Special to The IX: Gymnastics Saturday with Jessica Taylor Price
A Winter Cup preview, and take on the tragic week in the sport, for our loyal subscribers
Howard Megdal here. We are so honored to be joined by guest writer Jessica Taylor Price, one of my all-time favorite reads, to discuss a remarkable week in gymnastics.
This is a thank you, paid subscribers, for your vital support. Enjoy this, and plenty of other inside access to come, as part of your reward for stepping up and making 24/7/365 women’s sports coverage possible. We’re so grateful you’re here.
Jessica Taylor Price is a freelance writer living in Somerville, MA. Follow her on Twitter at @jesstaylorprice.
If you’re normal, you probably only watch gymnastics once every four years, during the Olympics.
I’m here to tell you that that’s a mistake. As we’ll see when some of the best gymnasts in the U.S. (and the world) compete at the Winter Cup this weekend, the sport is a thing of beauty — even when those rings aren’t in the corner of the screen. Gymnastics is an absolute joy to watch.
It’s also a difficult sport to watch.
Two years after Larry Nassar was sentenced to a lifetime in jail, a dark cloud still hangs heavy in the gymnastics world, with abuse survivors still fighting for accountability from the people who abused them and the institutions that failed to prevent it. Prosecutors took an important step toward justice on Thursday, when 2012 U.S. Olympic team coach John Geddert was charged with 24 felony counts related to abusing athletes at his Michigan gym. Then, just hours later, Geddert took his own life.
Geddert retired from the sport two years ago after allegations against him emerged at the height of the Nassar sentencing. But it would be a mistake to assume that a newfound public knowledge of abuse, and charges brought against men like Geddert, mean that gymnasts are now safe. After the release of the documentary Athlete A this past summer, allegations of abusive coaching have continued to emerge globally. And in fact, two of the competitors in this weekend’s event — Laurie Hernandez and Riley McCusker — testified against their coach, Maggie Haney, just 10 months ago, alleging abusive coaching practices in a suspension hearing. USA Gymnastics responded by suspending Haney from coaching for eight years, an amount that was later reduced to five.
Knowing all of this is going on behind the scenes, how can anyone watch gymnastics?
I’d like to say we can watch gymnastics just like how we watch anything else — as informed citizens. In February 2018, I wrote in an essay for Teen Vogue that defending one’s fanship of gymnastics does not mean denying abuse exists; rather, it means supporting athletes and their advocacy for a cultural shift in the sport. We can’t, and shouldn’t, try to divorce the sport from its problems. But does watching gymnastics contribute to perpetuating those problems? I don’t have an answer to that, and I don’t think anyone does.
I do know one thing for sure, though: these women work their asses off. Senior elite women will train anywhere from 30 and 40 hours a week, and when you watch them perform, you’re seeing the very best of athleticism: strength, flexibility, balance, endurance, all of it. You should watch, because dammit, they deserve it.
Which brings us to:
THE WINTER CUP
The Winter Cup has been held annually as a national men’s gymnastics competition for over 20 years. This year, women will join the competition, which will be held in Indianapolis, Indiana without spectators.
For many of the athletes, this will be the first time they will compete in over a year. All of the competitors have dealt with gym closures, an Olympic delay, and continued uncertainty over whether the competition of their dreams will even happen, so it will be interesting to see where everyone stands in the leadup to the Olympics. With five months to go until the Games, nobody is expected to be at the top of their game — but we will definitely see some fun upgrades.
Speaking of the Olympics, if you’re wondering how many team spots are up for grabs, the answer is It’s complicated. The Olympic team will consist of four members, but the U.S. has also qualified to bring one individual participant, and one U.S. gymnast (Jade Carey) has already mathematically qualified to the Olympics in her own right. That leaves five spots up for grabs … or four after Simone.
As for Simone Biles, she won’t be there. But these people will:
WHO TO WATCH
Sunisa Lee — As of last year, Sunisa “Suni” Lee was second in command to Biles, coming within tenths of beating her at 2019 worlds trials and later earning three medals at worlds. She’s known for her jam-packed bar routine, which is exquisitely executed and a thrill to watch. Still dealing with an ankle injury she sustained in the summer, she’ll only compete on beam and bars here, but says we’ll see an upgraded bar routine.
Laurie Hernandez — Laurie Hernandez will be competing here — on beam and floor — for the first time since she won a silver medal in the beam final at the 2016 Olympics. After her success there, she took a two-year break before returning to training at a new gym in October 2018. At the time, many fans, myself included, questioned whether she had given herself enough time to get back to the Olympic level. But the Olympic delay gave Laurie fans renewed hope, and I look forward to seeing her back in action.
Riley McCusker — Known for her impeccable form and difficulty on beam and bars, Riley McCusker is a fan favorite. She’s been through a lot injury wise in the past couple of years, including being diagnosed with rhabdomyolysis, a serious illness caused by overtraining. McCusker alleged in a recent lawsuit against Maggie Haney that Haney forced her to train through injuries, ultimately exacerbating them. She now trains with Jade Carey in Arizona, and she seems to be in a much better place, telling the Olympic Channel, “I love gymnastics again … I am so happy in the gym every day, doing what I love.” Here, she’ll debut a new bars dismount.
Jade Carey — Jade Carey is pretty much already an Olympian. I’ll spare you the confusing details, but Carey competed in several Olympic qualifier competitions last year and was able to secure herself a spot at the Olympics, though she’ll go as an individual, not as part of the four-person team. Watch her high-difficulty vaults and floor work, both of which are Olympic medal material.
Konnor McClain — Konnor McClain is one of a few gymnasts who unexpectedly became eligible for the Olympics after the postponement was announced. Here’s how it went down: You have to turn 16 in the Olympic year to be eligible to compete. When the Olympics were postponed to 2021, the FIG — the gymnastics governing body — decided that gymnasts born in 2005 should be allowed to go to the Olympics. McClain, the 2019 junior U.S. Classic champion, suddenly became an Olympic hopeful. Even though that meant cramming her Olympic timeline from four years down to one, McClain has said she hopes to make the team this year.
Other elites — Jordan Chiles and Kayla DiCello are also ones to watch. Chiles is just coming off of an excellent performance at the WOGA Classic, and DiCello is the 2019 junior national champion.
Big names like Kara Eaker, MyKayla Skinner, Morgan Hurd, Grace McCallum, and Leanne Wong are all missing from this competition. But we’ll see them soon.
HOW AND WHEN TO WATCH
The senior elite women’s competition will air on NBC on Saturday at 12:30pm ET.
Unfortunately, if you’re interested in the junior women or the men, you’ll have to get a subscription to FloGymnastics, as USA Gymnastics has made the controversial decision to partner with the streaming service for this and subsequent meets.
Luckily, the subscription is only necessary if you’re a die-hard fan, and you should just watch the seniors on NBC. Or, if you’re like me, you should drive an hour to your in-laws’ to watch the seniors on NBC because you don’t have cable.
Simone won’t be there, but to hold you over, here’s her Yurchenko double pike. Also, Nancy Armour’s right to be pessimistic that the FIG will give it the difficulty value it deserves.
An update on Chellsie Memmel’s comeback. If the name sounds familiar, it’s because she competed at the Olympics … in 2008. Memmel is now 32 and is chronicling her unlikely comeback on social media.
Read the story of UCLA athlete Margzetta Frazier’s meetup with the one and only Janet Jackson.
TWEET OF THE WEEK