The IX: Gymnastics Saturday with Jessica Taylor Price, May 1, 2021
Thoughts from American Classic — Euros event finals — Megan Skaggs on her return for fifth year
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The American Classic — an internal U.S. meet that also acts as a nationals qualifier — was held on Saturday. In the before times, this meet was held behind closed doors and we didn’t really have an idea of how things went down. Now that the meet is being streamed live, it gives us a bit more insight into how this team is doing (spoiler alert: it’s deep) as we head into the U.S. Classic, nationals, and finally, the U.S. Olympic Trials.
Enter Skye Blakely. As a reminder, Blakely was one of those 2005-born athletes who suddenly became eligible for the Olympics after the postponement. We first saw her this year at Winter Cup and national team camp, taking the beam title at both. At the American Classic, she debuted her all-around program and sent a clear message that despite having had to cram three years of training into one, she’s not one to be left out of the Olympic team mix: a 55.350 put her nearly a point ahead of Leanne Wong to win this competition hands down.
Plus, she did it with watered-down routines. She started with “just” an FTY on vault (she’s competed a double in the past). On bars, she did three release moves into the rafters before her transition skills, where she had some leg separation and flexed feet, then missed a handstand and did “just” a double tuck dismount. On beam, she did a standing full, which is a skill I always love to see — though it was a little wobbly on the landing — a solid front handspring front tuck, and a double tuck dismount (a bit cowboyed), but overall she hit for a second-place finish on that event. Her floor routine started with a glorious double layout with a step out of bounds, then a full-in with a hop back, and dismounted with a double pike. There’s some work to be done here, but a 55+ with surely some upgrades in her back pocket is a good place to be.
Leanne Wong was runner-up with a 54.450. I’ve been gunning for Wong ever since her senior debut performance at the American Cup, and it’s great to see her on the podium here after being passed over for the 2019 worlds team. Her DTY was good for the win here and she hit bars for third, but on beam she put her hands down on her L turn to full spin and underrotated her triple twist. On floor, her whip to triple had a bit of helicopter feet but was good overall, and her 2.5 to front full was gorgeous with just a shuffle back, but her double pike was way short and she stumbled back and fell out of bounds. Wong wasn’t as solid here as she was at camp and may be trying too much too soon, but she’s making sure she stays in the mix this year and I’m here for it.
The biggest names on the roster opted not to do the all-around, including Sunisa Lee, who’s still recovering from a nagging ankle injury. Here, she competed on beam, where she hit — including a beautiful side aerial layout stepout layout stepout — and skipped her dismount but still won that title #SuniThings. She did a watered-down floor routine, presumably just to get a feel for it again, including a double layout, but did layouts for two of her passes and limped off the floor.
But it’s all well and good, because what we were really here to see was her bar routine. She competed her nabieva (with leg separation) to bhardwaj, van leeuwen, half to piked jaeger to pak to maloney to geinger with some leg separation throughout, a giant full, and a full-in with a hop for a 15.200. Of all the skill combinations she’s competed, this one wasn’t the most difficult, but it was great to see the nabieva to bhardwaj combination in competition. I’m hoping Lee’s ankle will be well enough for her to do the all-around soon, but if not, she’s making a great case for making the team just for bars.
Speaking of specialists, Kara Eaker. Eaker’s well known in the gym world for her elegant, fluid beam routines but didn’t have a great showing at 2019 worlds due to issues with her ring shapes. Here, she showed a Y turn to full spin with little wobble, a front aerial with a missed connection to a ring jump that had a wobble and some shape issues, a side aerial layout stepout layout stepout, sissone to split leap to side somi, a hit switch ring leap, and a triple twist with tiny shuffle forward for a 14.100 and third on that event. She also competed on floor, where she had some major errors — her 3.5 was underrotated, the connection to her punch front went a bit sideways, and she stepped out of bounds (at the same time, we got a shot of Al Fong filming this on his iPad and Wong being unsure of when to move the sting mat out of the way, for comic relief). Like with Wong, I think Eaker could use some cooling off on floor until those skills are more solid, but it may have just been a bad day.
