Special to The IX: Gymnastics Saturday with Jessica Taylor Price, part 2
They're back! — Must-click women's gymnastics links — Laurie Hernandez talks return to action
Howard Megdal here. She’s back! Once more, guest writer Jessica Taylor Price, one of my all-time favorite reads, is here to discuss another week in gymnastics.
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Jessica Taylor Price is a freelance writer living in Somerville, MA. Follow her on Twitter at @jesstaylorprice.
I realized something just a few routines into Saturday’s Winter Cup: I don’t give a rat’s ass who wins.
After being starved for content for over a year and a half, when I saw Laurie Hernandez step onto the floor, I didn’t care where she would land in the standings (and apparently neither did NBC, because they never showed the final scores (?)). I was just giddy that I finally got to watch U.S. elite gymnasts compete.
It didn’t seem to matter much to the athletes, either. For a low-stakes competition like this one, America’s best gymnasts were just there to dust off the competition leos and to show that, yes, we’re still here; we’ve been working (almost) this whole time. That meant different things for the 26 senior elites who competed: It meant doing three events; it meant competing on beam and nothing else — or, in the case of Jordan Chiles, it meant showing off an Olympic-caliber all-around program that easily took the title.
I didn’t cover Jordan Chiles much or Shilese Jones at all in my preview, but on Saturday they showed me why that was a big mistake. Chiles hit four routines, including a full-twisting double layout on floor, a beautiful double-twisting Yurchenko (DTY) on vault, a maloney + gienger combo on bars, and a full-in dismount on beam. She killed it for a 57.050, also posting the top scores on vault and floor. Fun fact about Chiles: she trains at World Championships Centre with Simone Biles, and calls her “my sister.”
It’s a bit early in the season to be this ready (prove me wrong, though). That said, kudos to Chiles for giving her all and taking the title here, as well as to Shilese Jones, who also brought four excellent routines to take second. Jones showed a solid DTY, a bar routine that we didn’t see (thanks, NBC!) a beautiful standing arabian on beam, and on floor, a 1.5-twisting double back, a skill that isn’t currently named in the elite code of points.
The biggest story of the competition, though, was the return of 2016 gold and silver medalist Laurie Hernandez, who competed for the first time in four and a half years.In 2018, Hernandez opted to do her comeback training at Gym-Max after leaving coach Maggie Haney, whom Hernandez and Riley McCusker have accused of abuse. The change seems to have done wonders for Hernandez (see below). She looked calm and comfortable on floor, where she competed a Hamilton-themed routine that she choreographed herself, in a leotard inspired by Captain Marvel. Difficulty-wise, it was watered down, but it was great to see her out there looking so confident. She did a great job on beam, with a well controlled, error-free routine.
Riley McCusker was in a somewhat similar situation coming into this competition, as she trained under Haney as well and competed at the Winter Cup for the first time since her move to Arizona Sunrays. She competed a DTY that came up a bit short, hit her new bars dismount, and had a fall on her beam dismount as well as a mulligan on her wolf turn, but otherwise looked good there. Regardless of how they did, it was so great to see Hernandez and McCusker looking happy doing gymnastics (and to see them throw a little shade).
McCusker’s new teammate Jade Carey has taken a leaf out of McCusker’s book, debuting a new bar routine — including a Bhardwaj — that looks phenomenal. She competed a beautiful Cheng on vault, her specialty, and crushed it on beam. Carey has mathematically clinched a spot at the Olympics for her work on vault, but it’s clear from this competition that it would be a mistake to count her out of the all-around equation.
Speaking of bar routines, Sunisa Lee. Lee has about a billion different versions of her bar routine, each with different skill combinations that rack up difficulty. The version she competed at Winter Cup was incredible (it earned the highest score of the competition, a 15.05), but it wasn’t even as hard as the one she showed at podium training (or the one she’ll show at the national team training camp next week), which includes a Bhardwaj linked to a Maloney. I don’t think any gymnast has done that connection before, but Lee said after the competition that it’s been in the works for a couple of years, and we can probably expect to see it at upcoming competitions. She also competed on beam, where she showed new leaps but skipped the dismount.
