The US Secret Classic is essentially a “tune up” competition before US Nationals. It allows gymnasts to try out new skills and get some experience competing on a podium without the pressure of a Worlds team spot being on the line. It is also, with 377 days left before the Rio 2016 opening ceremonies, time to start thinking about the Olympic team.
In 2016, the competition will be formatted for teams this way: 5 gymnasts will make comprise each qualifying teams for the 2016 Olympic Games. The US gymnastics team will be one of those teams. 4 gymnasts compete for a team on each apparatus in qualification. 3 gymnasts compete for the team on each apparatus during team finals. All the scores will count. The results from qualification also determine who will make the all-around final and the event finals. The top 24 qualify for the all around final while the top 8 qualify for each event final. There is a two gymnast per country rule in place for each of those finals. So the US, which wants as many medals as possible, isn’t necessarily going to take the 5 best all-arounders and be done with it. The US usually takes 3 all arounders, a Floor Exercise/Vault specialist and a Uneven Bars/Balance Beam event specialist. Sometimes the US will take 4 all arounders and an UB/BB event specialist. The important point here is that the US is looking for more than all-around scores. Currently there are three “tiers” of gymnasts as we approach the Olympics (and the 2015 World Championships).
Simone Biles on FX at the 2015 US Secret Classic
1. Simone Biles (World Champions) (Final Score: 62.400) Biles finished almost 2 points ahead of the second place gymnast, even with an unusually low E(xecution) score on Balance Beam (8.550). Her balance beam D(ifficulty) score of 6.7 managed to place her into first on BB. She was also first on vault and floor exercise. Biles combines height and power with precise body lines and incredible body control. She has been world-class this quad and, as the US Secret Classic showed, she has not yet peaked. Ballet teachers across the world teach their students to finish their movements. Biles does that with every single fingertip and head position on every apparatus. Biles isn’t the best gymnast of this quad, she is the best gymnast of my lifetime. If there such a thing as a lock for an Olympic spot a year before the Olympics, Biles is it.
2. The 2012 Olympians
Kyla Ross (Gym-Max) (did not compete AA)
Aly Raisman (Brestyan’s):59.050
Gabby Douglas (Buckeye Gymnastics): 60.500
There are three previous Olympians in contention for a spot on the 2016 Rio team. Jordyn Wieber never returned to competition after London and has officially retired. McKayla Maroney competed at the 2013 World Championships team but has been plagued by injury since then. Kyla Ross, Aly Raisman, and Gabby Douglas were all competing at the US Classic this past weekend. Their performances at this competition are less important than that of the new seniors. Marta Karolyi, the National team coordinator, knows what these gymnasts are capable of.
Kyla Ross never stopped training after the 2012 Olympics. She is the reigning 2014 World AA bronze medalist. Ross has been known for her fluidity and her consistency. However, The US Secret Classic, in which she competed only two events due to an ankle injury, was not a competition she would like to remember. She fell twice on UB, the second time when she couldn’t hold a simple handstand. (The majority of falls on UB come during the release moves, when a gymnast lets go of the UB and has to re-catch it.) If Ross can get healthy, she (and her potential uneven bars score) are something the US team could use in Rio.
Aly Raisman on BB at the 2015 Secret Classic
Gabby Douglas and Aly Raisman both returned to training last year and competition this year. Raisman returned to her old gym while Douglas embarked on a gym hunt of sorts before finally settling down at Buckeye. There are good reasons to include either of them on a team. They are both incredibly consistent gymnasts. Raisman has made incredible strides in her fluidity since she first emerged on the senior elite scene but what hasn’t changed is how consistent Raisman is. Raisman hits and hits and hits. The 2015 Secret Classic was not her best competition. She looked shaky on beam and had a fall on her (incredibly difficult) second floor pass. Marta Karolyi prefers gymnasts with that kind of consistency that Raisman has historically shown. Raisman will have to reach that level of consistency again to make the Olympic team.
Gabby Douglas on UB at the 2015 US Secret Classic
Gabby Douglas is a very consistent gymnast who is a true all-arounder. She can deliver great scores at any time on any event. Douglas, of course, is also the reigning Olympic All-Around champion and a push to defend her title would draw lots of extra interest (and sponsorship dollars) to the sport. There hasn’t been a repeat women’s all-around champion since Věra Čáslavská did it in the 1960’s. It would be a great story. The twist to the story, of course, is that no one is beating Simone Biles if she hits at all-around. Douglas and Raisman (the reigning Olympic FX champion) have to show they can bring scores to the team and not nostalgia. They have done well this year so far and, if I were a betting woman, I would not bet against either of them.
3. The new seniors in contention
Bailie Key (Texas Dreams): 59.450
Maggie Nichols (Twin City Twisters): 60.000
MyKayla Skinner (Desert Lights): 55.500
Madison Kocian (WOGA) (did not compete AA)
Ashton Locklear (Everest Gymnastics) (was not scored at this event)
Alyssa Baumann (WOGA): 56.950
Bailie Key on FX at the 2015 US Secret Classic
Bailie Key has been on the radar since a great floor exercise routine when she was still a junior. In my opinion, she lacks charisma or flair in her performances but she has big skills and she executes them well.
Maggie Nichols on UB at the 2015 US Secret Classic
Maggie Nichols had her debut as a serious contender for an Olympic spot at this competition. She had previously been a middle of the pack gymnast. She never shone and she never faltered but she emerged from the pack in a big way at the competition. Her work on BB this competition was very slow but she strikes me as a true all-arounder. She is the kind of gymnast who could compete on any event in a team final.
MyKayla Skinner on VT at the 2015 US Secret Classic
MyKayla Skinner, on the other hand, had the worst competition of her senior career here. She has been struggling with injuries this season and only managed one clean landing on her FX. She swings bars poorly, though she did manage not to fall. She fell twice on beam. She downgraded her 2 1/2 twisting yurchenko vault to a double twisting yurchenko which is a pretty clear sign that her gym training time has been limited.
What continues to baffle me, however, is her Cheng vault. The Cheng involves a half turn onto the vaulting table. Skinner never manages to square that up so she is often blocking with only one hand. This is incredibly dangerous. Karolyi has been known to talk to a gymnast performing an unsafe vault, like Kyla Ross in 2012, but Skinner continues to perform her Cheng. It even scored well at last year’s World Championships. I don’t know what the judges are seeing but I’m scared every time I see Skinner perform that vault.
Madison Kocian on UB at the 2015 US Secret Classic
Madison Kocian is in the running for the beam/UB specialists that US teams always need. It is a running joke that the only gym that knows how to teach girls how to swing bars is WOGA. Kocian is yet another WOGA gymnast who is shaping up to be a bars specialist. She had the highest score of the competition on bars (d: 6.5; e: 9.1; 15.600) and, while she probably wouldn’t score that high internationally, it would put her in the mix for the UB event final. She has a nice flowing form on the bars. She faces competition for specialist spot from fellow 2014 World Championship team members Ashton Locklear and Alyssa Baumann. Locklear did not compete at the Classic, though she did show BB and UB routines. She has a lovely rhythm on BB that makes her pleasant to watch. Baumann finished in a tie for 6th on the UB which, given that is is the US’s team real need, can’t be the result she was hoping for.
Assuming that Kyla Ross is healthy, she becomes a virtual lock for the 2015 Worlds team. Anything can happen in gymnastics but I would have to assume that both Raisman and Douglas would join her. I assume that Simone Biles has already booked her plane tickets. This means there are a lot of gymnasts in the hunt for the final two Worlds spots.
Image (c) David D via Flickr under CC2.0