Of the rest of the field, Grace McCallum only did beam, which she hit for a 13.900, and Kayla DiCello had a good showing on bars — including a beautiful Church — and hit beam.
Eight gymnasts qualified to nationals based on this competition. I won’t say we learned nothing here, but at this point in the season the U.S. national team is still a nebulous mass that has yet to really take shape — and that’s a good thing. It’s a very, very deep program and the team selection will be extremely difficult. Here are the full results.
The European Championships concluded earlier this week with event finals. The first thing you need to know is that Larisa Iordache withdrew from beam and floor to take care of her kidneys (it’s OK, Larisa, you’ve done enough).
Secondly, Angelina Melnikova finished this competition with a whopping four medals out of a possible five, reminding us that she’s still Queen Bee in Russia.
Melnikova took the bronze on vault, where she competed a DTY with a little helicopter feet and a hop back, and a Lopez that had some leg separation on the block but was nice in the air, with just a small shuffle back on the landing. On bars, she had a very late finish on her inbar full but did a gorgeous komova II to pak to van leeuwen, an inbar half (with a little leg form) into a piked jaeger, an orphan half that ended a bit short, and a toe full to full-in with a tad bit messy feet for a 14.5, which gave her the much-deserved win.
Melnikova had qualified in first on floor, but in her final event of the competition, she had a few more errors than in quals and missed .1 in D value. She did a laid out full-in with a wobble and a step nearly out of bounds, a double layout with a hop back, lost her balance a bit on her double Y turn to illusion, and stumbled back a bit on her dismount, a double pike. With the highest D score in the field, Melnikova earned a 13.900 to finish her Euros with another silver medal.
Jessica Gadirova — the official breakout star of this competition — came in second in the medal count with three. Gadirova competed the same vaults as Melnikova in the vault final, just cleaner — her DTY had great height and super clean form; she just took a big step back on the landing. Her Lopez was also super clean, with just a tiny step.
On floor, meanwhile, she surprised for gold. Featuring her beautiful expressive choreography, Gadirova’s routine had the lowest D score on the podium but was the cleanest routine of the final, nearly half a point higher in E than the next highest. She mounted with a double double with the first somersault in layout, with a big step back. She stuck her double layout, then did a front layout stepout to double tuck with just a little hop forward. She took the win with a 13.966. I see a bright future for this one.
But we have to talk about Guilia Steingruber. After she withdrew from the all-around and floor finals to rest her left thigh, she appeared at the vault final with said thigh wrapped in what looked like packing tape and blew the competition out of the water. Steingruber’s Rudi was powerful and gorgeous, with just a small jump back on the landing for a 15.066. Same with the DTY, which had gorgeous form and just a bit of a stumble back on the landing. She averaged a 14.824 for the win before adjusting her crown and leaving the arena.
Melnikova compatriot Vladislava Urdazova had a beautiful bar routine to take second in that final, including an inbar full to Komova II to pak combination, an inbar half where she almost went over the bar but saved it and was still able to connect to a piked jaeger, and a toe full where she similarly almost went over the bar but saved it and connected to her full-in dismount with a hop. Nerves of steel for a 14.333.
Amelie Morgan rounded out the bars podium, competing a beautiful piked jaeger, a ricna into a pak with a bit of leg separation, a maloney to bhardwaj, van leeuwen, giant full, and her toe on front tuck half dismount with just a hop back. She earned a 14.100 for bronze.
On beam, Melanie de Jesus dos Santos took the win. Her punch front mount was solid, as was her piked punch front and her back handspring stepout to layout to two feet. She had a tiny balance check on her front walkover to split jump, her back leg was a bit short on switch ring leap, and she landed her full-in with her chest down and a sizable bounce forward, but thanks in part to having the highest D score in the final, she won with a 13.900.
