The American Seniors at Jesolo: Depth, Comeback Kids, & Simone

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The City of Jesolo Trophy wrapped up last Sunday with the Americans leaving a deep impression. We could spend all day analyzing their collective performance and putting fantasy teams together, but let it suffice to break this thing down into three “takeaways.” Here we go…

Takeaway # 1: Perhaps it’s been overstated, but Team USA has depth that is unsurpassed. Although gym fans know the story well, the narrative was highlighted, underlined, and basically shouted from the rooftops in Italy. Nine of the USA’s army-of-ten athletes finished in the top ten all-around (Italy’s Erika Fasana finished 6th), five of them finishing with total scores that topped Kyla Ross’s bronze medal-yielding All-Around score at the 2014 World Championships (a 58.232); all Event Finalists medaled on their respective events; two Event Finals (bars and beam) went 1-2 for the U.S. team, and every Event Final title was taken by a U.S. gymnast. Good grief, it would be annoying if it weren’t so impressive.

What we learned here (knock on wood) is that even if injury or burnout were to visit a top gymnast before the culmination of this Olympic cycle, there wouldn’t be any major cause for alarm, at least as far as team success is concerned. There appears to be no lack of puzzle pieces.

Take Bailie Key, for example. The first-year senior’s debut performance was a knock-out by all accounts. Finishing second all-around with a 59.500, she shined especially on uneven bars (where she finished second in the Event Final) and floor exercise. The virtuosity is somewhat lacking in her floor routine, but she gives a dynamic and clean performance, opening with a Double Arabian to stag followed by a Memmel turn, and I’m sure we’ll see her emote a little more as she matures.

2014 World Championship gold medalist Alyssa Baumann also had a great competition, finishing fifth All-Around with a total score of 58.700. She shines especially on balance beam (finishing second in the Event Final) where she combines difficult acrobatics (opening with a standing Arabian) with beautiful lines, making regular aerial’s and onodi’s look not-so-regular.

In conclusion, while other top teams are trying to preserve their top athletes, panicked that they won’t hold out until Rio, the Americans keep creating and recycling more.

And it’s not because they are being grown in petri dishes. The success of gymnastics in the USA is a like a finely tuned recipe: an excellent elite training program which combines the best of both worlds (individual and centralized training); great coaches; gyms everywhere, from big cities to small towns, and an extensive pre-elite program that gets girls competing as soon as they can whip out a back hand-spring and hand-spring flat-back (a “vault” onto a large, squishy mat). Take out any one ingredient, and you don’t have a Team USA that looks as good as they did in Jesolo.

Takeaway # 2: Team USA may have depth that is unsurpassed, made up largely of youth, but Jesolo would suggest that the current “A Team” includes three of the five women who won team gold in London.

Kyla Ross continues to prove her staying power to naysayers who hear her gymnastics death knell tolling in the name of start values. Although she didn’t come to Jesolo with routines whose D values had skyrocketed, she did come with some measured, incremental changes that will give her precious tenths while keeping in line with her gym’s philosophy: only perform it in competition if you’re completely comfortable with it and it’s pretty. To that end, she upped her game on uneven bars, getting her connection value back to where it was before the back troubles, and she did it without the inbar work. Combining a toe-on circle to a toe-on circle full to a Maloney to a pak to a VanLeeuwen at the beginning of her routine was a good move. None of the elements are new, but now she’s pulling them all out at once. Switching to a double front dismount doesn’t add anything to her start value, but it’s a welcome change of pace for spectators and (I imagine) Kyla herself. She’ll still need to boost the overall SV if she’s looking to secure a place in the Uneven Bars Final at World’s this year, but this is a good start.

Additionally, Kyla continues to prove her reliability. Despite having a major meltdown during her new floor routine, bounding out of her opening double Arabian instead of completing a stag jump, Kyla still managed to place in the top three elsewhere, outpacing her younger teammates when it comes to reliability across multiple events.

Placing behind Ross on vault and uneven bars and matching her on balance beam, the 2012 Olympic All Around Champion Gabrielle Douglas certainly proved that her comeback is for real.

