The IX: Gymnastics Saturday with Jessica Taylor Price, May 22, 2021

Previewing the U.S. Classic — Japan's Olympic team named — Thoughts from Simone Biles

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It’s happening: The U.S. Classic

The GK U.S. Classic  — what I like to consider the official beginning of the Olympic team selection process — is this Saturday. This competition matters because it’s the last chance for U.S. athletes to qualify for 2021 nationals, from which the top eight all-arounders and an unspecified number of additional athletes will be chosen to go on to the Olympic Trials. 

Pretty much every single Olympic hopeful in the United States is slated to compete at classics, either to earn their qualifying score, to try out new upgrades, and/or to generally show off where they are at this point in the season. 

In celebration of said event, I’ve taken the liberty of using my company’s Canva account to create a worksheet that will help us organize our thoughts during the emotional rollercoaster that is the U.S. team selection process:

Yes, Simone is already plotted in, along with Jade Carey. I’m assuming Simone won’t make the bar final, but she can and will prove me wrong.

Speaking of Simone Biles, she’ll be competing in the all-around here, but the real story is the debut of the Yurchenko pike, which she nearly stuck in podium training:

Let’s take a moment here to collect ourselves.

Ready? OK.

A couple of comeback kids are headlining this competition, including Chellsie Memmel, who will compete for the first time in nine years and will just do vault and beam, and Laurie Hernandez, who will compete publicly for only the second time since Rio. (Sidenote: love that we’re using Chellsie’s old yearbook photo on the competition website.)

Winter Cup winner Jordan Chiles will be out to prove that the 57 she earned there is something she can keep up throughout the season. If PT is any indication, the answer to that question is yes, as she’s bringing out the big guns — her amanar.

Some of the other top athletes are question marks after suffering injuries this year. Sunisa Lee will show the progress she’s made with her ankle injury — if not for that, I’d have called her a lock for this team. Morgan Hurd is on the up-and-up after elbow surgery (she said after PT that it “feels great”) and she’ll compete everything but bars, and Grace McCallum told Yahoo News that she broke her hand in January and had surgery. Riley McCusker will compete for the first time since Winter Cup, where she skipped floor, but she looked great there in PT, showing off her new Hamilton-inspired routine.

Kara Eaker will compete here after missing the Winter Cup but competing at the American Classic, where she placed fifth in the all-around and third on beam. As everyone’s favorite for a beam specialist spot, I hope we’ll see her get a better ranking here. 

MyKayla Skinner is competing for the first time this year. She told Inside Gymnastics that she’s having some heel pain and that coming back from pneumonia, which, well, sucks. At the same time, she says training is going well, and she looked good in podium training, competing her Cheng. 

I’ll never stop calling them juniors: Konnor McClain and Skye Blakely will compete, and they both have a real opportunity here to put themselves at the forefront in the team equation. A bunch of other athletes here have not been on worlds teams before, but I could certainly see making a case for themselves with a great competitive season, including Leanne Wong, Emily Lee (who scored very high on beam at camp), Shilese Jones, and Kayla DiCello

Jade Carey is on the roster, though she can do whatever she wants, really, as she’s mathematically clinched to get that specialist spot. And finally, Trinity Thomas is not on the roster because she has officially retired from elite due to the ankle injuries she suffered in March.

The senior gymnasts will be split into two groups, with session one (start list) airing Saturday at 1pm ET for free on Peacock and session two (start list) airing Saturday on NBC Sports Network at 6:50 pm ET. 

The problem with Japan

The first Olympic women’s gymnastics team was named this week following the conclusion of the NHK Trophy in Japan. Let’s take a moment to question, once again, why Japan chooses to do these things so very early, and then promptly move on.

Murakami Mai, Hatakeda Hitomi, Hiraiwa Yuna, and Sugihara Aiko were named to the four-person team (The Gymternet) after placing in the top four both in the NHK Trophy all-around competition and in the combined standings after adding scores from All-Japan Championships. That seems fair, especially when you consider that these four also won six of the 12 event medals. 

Murakami Mai had an excellent performance here, aside from a scary hand slip on bars, for a 55.466:

Meanwhile, Asuka Teramoto won beam and came in second on vault, but fell on floor and ended up in fifth place by less than a tenth of a point in the NHK standings and by less than 1.5 points in the combined rankings. 

I’m gutted for this athlete, who would have been a great contender for an individual spot had Japan been able to qualify one at the Asian Championships. Teramoto has been a solid all-arounder all quad, placing 13th at 2019 worlds, 10th in 2018, and eighth in Rio. Plus, at NHK, a hit routine (using her highest floor score from this year) could have given her a 54.532, enough to edge out Sugihara in this competition (not in the combined rankings, though). But because of this botched qualification system, she’s being left home.

I’ll remind you once again that one of the FIG’s goals in creating the four-person teams was to reward teams with depth, but here we have a clear example where that has not happened and an athlete has been punished for competing for a country with a strong program. Nobody could have predicted the impact the pandemic would have on qualifying competitions, but allowing the continental championships to continue was not the answer.

That said, it’s quite exciting to see Murakami make the Olympic team after missing worlds due to dumb politics back in 2019 — good for her. Full results from The Gymternet.