Sanne Wevers came in second looking like her Rio self. She started with a roundoff back handspring stepout onto the beam connected to a full-turning wolf jump with a slight balance check. She hit her double L turn, side aerial to back handspring stepout, front walkover, and L turn to full turn to double turn, but missed the connection to her sissone. She finished with a stuck full twisting gainer to get the highest E score of the night and a 13.866.
Anastasiia Bachynska surprised for third here — she was the first reserve in this final before replacing Iordache. She hit her front handspring punch front and double tuck, which was a bit cowboyed but stuck, for an awesome showing, earning a 13.333.
While beam was refreshingly splat-free, the floor final was a little less composed — Carolann Heduit landed her double arabian with locked knees and wisely decided not to do her second pass, withdrawing from the competition. It was scary to watch, but it looks like Heduit is doing OK. Notably, Viktoria Listunova qualified in second here but seriously underrotated her triple twist and fell.
Italian veteran Vanessa Ferrari ended up taking third with a hit routine. She stumbled forward a bit on her double double, did a double layout with leg separation and just a shuffle back, and stumbled out of double Y turn, but her difficulty carried her through, and she stuck her full-in cold to earn a 13.600.
The lighting in this arena is out of control. In what other sport do you have mood lighting? It’s dangerous.
Looks like SmartScoring is here to stay despite all the terrors of last week:
If you didn’t come away from this competition stanning Jessica Gadirova, I’m afraid I can’t help you. Just watch this interview.
Tabea Alt announced her retirement in an Instagram post on Sunday. Alt helped Team Germany to a sixth-place finish in Rio and won an individual medal on the balance beam at the 2017 world championships. Best of luck to Alt in her post-gym life!
Speaking of Germany, the unitards the team wore at Euros made mainstream news this week, including the BBC, where Danusia Francis voiced her support. Also, check out this Slate piece giving the choice two thumbs way up.
News from MSU: The school released a 72-page plan to reduce instances of sexual assault and harassment in the MSU community (Lansing State Journal). Read Rachael Denhollander’s response on Twitter.
Team Brazil had a verification camp — check out this thread for coverage. Reminder that Brazil has qualified one nominative spot to the Olympics (Flavia Saraiva) and will have the opportunity to qualify one more at Pan Ams in June. Instead of telling you who I’m rooting for, I’m just going to leave this here:
It’s always a delight hearing from Valentina Rodionenko, who says, “remove [Biles] and we will easily beat [Team USA]” (Gymnovosti). OK.
Gabby Douglas talked to Nia Dennis for Interview magazine.
Simone Biles’ animated film premieres on May 1st — click for the trailer.
Now let’s take a break and rejoice:
Tweet of the week
Five at The IX
Florida senior Megan Skaggs spoke to the press after announcing that she would be taking advantage of the option to take a fifth year due to COVID-19. Edited for clarity and length.
What made you decide to come back to UF for one more year?
It wasn’t necessarily one thing. I think the biggest thing was just loving the sport and that’s really grown even more this year, so why not, in a sense. I’m honestly so excited for the opportunity and it’s something that I truly just couldn’t pass up.
Did you talk to your coaches and your teammates as well to kind of get their input before you made your final decision?
Yes. After they announced that we were getting an extra year of eligibility, I think I was the first of our current senior class to talk to Jenny and express my interest. I wasn’t ready to make any official decisions back in the fall semester, but I definitely had a lot of conversations with her and some conversations with the current team, just to see their thoughts on it, but it was a personal decision at the same time, too.
Did going to the national championship and then coming in fourth have any sort of impact on your decision?
I think if we would have gone there and won I still would have come back. I don’t think the end result really changed my decision; that wasn’t a major deciding factor. But it definitely makes it a little sweeter to get to come back and have another opportunity to try to win nationals.
What is the number one thing you want to try to accomplish in the 2022 season?
I really want to leave this sport with no regrets. Right now, after this season, I have no regrets at all and that’s just such a great feeling, so I guess that’s my number one personal goal.
How does your body feel? How did your injuries and body factor into this decision?
