Junior Pan Ams pan out — Gymnastics news — Thoughts from Chris Waller

The IX: Gymnastics Saturday with Jessica Taylor Price, December 4, 2021

Welcome back to The IX Gymnastics! I for one am quite well rested after my break, thank you very much, and filled with gratitude toward one thing and one thing only — the U.S. juniors. 

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It’s been a rough year for the U.S. senior program. While it would be a big mistake to say they didn’t succeed at the Olympics, for many, the team silver and mismanagement from up top called into question what the future of the program holds once Simone Biles is out of the picture. Aside from the Forster issue, I am not too concerned, considering how much depth the U.S. typically has in the junior and development ranks. 

Enter the U.S. Junior Pan American Games team. It was no surprise to see the U.S. win by a lot here — the team easily won gold with a 159.35, over 16 points ahead of second-place Brazil (Canada didn’t participate in the team competition) — as the Pan Ams field is typically less competitive. That said, they also performed really well, and it bodes well for the future of the program, especially as we head into the next quad with a depleted senior field.

First of all, in accordance with prophecy, America’s top junior Katelyn Jong won the all-around in the combined qualification-AA-team final with a 53.25, along with silvers on vault (13.933), floor (13.000), and beam (12.700).

Here she is on bars, where she earned a 13.100 in the all-around:


I’m sitting on my hands trying not to hype this kid up too much. Jong is a 2006 baby, so she’ll turn senior next month, and I look forward to seeing how she meets the challenge this spring.

Kailin Chio was close behind her with a 52.500, and also won floor with a 13.33 for this gorgeous routine featuring a full-in and a triple twist:

… and earned a bronze on bars (12.200). Like Jong, Chio is a 2006 baby, so we’ll hopefully see her compete as a senior in 2022.

Madray Johnson came in third with a 52.25 but was two-per-country’d off the podium. Later, though, she won the bars — where she typically shines — final with this beautiful routine, which earned a 13.43:


… and the beam final, with a 12.87. Johnson is only 14, so this is an incredible experience for her to get as she hones her skills as a junior.

Tiana Sumanasekera came in fifth in the all-around with a 49.55 and underperformed on beam — her specialty event — leaving her out of the final. But she also had some redemption here with a vault gold (13.95, video here thanks to Intl Gymnast) over Jong and Brazil’s Andreza Heloisa Lima De Lima, who took bronze here and on beam (video here). Like De Lima, Canada’s Aurélie Tran made a name for herself at this competition as one of the successful non-Americans, placing third in the all-around after Johnson was two-per-country’d, with a 50.7, and taking silver on bars.

As ridiculous as it is that we have junior continental events in a sport that has an age limit (more on that another time), it’s also great to see America’s Next Top Elites coming into the new quad with such high-quality international experience, and I can’t wait to see what the spring holds for Jong and Chio. Results: team, all-aroundvault, bars, beam, floor. Big shoutout to Lauren at The Gymternet for figuring out how to watch this.

Gymnastics news

  • Ondine Achampong won the British Championships with a 52.400 (results via The Gymternet). The field was somewhat depleted, as many of the big British names are taking a break. Here’s Achampong’s beam:
  • Ana Maria Barbosu of Romania won the all-around at Top Gym (a junior competition) with a 53.400 (full results).
  • The Gold Over America Tour will stream live on Saturday at 4pm ET, for a fee.
  • Simone Biles was named one of PEOPLE’s People of the Year:

Tweet of the week

Here comes Margzetta with the only way I would create an OnlyFans account:

Five at the IX: Chris Waller

Photo: UCLA Gymnastics

UCLA head coach Chris Waller kindly spoke to me about the new crop of freshmen and what we can expect from the upcoming season.

What are you looking forward to this year?
We’ve got a whole lot of new folks on the team. We have a huge freshman class. We’ve got seven new athletes, and then an eighth is coming in — Jordan Chiles — on December 10th. So out of 22 people on our team, we have eight new team members.

How do you feel about having so many big names join the roster?
I’m inspired by it, excited by it. Having that kind of talent come in is super exciting. What’s really cool about the people who are coming in is they’re all so different — different personalities, different styles of gymnastics. They all bring unique qualities to the program. I feel like it’s going to give our program a very colorful personality. It’s the gymnastics you’re going to see that’s going to look varied, but it’s also just the energy that’s going to be varied. People are bringing really different things to the table; it’s going to be really fresh and fun.

How did you handle it when so many of them deferred last year?
We dealt with it the best way we could, and what ended up happening last year was that there were a lot of people on our team who we leaned on because we had four people defer. They stepped up and did an incredible job.

Sara Ulias ended up competing for us on bars and even on floor. I remember the beginning of December last year; we had really only been training for like five weeks at that point. Looking at the meets that were coming up and who was ready, I was like, “Okay, Sara, we really need you to be ready to do routines; we need you ready to compete for us.” She was shocked. She was speechless. She’s a walk-on athlete, and she told me in that moment, “I thought I’d have a couple of years to wrap my head around this and feel like I was ready to compete for UCLA.” Well, she didn’t. She stepped in and in fact ended up being our highest scorer on bars at the regional championship. Those were opportunities that people didn’t expect to have.

What are your goals going into this season?
Our goals are to walk into the arena and compete with confidence with the unique style of big, beautiful gymnastics, and carry on and build onto the gymnastics legacy of UCLA. And what that looks like out on the competitive floor, it’s hard to say until we get to competing. But if we can go out there and achieve the goals I just mentioned, we’re going to be contenders for championships.

Where are you now in the leadup to the season?
We are in this phase of going from our preseason training to this phase of getting full routines ready for competition. It’s often the hardest part of preseason. So we’ve got a big intrasquad that’s going to happen the day after finals end, on December 11th. And then on December 17th, we have our Meet the Bruins event which will be televised on the Pac-12 Network. It’s essentially a blue-versus-gold intrasquad that’s going to be televised. It’s a great opportunity for our team to get out there in front of our audience with live TV and get their feet wet with competing. And with our giant freshman class, it’s a really important opportunity for them to get used to what it’s like to be a collegiate athlete because it’s very, very different from anything they’ve done before.

What was it like to take over from Miss Val?
Taking over from Miss Val is a huge undertaking. I can’t be Miss Val, and many of our student athletes over the past couple of years came here with the expectation that Miss Val would be their head coach. So it’s been a transition. Many of the things that Miss Val embraced in terms of how to lead a team, many of those things I do as well, because we coached side by side. But the fact of the matter is I’m not her and I do things a bit differently.

What it feels like right now is that the team is finally starting to get what the Chris Waller head coach era is all about. So it’s really nice right now to feel like the team is settling into this place of confidence and comfort with not just myself but the coaching staff of the team. It’s been a challenging road, and it’s been very rewarding to get to the place we are at right now.

What are you most excited about for the upcoming season?
I’m very excited about the floor routines we’re going to have. Our choreographer BJ Das did the choreography for the Gold Over America Tour, so that took up a lot of her time. So getting to UCLA and getting our floor routines going, and now they’re all coming together, man … there are going to be some incredible floor routines this year and I’m excited to unveil those.

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By: Annie Peterson, @AnnieMPeterson, AP Women’s Soccer
Tuesdays: Tennis
By: Joey Dillon, @JoeyDillon, Freelance Tennis Writer
Wednesdays: Basketball
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Thursdays: Golf
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Saturdays: Gymnastics
By: Jessica Taylor Price, @jesstaylorprice, Freelance Gymnastics Writer