Hot takes on the U.S. Classic — Other gym news — Thoughts from Leanne Wong and Shilese Jones

Thoughts from Leanne Wong and Shilese Jones, must-click links from the past week in gymnastics, and the most notable news of the week.

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Elite season is off and running. Let’s talk U.S. Classic and Leanne Wong. (This is by no means a complete or exhaustive review of the competition. For those, look here or here or watch the whole CNBC replay here. This is just my quick impression of the weekend from afar.)

Who won:

Leanne Wong

Wong won the senior all-around title and established herself as a frontrunner for worlds and Paris if she keeps this up. She debuted a second vault, a Lopez, plus a Bhardwaj on bars (even though she fell and it isn’t giving her enough in connection value to be worth it, it looks amazing, sweetie). She won beam with a solid, smooth routine and was second on floor. She looked strong and capable and less… anxious than she did in the run-up to Tokyo last year. Florida has been good to her.

Jayla Hang

Hang won the junior all-around title with a 52.80 that would have put her in third in the senior competition. She looked especially stellar on vault, with a huge DTY. She is definitely one to keep an eye on as she progresses into the senior ranks. 

Who had a Moment:

Shilese Jones

Jones won second in the all-around, in a match with Wong that came down to the last event. She won bars (which anyone who has seen her training videos of late could have predicted – and yes, she did that handstand!) and was second on both vault and floor. She did fall on beam, which points to her Achilles’ heel of consistency – can we count on Jones on a major team? I’m going to say yes, we can, and cross my fingers for worlds selection this year. She’s putting on a show in a major way.

Two vaults

Wong and Joscelyn Roberson each performed two vaults in competition. This is a Big Deal because last year at Worlds, no American made the vault final because no one had two vaults. Alicia Sacramone Quinn, 2010 vault world champion, six-time U.S. vault champion, and now USAG’s new head of strategy, has been outspoken about athletes learning and competing in two vaults and about having two vaults as a criterion for making the national team. We’d seen Wong developing her second vault over her NCAA season, and here she made the leap from her college Podkopayeva to a Lopez beautifully. She paired it with a DTY that won her the event here (only one vault counted toward the event standings). Roberson also performed the DTY as her counting vault and finished in third with it, after Wong and Jones. While Wong’s the closest thing we have to a lock for worlds right now, vault puts Roberson strongly into the mix as well.

Laurie Hernandez and John Roethlisberger

I forgot what it was like to listen to an elite competition and not immediately mute the commentary. The bar was low, but the dynamic duo of Hernandez and Roethlisberger went way above and beyond here, giving us enlightened, lively commentary with actual news we could use about deductions but also a healthy amount of praise for each girl and woman out there.

Who wasn’t there and what it means:

The audience

There was no one in the arena. OK, at one point there were 107 people – Kensley from GymCastic counted for us. Could be that prices were set too high, could be it was poorly marketed, could be that support for USAG is low. Regardless, it’s not good.

Greg Marsden had as many negative thoughts about the poor attendance as he did positive ones about Hernandez and Roethlisberger.

Konnor McClain, Kayla DiCello, and Katelyn Jong

It’s Classic. Does it matter? Maybe, maybe not.

Of these three noticeable absences from the Classic roster, I’m least worried about DiCello. She just competed at PanAms, helping the U.S. qualify a team for worlds, and she’s off to Florida this fall. She had a back injury that just healed up enough for her to compete, but I don’t blame her for not wanting to poke that bear with her first NCAA season on the line. We’ll see her at nationals, and that’s OK.

Jong was last year’s junior national champion and I think lots of us hoped for a triumphant competition here after taking fifth at her Winter Cup senior debut in February. Hopefully, we’ll see more of Jong at nationals this month. With an automatic qualification to that meet after her performance last summer, perhaps she just realized she didn’t need Classic all that much.

McClain disclosed that she’s recovering from a concussion. So I’m glad she didn’t compete. At the same time, we’ve seen little from her to gauge whether her big gym switch to WOGA last year has kept her on the same fast train to big teams. But, we also know she’s had a very rough go of it personally over the last year – the gym switch and move, which may have been the result of her experiencing racism at her old gym, the deaths of her dad and grandmother to COVID-19 and subsequent speculation about her family’s politics online. I’m all for taking the pressure off McClain for a little while longer. As long as it takes.