Our new seniors Konnor McClain and Skye Blakely did an incredible job, showing us why they deserve to be included in the Olympic team mix. McClain’s beam included a huge standing full and a glorious layout to two feet. She also did a beautiful DTY. Blakely’s beam was gorgeous, with a standing full and a double tuck dismount. Also, her extension is to DIE for.
Note: Two athletes originally on the roster — Katelyn Rosen and Faith Torrez — had to pull out of the competition due to injuries sustained during warmups. Scary falls are, unfortunately, a reality of the sport, and our thoughts go out to Rosen (who we’re told is OK) and Torrez.
We always have issues with how gymnastics is covered on TV — for one, the limited number of routines that are actually shown — and this meet was no different. A Twitter hero helpfully pointed out that only 35 minutes of the NBC broadcast were spent on actual gymnastics, with the rest of the time (58 minutes) spent on fluff.
NBC also made the decision to air an overview of the Geddert case, including a slideshow with images of him and Nassar, after the first rotation. To be honest, I don’t know how to feel about this choice. But it was strange that while commentators acknowledged the Geddert news and discussed McCusker and Hernandez’s gym changes, Kim Zmeskal (who has been accused of abusive coaching practices) was just … there, along with a coach who used to run the Karolyi Ranch and was allegedly involved in removing medical documents (when asked about this, USAG told USA Today that “[USAG] membership requires passing a background check and completing Safe Sport training”).
At this point, who is surprised?
In institutional failure news, the OC Register found that a clerk for the judge in the USAG bankruptcy case once worked for the organization. In response, Rachael Denhollander tweeted, “That’s no accident. Disgusting.” The Register also found that there were serious flaws with the 2017 review of USAG’s sexual abuse policies.
USAG wants to settle with survivors before it’s done with bankruptcy, and Michigan State University has been fined $5.4 million for not protecting students from Larry Nassar. Also, Aly Raisman is once again calling for a fully independent investigation of USAG’s handling of Nassar’s abuse.
Trending: this girl trying to do an illusion turn is all of us, and Brie Clark, a Utah State commit, did the Biles in a competition. Meanwhile, Simone Biles announced the lineup for her Gold Over America tour.
Check out this interview with Olympic silver medalist Daria Spiridonova, who announced her retirement last month.
Five at The IX: Laurie Hernandez
Nobody had more fun at the Winter Cup than Laurie Hernandez.
She looked relaxed and confident here, and clearly wasn’t afraid to show her goofy side. For one thing, she made good on a promise to say “For the honor of grayskull” into the camera (though I don’t understand the reference, please help). And she successfully lobbied to get Leslie Odom, Jr. and Brie Larson’s stamps of approval after the competition.
I couldn’t get a one-on-one with her, but I thought I’d share this delight of a press conference she held after the competition (edited ever-so-slightly for clarity and length). Here it is. Bask in the glow of Laurie.
(First of all, it took her a minute to realize she was on camera. Then she said, “Hi!!!”)
Q: What was it like to be out there for the first time since Rio, and where do you go from here?
A: It was terrifying to initially go back out there. I think the four-and-a-half year gap between competing then versus now really made a difference, but at the same time having that time away from gymnastics to go and do my own thing and then come back, it was like coming back as a new person but with old skills in my body, so I felt like I had a one up on myself, if that makes any sense. I was really nervous and then I felt really excited and almost calm and composed on the equipment, which is not something I felt when I was 16. So I really enjoyed today.
Q: Could you tell us about the new environment at Gym-Max? What is it like being at a new gym, and what is your relationship like with [coach Jenny Liang]?