Gymnastics news

  • Australia’s Emily Whitehead secured a nominative spot at the Olympics after she won the Australian Championships, which also acted as the Oceania continental qualifier. She beat Georgia-Rose Brown for the spot, by only .35 points.

  • The Pan American champs roster has been released; it’s not a long list but it includes Jessica Lopez and Rebeca Andrade. Champs are scheduled for June 4th. As far as I know, African champs are still scheduled for May 26–27th, but I haven’t seen a start list for that yet.

  • Tokyo doctors want the Olympics to be cancelled (Reuters), but the IOC seems to think the Olympics can still happen safely (CNN). Spoiler alert: They can’t.

  • A few NCAA programs announced this week that seniors will be returning for a fifth year, including Denver, LSU, Cal, and Florida:

  • Morgan Hurd told PopSugar that “it almost felt embarrassing to be representing the US” after seeing the recent rise in anti-AAPI racism in this country. She also wrote a powerful essay about racism for On Her Turf.

  • I highly recommend this video from MyKayla Skinner, which is a refreshing look at the ups and downs of her training. She attempts to add her clear hip full to fabrichnova combination to her bar routine, does a front tuck to triple twist on floor, and does a full-in dismount off beam.

  • Read this excellent profile of Simone Biles from AP, watch her recently released animated short, and read about Cecile and Laurent Landi over at The Washington Post.

  • Brooklyn Moors talked to the Olympic Channel, and Jordan Chiles talked about her switch to WCC at On Her Turf.

  • McKayla Maroney spilled some tea on Twitter, writing why she didn’t do NCAA, how close she got to competing the Yurchenko triple twist, and which skills she really struggled with. She listed all the injuries she had when she did THAT vault, and says she’s writing a book which I’d like to preorder, please.

  • Katelyn Ohashi shared her mental health journey with TOGETHXR.

Tweet of the week

Five at the IX: Simone Biles

Simone Biles graced us with her presence after debuting her Yurchenko double pike at the U.S. Classic podium training. Edited for clarity and length.

Tell me what was going through your head before your Yurchenko double pike?
I was really nervous chalking up because in the gym, we do it on a competition surface, but it’s just a little bit softer because it’s on top of the resi, so I feel like it’s a little bit higher. But all in all, chalking up, I was like, “It’s OK, I’ve done this so many times, I’ve been doing it for months now. So I felt prepared and I knew I was prepared, it was just the initial landing out there in the arena. But once I did it I felt a lot better and I ended up doing two today, so I feel really good going into tomorrow.

A lot of younger gymnasts are moving to WCC to train. What is it like working with a deeper group heading into these Olympics?
We’re a new and upcoming gym; we haven’t been open for too long, especially this facility that we’re currently at. So it’s been a process of trying to get athletes and gymnasts coming in from the community. But to come into my seventh or eighth classics with a big team — there’s six of us — it feels really amazing because for so many years I’ve been by myself, and then for a couple years I had Olivia [Greaves], and then Jordan [Chiles]. And so now, to have six, it’s like we’re really a team. We have that camaraderie, we cheer each other on; it’s really amazing especially in an Olympic year to have so many teammates.

What made you decide to do the double pike instead of a triple twist or a double tuck?
We trained the double pike just into the pit to work on my block for the two and a half, and then we went into quarantine, and then after that, we played around with it a little bit more, and I was like, “I actually feel like I can do this; my block feels pretty good.” I never started off with the double tuck, it was always straight to a double pike. I don’t know why that is; we just went straight into a double pike. But I honestly feel like flipping in a double tuck would be harder to grab and flip than a double pike. And then for a triple twist, the timing is everything on the table. I’m a quick twister. But if I don’t have that block at a certain angle, the triple twist, no matter how hard you try, isn’t going to work. And it’s a little bit risky to try to replicate that block every single time. So the double pike just seems a little bit more manageable for myself.

Can you describe how you were feeling the first time you did the double pike into a pit?
I probably tried this years ago with Coach Aimee [Boorman], but just playing around; nothing ever was like, serious about it, we were just flipping to flip to kind of see what I could do, and what I was capable of. But never in a million years did I think it was going be feasible and to actually put it out on a competition floor. It was just to play around, be a kid. I was never mentally or physically strong enough to do it back then, anyways. And I feel like now that I’m a little bit older mentally and physically, I feel ready and prepared, and I feel like I can actually do this skill. Because there’s a lot going into it. And when you’re a little bit younger, your mind’s all over the place; there’s a lot more variables going into it. Rather than now, it’s like, “OK, this is what I’m going to do; I know exactly how to do it, what to do, and how to make it safe.” Rather than before, when I was younger, there was absolutely no way. I was just too all over the place. Nothing was consistent. Two-and-a-halfs have definitely helped the block for this.
I was just playing whenever I first tried it years ago. And then whenever I seriously tried it obviously I was nervous but I felt like I could do it and it would be safe, so that’s what matters.

We saw tape on your ankles today. Is there something going on?
It’s just for precaution. I do a lot more in the gym now and more tough landings; I’m a little bit older, so all of it’s for precaution.
It’s crazy to now be competing with tape. I never thought I would go into a competition with tape. But it’s definitely helped me mentally to feel a bit more comfortable whenever I’m out there.