Other gym news

Kim Bui announced that she will retire from the sport following Euros next weekend in Munich. Bui, 33, casually pursued a master’s degree in biology, focusing on cancer research, while also becoming a three-time Olympian and a two-time German national champion. We are not worthy.

Chellsie Memmel is putting on a meet! The Chellsie Classic will be held January 27-29 at M&M Gymnastics in New Berlin, Wis., where Chellsie trains and, we hope, her dad Andy will make a fetch appearance. The website for the event is, of course, purple, our hero’s signature color.

Speaking of Chellsie, she told media at U.S. Classic that Jade Carey and Jordan Chiles would compete at Nationals later this month!

Australia’s Georgia Godwin won AA at the Commonwealth Games, the first win for her country at the event in 12 years. You can read the live blog of the AA competition here. Godwin’s been duking it out in the sport for more than a decade. She had double ankle surgery last year, and to come back and win in Birmingham was pretty incredible. (She also won team silver, vault gold, and silvers on bars and beam. NBD.) “I do my best to try and show that gymnastics is a safe sport,” she told the Guardian, referring to the abuse scandals that have rocked Gymnastics Australia of late. Godwin was very emotional after her AA win:

England’s Ondine Achampong won silver in the Commonwealth Games AA and Emma Spence of Canada bronze.

Shannon Archer of Scotland won bronze on vault at the Commonwealth Games – Scotland’s first-ever artistic gymnastics medal.

Georgia-Mae Fenton defended her bars title at the Commonwealth Games.

The European Youth Olympic Festival was held this week in Slovakia. You can see the results here. Helen Kevric of Germany won AA gold, followed by Romania’s Amalia Puflea (perhaps a sign of better Romanian things to come?) and France’s Lilou Viallat.

July 30 was Sunisa Lee Day in Lee’s hometown of St. Paul, Minn.

Lee also did a rewatch and review of her Olympic AA performance, one year later.

Five at The IX: Leanne Wong and Shilese Jones 

Wong and Jones participated in what was billed as USAG’s “historic first Instagram Live press conference” at U.S. Classic (along with Fred Richardson and Yul Moldauer from the men’s side of things). Some questions were pulled from those fans asked on Instagram, then the press was able to ask their questions. I’ve transcribed a few of Wong’s and Jones’ answers below, though you can watch the whole Live as well:

I have edited the answers for clarity.

Leanne, what have you been up to since April? (This question came directly from the press.)

I guess after NCAAs I went to April camp, and from there I’ve just been continuing that and getting the skills back and getting them ready to compete. I had to do half my summer in Florida because I had some classes to take, but now I’m back home [at GAGE] training and preparing for the season.

How has that been for you, going to the collegiate side and then coming back into elite?

LW: It’s been a quick transition but I had a couple of months in between so I feel like that was my off-season. I think it will be an interesting transition because in college I’m used to competing every single week but in elite it’s obviously a little different.

You have your own online Leanne Wong Bowtique, you’re known for your bows. How did you get it started, what do you want to do with your store, and what is your favorite bow?

LW: I began wearing my bows in 2018 in one of my high school elective classes, so it started off as a project. Then I started wearing them every day at practice and competition. That has really kept me busy. I always feel like I have four different jobs – I have school, gymnastics, my bow business, and all the NIL deals and everything. Everything’s really keeping me busy. My bow business is doing really well, and of course the financial part is really cool. It’s just really awesome to see all these girls wearing my bows. We’re trying to get into other sports.

I don’t think I have a favorite, because I like to make new ones to match all my outfits.

Shilese, you’ve had a really big 12 months. You have relocated, you changed gyms, and you’ve been performing really well. How has your transition been?

SJ: It’s not new. I was born and raised in Seattle, and I went to the same gym ever since I was 12.  Then I moved to Ohio, I was out there for about eight years and then we moved back to Seattle to be with family. So I’m training at that same first gym that I went to, and it’s just amazing. The coaches are very welcoming. We set goals and are just following that, and here I am today. These last seven months have been hard but I’m ready to get back out there on the competition floor.

You’ve been at the sport for a while. What is the biggest lesson that gymnastics has taught you? 

SJ: To just keep fighting, honestly. I’ve come so close to big international assignments and big things, but you know, you fall short a little bit. That motivates me to focus on myself and to put the extra work in to get on that team and reach that next step.

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