A: I think what happened on floor today really sums up my relationship with Jenny and [coach] Howie and with Gym-Max. I was initially supposed to do a full-in, double arabian, double pike, and then just layout last pass. And I think Jenny was kind of on the fence because she thought I was a little bit nervous. And she was like, “No. I want you to have a good time. I want you to hit, and I want you to have a good time” … She was hellbent on making sure that I enjoyed myself my first meet back, and so she pulled the full-in and was like, “Just do the double arabian, double tuck, double pike, and the layout, and dance your butt off, and have a great time,” and I did. She really values me enjoying the experience four-and-a-half years later, which is really nice.
Q: To what extent did you feel genuine joy as you performed today, and how much of that joy has to do with this new coaching relationship?
A: Honestly, it has everything to do with it. Of course, even in 2016, facial expressions were choreographed into the routine. So when I was performing, I was really feeling those things even though they were already incorporated. Whereas with this one, I choreographed my own routine, I cut my own routine, and there was nothing expression-wise to choreograph, other than I know that if I’m having a really good time it’s just going to fly out on my face because unfortunately, my face really does that. And I think especially with Jenny just wanting me to enjoy the experience today after not having competed in so long, I did feel genuine joy coming back out there and showing off this new routine, and I just got to be myself like I am in practice. There was no pressure from her; it was just pure joy and pure wanting me to do well today.
Q: What was going through your head during beam, and when you landed, what was that feeling?
A: We’ve been training beam routines for a really long time now … that was the first event to come back. And so, being able to go out and do it today, of course there are those little butterflies that come and go. But what’s been happening a lot within the last year or so is that I’ll do a beam routine and then halfway through, I kind of settle into my own body and it just feels like I can relax and be grounded and that’s kind of what happened today, which makes sense because it’s been happening in practice … Of course you get nervous. But I used to be really nervous, like full, breakdown in tears before beam, and now it’s kind of like my safe space.
Q: How is the progress on the other two events [vault and bars]?
A: You’ll probably see them really soon. We are training all four events; it’s not like we were only training two for this event. We decided I’d say within the last week that we’re only going to do floor and beam for Winter Cup. But you’ll see them soon, and hopefully we get some new skills in there too, which will be a lot of fun.
Q: You mentioned that your brain was different than it was in 2016. In what way, and how does that help you?
A: Within the last couple of years, I’ve gotten really into openly speaking about mental health and tackling it and expressing it publicly so that way, it pulls the stigma away from it … With any experience that I’ve had in the past and now having to come back, there was a lot of anxiety and nervousness and just being uncomfortable in that. Changing into the new environment and being able to talk to someone about how I’m feeling — all the factors that I have now are not things that I had when I was 16. And so when I say “new brain,” it’s like, just a completely different person. Maybe when I was 16 I would go to compete and I would feel nervous and I’d be like, “I’m not nervous. I’m fine.” Because I equated nerves with me not being prepared, which of course I wouldn’t now. That’s not true at all. You get nervous either way because you care, not because you’re not ready. So it’s just a big mindset change now.
Q: Can you share anything about what new skills you’re working on?
A: This is Fight Club, I can’t tell you anything. I’m not even in it. Baby, I’m just a hallucination!
(It’s a TikTok reference … I’m on social media way too much because of the pandemic.)
Definitely don’t want to tell you, but there is one skill I’m working on that isn’t consistent yet. But if we can get it consistent I think everyone will be very excited about it. And it’ll be kind of a surprise.
Q: It was cute to see you with Riley; you look happy, healthy, cheering each other on. What kind of message does that send?
A: Riley and I have been texting a lot a couple of weeks leading up to Winter Cup, just because of course we were nervous, but we’re also like, “oh my god, I’m so excited to compete with you, to be in the same environment with you.” I think both of us had a lot of adapting to do in our comebacks or changes that we had to endure, and we were just excited to be here and to see each other, and I think if anybody, of course, Riley gets it. And so we’ve been able to connect in that way and on so many different levels. And coming back here has just been a really big accomplishment. Just being here in general is a big accomplishment, so I’m proud of her.