How does this point in the Olympic prep compare to the time before Rio?
Right now I feel pretty confident going into this classics. I feel like we’re exactly where we need to be at this time of year. There are still a lot of nerves because it is an Olympic year, same as 2016. But I would say it’s a little bit scarier this time around because I know exactly what to expect, rather than in 2016. I wouldn’t say I was naive, but people tell you how it’s going to feel, but then you get to feel it yourself and decide how you’re going into it. This time around, it’s like I know exactly how the process goes. Sometimes I like going into things blind because you don’t know what to expect so if it goes better, you’re like, “OK, that wasn’t that bad,” or if it’s worse, you’re like, “OK, I can do better.” It’s just different.
As for representing the U.S., obviously it’s a huge honor and I’m always glad to do it. With USAG it’s been a little bit tough for everything that we’ve been through. But I never think of that whenever I come out here on the competition floor. If we’re at Classics or championships, I’m representing my gym and then once we go out of the country, we have USA.

Is the routine you showed today the one you created with Sasha Farber? What was the process of creating that routine like?
This is the routine Sasha came and did for me. It was really exciting; the process was so much fun because we did Dancing with the Stars together. So it was good to reconnect and have him come out. He actually came out here a couple of weeks ago to kind of touch up on some things and remind me here and there some little details in the routine. It was really fun, it was exciting. I actually hate learning new floor routines; it’s not fun for me at all, because I have such a hard time remembering little details, but we had a really good time, and I’m super excited to show everybody. It’s still in the works, putting the routine and tumbling together.

What’s it like to see Chellsie Memmel come back?
I definitely think she’s pushing the boundaries. I think she has two kids now and she’s like 32 and she’s out here, she’s confident, she’s doing her thing. Now, personally I’m not sure I would go that long, because my body kind of hurts. But it does teach other females that you can make a comeback at any time; you can come out here and still do the sport and enjoy it and love it. I think it’s exciting for all the girls to come out here and watch her. I know a lot of them are really young so they might not even know who Chellsie is, so that’s pretty crazy. But I definitely know who she is and I watched her at the Olympics, and she’s been a great gymnast.

It’s hard not to notice that there are a lot of women of color in your gym. Did that just sort of happen?
Representation matters, and even at our gym, it’s owned by my parents and they’re Black, and so I think it attracts more people of color, so I think that’s really exciting to see. It’s just kind of a coincidence that the team is all Black that we have here. But it’s really nice and I think the kids can see that and the little ones in the gym are always trying to talk to us because they see the similarities.

What are you hoping to get out of the competition this weekend?
I haven’t competed in a while, so just getting back on the competition floor and trying to calm my nerves, and doing the new vault, and hopefully going out there hitting four-for-four would really make me happy.

Was it more fun for you in 2016 than it is for you now?
It’s definitely a relief now that we’re almost at that finish line. We still have a ways to go but it’s exciting to see the end goal. I would say I think this time around is more fun because in 2016 there was so much pressure on me, so much pressure on Team USA, and I was so stressed out that it wasn’t fun. I mean, I had my own fun. But every time I was in the gym I was just petrified, and so scared. So now I feel like I can relax a little bit more and I trust my gymnastics, and I know what I’m capable of whenever I step out onto the floor, because I have been on the international scene for quite a bit of time now. So I’d say it’s definitely easier to go out there now.

Last year when the Olympics got postponed, you talked about struggling with mental health. Where are you with your mental health now?
I feel really good with where we’re at this time of year. I do feel like every time I’m in the gym, I give it my all. So I’m exhausted afterward. But I really feel that’s normal for any elite athlete, especially at my age. So I definitely feel I’m in a lot better place mentally right now than before.

How will you be stepping up with your recovery?
I’m going to therapy a little bit more now that competition time is coming around, and then seeing a chiropractor and stuff like that. So you definitely have to take care of your body a little bit more than before. But it kind of works in my schedule, so that’s really nice.

What have you seen in Jordan’s development?
I’ve seen her in the gym grow a lot as a person and as a gymnast. I really think it’s exciting how she can go out here and show everybody what she’s been working on so hard in training. I think the extra year did good for her mentally and physically, so I’m really excited for her growth as a person and as a gymnast. I think of her as a little sister. We’re always hanging out together, we always have kind of the same mindset. We’re kind of the same person, just different ages. So I think we’re really good teammates and it was a good match.

Mondays: Soccer
By: Annie Peterson, @AnnieMPeterson, AP Women’s Soccer
Tuesdays: Tennis
By: Joey Dillon, @JoeyDillon, Freelance Tennis Writer
Wednesdays: Basketball
By: Howard Megdal, @HowardMegdal, The Next
Thursdays: Golf
By: Sarah Kellam, @sarahkellam,
Fridays: Hockey
By: Erica Ayala, @ELindsay08, NWHL Broadcaster
Saturdays: Gymnastics
By: Jessica Taylor Price, @jesstaylorprice, Freelance Gymnastics Writer

Written by The IX Team