Of course that’s a huge huge factor [when] considering staying around for an additional year on top of what I was expecting, but for me personally, I’ve been healthier this year than I’ve been any other year, and I feel like I’m kind of hitting a stride in my career late on, which is maybe strange. But I feel good; after being an all-arounder for the majority of the season, that’s something. I’m super proud to walk away healthy and I’m excited to walk into the summer being able to continue to work and do gymnastics over the summer and play around in the gym. I’m super excited about that; no issues with the body.
You’re working on your masters this year. How have you been able to balance that degree with gymnastics, and how has already having done it for a year gone into your preparation for next year?
One of the big questions finding out that a fifth year was an option was, is it possible with my current academic situation? But it has been hard to balance this year. The classes are just different than undergrad classes, so balancing that was a little tricky, but I’ve had a lot of help with my academic advisor and tutors and different things like that that have been super helpful. And we’re still figuring out what it will look like moving into next year, but we’re definitely going to be able to make it work.
Florida has already been touted as one of the biggest and most exciting freshman classes of next year. What is your feeling on how it’s going to be to have even more new faces and probably one of the top freshman classes?
I’m excited, of course. We have crazy talented gymnasts coming in and also super awesome people, so we’re really excited. We’re gonna have a big team, which is going to be exciting but new and also challenging for us, so I’m sure we’ll figure that out as we go, but they are going to come in and really push us all to be better, so that’s going to be great for us upperclassmen and those of us who are sticking around. So I’m really excited to get going and start on another another mission for 2022.
Gators head football coach Dan Mullen commented on your announcement on Instagram that you are his daughter’s favorite. What does it mean to have so many young girls and young gymnasts look up to you?
It really is so sweet. I was definitely fangirling when he commented on my Instagram post. You should see the gymnastics team whenever he walks into the room; we all freak out. It really does mean a lot coming from their shoes and looking up to college and elite athletes all my life to finally be in these shoes, and to be able to represent the Florida Gators on such a huge stage has been something that is just truly an honor.
What do you plan to work on in the offseason now that you’re able to be in the gym?
I am very excited. I definitely want to get into the gym and play around with different things, work on some upgrades. I think on every event we’ve talked about trying out some things, so we’ll see. I’m really excited about it.
What changed to allow you to compete in the all-around weekly this year as opposed to previous years?
I think a lot of it had to do with just being healthier and stronger. I was able to come off of last season and rest through quarantine and heal a lot of injuries that I’ve struggled with in the past, so that was huge and actually benefited me a lot coming back into preseason for the season. And just the coaches, working with me and being really smart with how they use me and how they crafted my routines to keep me healthy was something that really played a major role.
You were extremely consistent this year. How were you able to find that consistency?
A lot of it is mental for sure. Something that I worked on even more than physical training this year was just staying mentally strong and taking what I would do in practice and focusing on what i’m thinking and carrying that over into the competitions, so I was able to do that more successfully this year than I was in the past, and I think that showed.
What are you most looking forward to next season?
So many things. Just another opportunity to compete in the O’Dome. I’m hoping that we’ll be able to have more crowds there. That’s always just such a special experience, so I’m really excited for that and just doing gymnastics for one more year and loving it and enjoying it is so special.
What are some goals that you have for yourself and for the team next year?
For myself, same as this year. I would say first I want to enjoy it and, second, I want to walk away with no regrets and also do some upgrades and hopefully try out some fun new skills, this year, but those are the main things. For the team I’m really proud of how we all came together this year and overcame a lot of adversity through preseason through COVID and even during the season. I really want to see us continue that and get even closer and even stronger and build off of what we learned this year and really pick up where we left off.
The team had a strong season in 2021 but fell short at nationals. What does the team need to work on in 2022 to win a national championship?
I think a big thing that could have helped us have a different end result is just believing in ourselves. We did that all through the regular season, and I think when you get to the postseason it’s easier, in a sense, to let doubt creep in and obviously you can’t do that. We need to believe in ourselves because I still believe that we were the best team out there; we just didn’t show up and show who we were on that night. So I think that’s a huge thing, that we just need to believe in ourselves and be confident approaching every single competition.