WORCESTER, Mass. -- The Fierce Five. McKayla Maroney “Not Impressed.” Gabby Douglas’ all-around gold medal.
That’s so seven months ago.
For many elite U.S. gymnasts, the focus is already on the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympic Games. The first meaningful step on the road to Rio took place on Saturday, when four U.S. gymnasts joined an all-star field in the American Cup, a FIG World Cup all-around event in Worcester, Mass.
While four of the Fierce Five members are still contemplating their futures in the sport — Kyla Ross is already committed to the next quad — two up-and-comers put on a strong show at the DCU Center.
Fifteen-year-olds Katelyn Ohashi and Simone Biles took the top two spots in a women’s competition that included four 2012 Olympians.
On the men’s side, U.S. Olympian Jake Dalton claimed the all-around title in a field that included seven Olympians, including U.S. teammate Danell Leyva, who was hampered by illness.
Ohashi and Biles made strong statements for what could be another ultra-competitive quad in U.S. women’s gymnastics.
Ohashi, who won with a score of 59.199, is the latest star to come out of Valeri Liukin’s WOGA gym in Plano, Texas, following 2004 Olympic all-around gold medalist Carly Patterson, 2008 Olympic all-around gold-medalist Nastia Liukin and six-time world medalist Rebecca Bross. All three are also former American Cup champions.
“It’s exciting to win here, but I think there were a lot of mistakes today,” Ohashi said. “It’s still early in the year and I just need to get back to the gym and clean everything up and upgrade some things."
Ohashi’s previous experience includes finishing first in the all-around, balance beam, floor exercise and uneven bars in the junior division at the 2011 Visa Championships, as well as finishing first in those same events at the 2012 Pacific Rim Championships. But the 2013 AT&T American Cup was her first senior competition.
She is well aware of the event’s history, including the fact that Mary Lou Retton, Patterson and Liukin earned the top score the year they went on to become Olympic champion, and Ohashi is hoping to follow in their footsteps. Last year, Douglas also had the top score at the American Cup before winning the Olympic all-around gold, but she was technically competing as an alternate in the American Cup so her score did not count.
“It’s so exciting knowing that Gabby did it last year and now she’s an Olympic champion,” Ohashi said. “That’s really cool. Maybe one day I’ll be there too.”
|Simone Biles performs on the floor exercise during the 2013 AT&T
American Cup in Worcester, Mass., on March 2, 2013.
Just like Ohashi, Biles was also making her senior debut – and also her international debut – in Worcester. The Spring, Texas, native, had a breakout year last year, finishing first in the junior all-around at the Secret U.S. Classic, then taking third in the all-around and first on vault at the Visa Championships.
“It feels really good,” Biles said of her second-place result. “I’m really proud of myself and proud of how I handled it. I think I did really well overall.”
Biles had the top scores of the day on vault and uneven bars, but a fall on balance beam caused her to slip to second.
“I always think in the back of my head, ‘Don’t fall, don’t mess up,’ and it actually got to me this time and I messed up,” she said.
Biles said the beam series of flip flop, flip flop, layout was new to her and she was nervous to compete it for the first time.
Biles, who says she has “springs in her legs,” favors the power events of vault and floor exercise. She hopes to make the 2013 world team and keep the U.S. vault streak going, after Alicia Sacramone won the 2010 vault title and Maroney won in 2011 (there were no World Championships in 2012). On the floor exercise, Biles’ other favorite event, she plans to work on harnessing all of her power.
“I was bouncing all over the place!” Biles said of her floor routine. “I usually harness it better because the adrenaline’s not there, but we’re gonna work on it.”
Biles and Ohashi – who only received their invitations to the American Cup on Tuesday, four days before the competition – are very good friends outside of the gym, and Biles noted that if she could combine her vault and floor skills with Ohashi’s beam and bars, they would have the perfect gymnast.
“But that can’t happen,” Biles said.
Added Ohashi: “I always want to take her energy on vault, but unfortunately it doesn’t work.”
The two get to see each other every month during the national team camps at the Karolyi Ranch in Texas. When they’re not at camp, Ohashi and Biles still text and FaceTime regularly. With a strong bond and the competitive spirit to push each other to improve, Ohashi and Biles just might be the future superstars of USA Gymnastics. Think Nastia Liukin and Shawn Johnson, or – looking at the 2012 American Cup results – Jordyn Wieber and Aly Raisman.
“She’s amazing,” Ohashi said of her rival and best friend. “She’s improved so much since 2011 Visas; she’s gone way up.”
For Ohashi, Biles and other up-and-comers such as Brenna Dowell, Lexie Priessman and Elizabeth Price, this season could be the start of a 2016 Olympic journey.
On the men’s side, Jake Dalton continued his recent hot streak by winning the AT&T American Cup men’s title, overcoming a field that included 2012 Olympic all-around silver medalist Marcel Nguyen of Germany and all-around bronze medalist Danell Leyva of Team USA. In total, seven Olympians competed in the men’s field.
“It’s pretty awesome,” said Dalton, who had the highest scores of the day on floor, vault and high bar. “I knew I could be able to contend with those guys and I’m glad I’m starting to do that and able to get my start values up there and stay clean.
“It continues to grow the confidence that I need right now. When you haven’t competed in a while, your confidence goes down because you’re not sure how you’re going to compete, so being consistent makes me feel good. It humbles me that I’m doing the right thing in the gym and I have to continue to do that.”
Dalton, who last competed at the AT&T American Cup in 2011 when he finished third, has consistently been on the podium for his floor and vault routines at the past few meets. This year he is second to none. Dalton started 2013 by winning the Winter Cup Challenge.
All five U.S. men who competed in London have decided to continue training in hopes of appearing at another Olympic Games in 2016, so Dalton will have stiff competition, but he is determined to be one of Team USA’s top men and contend with the likes of Leyva and John Orozco.
“I want to be one of those guys who can be counted on for more than just floor and vault,” said Dalton, who competed on floor, rings and vault in the team competition in London. “I actually got rings in there at the Games, which was awesome, but I’m trying to be one of those consistent guys in the all-around top spot.”
Leyva entered the 2013 American Cup with many goals, including defending his 2012 title. However, a stomach illness caused him to receive fluids through an IV the night before, and the fatigue showed as he finished sixth in Worcester. Leyva started out the day abandoning a tumbling pass on floor and ended with a fall on high bar.
“Danell had a rough day but he fought through and that’s something important not only to me but to Team USA,” Dalton said. “He was sick, so you could tell the energy was down but he fought through. As a teammate on Team USA, I’m proud of him for that.”