Her best showing came on vault but a solid beam performance on the apparatus that has traditionally been her nemesis did more to seal the deal than the former. It will be interesting to see whether she adds a series in the future (perhaps another BHS or even an aerial before the current BHS to LOSO combination?), and she’ll want to work for more consistency on her leaps (particularly her switch ring), but her basic acrobatics were all there, just as solid as they were in London, including her standing full.

The remaining three events are where she could pick up a bit more steam as the competitive season advances. Her most visible mistakes came on landings: hopping out of her Double Arabian on FX and a bounding step upon landing her double pike. This is nit-picky stuff, and I mention it here only to suggest it reveals untapped power. I wouldn’t be surprised if the girl went to the U.S. Secret Classic this summer with upgraded tumbles (perhaps bringing a stag leap back to her double Arabian or throwing a triple twist in place of her double pike or tuck).

Similarly, her DTY is good, but if she could get her Amanar back the U.S. would be well on its way to its “old” show-stopping way of sealing the gold medal before the first rotation concludes.

Ironically, Uneven Bars might prove a bit trickier, though it was one of the champ’s biggest events the first time around. At this competition, Gabby showed off a new composition, one without the big jaeger she was known for but with some really cool stalder work on the low bar before a Chow transition back up the high and a DLO dismount. The start value is a 6.5 and she got an 8.5 in execution.

Still, the fact remains that the U.S. “drought” on bars seems to be ending. Although no one has fought for a world title on the event the last couple of years, the bars can’t be counted as a weak event anymore. Just the fact that Biles was taken out of the Event Final and replaced by Key suggests that the field is growing deeper. It will be harder this time around for Gabby to stake a claim based on bars. That being said, she is in the midst of that growing field, and that after taking a significant amount of time away, growing into a new body, and changing gyms. She was also the only team member other than Biles to count all four scores in a format where two were thrown away on every event. That has to count.

Finishing in the top three on just one event but placing ahead of Douglas in the all-around standings, 2012 Floor Champ Alexandra Raisman joined her friend and teammate in proving that she’s back for the long haul.

She was right up there with everyone vault, and her beam routine was solid. Not quite as “Ali Sturdy” as she performed previously, but pretty darn good for her first competition post-London. She didn’t hold back, either, throwing her Patterson dismount instead of taking an easier route.

Floor Exercise is where she really shined, however. When you consider all of Raisman’s and all of Douglass’s routines together, this was the one that came closest to the memory of an Olympic-level performance. Opening with a 1.5 twist to double Arabian to front layout, the reigning floor champ reminded everyone (just in case they forgot) which color medal hangs in her trophy case. Her leaps suggest she could spend a little more time reading a book in over-splits, but the rest of her passes—a piked double Arabian, DLO, and double pike—prove she’s been hard at work.

In conclusion, the fact that Team USA could be filled with Olympic veterans heading into Rio is pretty exciting. It would be thrilling regardless, but the really amazing part is that the presence and fighting power of these “comeback kids” doesn’t reveal low-quality work from those who joined the senior ranks after 2012. It reveals that the 2012 Team was filled not only with immense talent but also with athletes that have immense character. Making a comeback is difficult; imagine the pressure that accompanies a comeback after Olympic glory and on a national team that is as competitive as the USA’s. What Raisman and Douglass did last weekend was vulnerable. Their faces showed it after their performances. They should be applauded for their courage and work ethic alone.

Takeaway # 3: Simone Biles is unquestionably the best gymnast in the world. Not that we didn’t already know that, but it still becomes clearer and more staggering every time we see it. She has been dominant since she debuted in 2013, and it doesn’t look like she’ll be relinquishing her crown anytime soon. With Biles in the lead, we might see something we haven’t seen since the likes of Larissa Latynina, Versa Caslavka, and Ludmila Tourisheva were competing: a gymnast who monopolizes an entire Olympic cycle.

And Biles would be doing it under a whole new set of rules. She’s truly a gem, leading an amazing team.

** Article: Sara Dorrien**

Cover Photo: Luigi Fardella (Gymnastike)

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