, she became world champion. That biffed Classic didn’t really affect Biles’s competitive fortunes.
Unless you’re watching gymnastics at the Olympics or the world championships, you’re never really in the present moment; you’re always viewing with an eye towards the future. This is what happens when a sport exists on a four-year cycle.
That’s not to say nothing of note happened at this year’s Classic. We saw some gymnasts solidify their position as favorites for the world championships in Montreal. Ragan Smith, a 2016 Olympic alternate and winner of the 2017 American Cup, competed in only two events but won both of them. She looks to be a lock for one of the four U.S. spots at the upcoming world championships. (This year’s worlds won’t feature a team competition, so each country can send a maximum of four athletes, with three being allowed to compete on each event during the qualifications for the all-around and event finals.)
Ditto for Jade Carey. With Biles on hiatus, there’s an opening for a vaulter/power gymnast and it looks like Carey, 17, will be filling in that role. Carey wasn’t even an elite gymnast until very recently. She was a Level 10 on track to compete in college—she has committed to Oregon State—when the national team staff came a’ knocking and invited her to the training camp at the Karolyi Ranch due to her vaulting prowess. At Classics, Carey showed two incredibly difficult, powerful vaults.
Carey easily won the vault title at because no one else attempted two vaults. Here she is on the winner’s podium flanked by her toughest competition—two women in black dresses.
Despite the general weakness of the domestic field on vault, Carey’s vaults are good enough to win a medal at the upcoming world championships. If she does that—jumping from Level 10 to world medalist—she’ll be following in the footsteps of 2009 world vault champion Kayla Williams. Williams, like Carey, shot from L10 to world medalist in the space of six months. (After winning the world title on vault in 2009, Williams never competed at the elite level again; she resurfaced a couple of years later as a standout performer at the University of Alabama.)
Another contender for the worlds team is Morgan Hurd, who you will end up remembering because she competes in glasses. This invites all kinds of Harry Potter comparisons, which is something she actively encourages.
She quickly got her wish:
Beyond her glasses, Hurd, who was born in China, is quite notable for her power on floor exercise and difficulty on beam. This year, the 16-year-old from Delaware won an all-around medal at the World Cup competition in Stuttgart.
Though the seniors showed medal potential for the world championships, it was the junior gymnasts who were the most impressive of the competitors at the Classic. Several of the top juniors in the country were chosen to compete in primetime alongside the seniors and they frequently outperformed them. In fact, Emma Malabuyo, the winner of the junior competition, actually posted the highest all-around score of the whole meet. Malabuyo, who is just 14, scored a 56.750, which was almost two full points ahead of senior champion, Alyona Shchennikova. Maile O’Keefe, the current junior national champion, placed second behind Malabuyo with a score that was just two tenths off the senior champion.
Gabby Perea and Sunisa Lee perform two of the best uneven bar routines in the world but both are age-ineligible to contend for a spot at this year’s world championships. Perea, who won bars for the juniors despite not even doing a competitive dismount, is just one day shy of being old enough. (The rules state that you have to turn 16 during the calendar year in order to be eligible to compete as a senior. Perea’s 16th birthday will be on...January 1, 2018. Contrast that to the good fortune of Gabby Douglas, who was able to compete at the world championships in 2011 because she turned 16 on December 31 of that year. The age minimum can feel rather arbitrary in these edge cases, but it’s got to fall somewhere.)
It makes sense that the juniors would look a bit stronger at this meet than their senior counterparts; this is the second-to-last competition of the season for them. After national championships, their season will be over. But for the seniors hoping to earn one of the four spots for the world championships in the fall, they might be trying to pace themselves a bit to peak a bit later in the year at the world championships in October.
But the juniors’ supremacy might also just be due to talent. This current crop of juniors is an incredibly strong group, and they’ve been dominating international competitions all season. Valeri Liukin was clearly beaming when spoke of the junior gymnasts. “I’m most proud of my junior side actually,” he told the commentariat, which included his own daughter, 2008 Olympic champion Nastia Liukin. Liukin the elder, before he was promoted to the national team coordinator, was in charge of the developmental programs. In that role, he shepherded many of the current junior crop through the levels over the years. It’s not surprising that this group would occupy a special spot in his heart.
As for the seniors, Liukin noted that some of the top gymnasts are a little banged up at the moment, so the priority for them will be recovering and getting back into shape for the rest of the season. “My biggest goal, of course, keep them safe,” he acknowledged. In a year when USA Gymnastics has been accused of not prioritizing athlete well-being ahead of medals and results, this offhand comment from the new national team coordinator is certainly encouraging. This pronouncement comes after Vanessa Atler, a gymnast who trained with Liukin back in 2000, recently spoke about being weighed three times a day.
In a comment to People, Liukin responded to Atler’s remarks:
“Coaching techniques and perspectives have evolved since then, and I have grown as a coach through experience and expanding my knowledge. Today, I firmly believe an athlete’s focus should be on training smart, with increased education in the areas of balanced nutrition, fitness, healthy lifestyle and communication. This is the basis for our approach in women’s gymnastics.”
While this is hardly an apology, the fact that the Liukin didn’t deny Atler’s experience and stated that he had personally evolved as a coach since the early aughts has been viewed by many in the gymnastics community as a step in the right direction.
There was no mention of the ongoing sex abuse scandal rocking USA Gymnastics during the two-hour broadcast, which is totally fine. Not every gymnastics competition has to reference it. The sex abuse scandal may be the biggest story in the sport at the moment but it is certainly not the only story. But there were moments when the broadcasters seemed to be actively avoiding the topic altogether, such as at the very beginning during the introductory package. After reminding viewers that it was just a year ago that self-proclaimed “Final Five” won Olympic gold in Rio, which signified the end of an era, we were told that “The torch has been passed to a new leader” as the camera panned to Liukin.
But from whom? John Roethlisberger, a three-time Olympian, didn’t say. The name “Martha Karolyi,” which has been mainstay of NBC broadcasts for the past 16 years—What’s Martha thinking? Will Martha put her on the team—was mentioned just once during the two hour event. The Karolyis and USA Gymnastics have spent the year since the Olympic Games in Rio fighting lawsuits connected to the national team training camps held at the Karolyi Ranch, where former team physician Larry Nassar allegedly sexually abused gymnasts. Many have alleged that the emotionally abusive environment created by the former Romanian coaches enabled Nassar to sexually assault gymnasts for years before being stopped.
In 2017, the less said about Martha Karolyi, the better.