Samuel Mikulak competes on the pommel horse in the men's individual all-around final at the Olympic Games Rio 2016 at the Rio Olympic Arena on Aug. 10, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro.
ANAHEIM, Calif.-- This much is for sure: two new national gymnastics champions will be named this weekend.
The P&G Gymnastics Championships kick off Thursday night with four-time defending women’s all-around champion Simone Biles on hiatus and four-time men’s champion Sam Mikulak limited to just two events. And with only Mikulak and Alex Naddour back from the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team, there will be no shortage of opportunities for gymnasts to step into the spotlight at the Honda Center in Anaheim, California.
The men compete Thursday and Saturday, with the women taking the podium Friday and Sunday. Here are six storylines to watch.
Working Toward Worlds
While national titles are great, the athletes competing at this year’s P&G Championships are ultimately competing for a chance to compete at the world championships, which take place Oct. 2-8 in Montreal. Six men and four women will be named to the world championships team, but the criteria will be a little different than it was for last year’s Olympic teams. That’s because there’s no team competition at this year’s world championships. Only individual medals are at stake.
That’s not to say the selections are straightforward, though.
At worlds, each country can enter three gymnasts per event during the qualification round. The question is how many of those gymnasts will be all-arounders. If the U.S. women, for example, decide to go with two all-arounders at worlds, they’d have one spot in each event to divide among the specialists. But if the team only had one all-arounder, it would have two spots in each event to split between the remaining three gymnasts.
A New Era Begins For The Women
From 2001 to 2016, Marta Karolyi set the bar almost impossibly high for the U.S. women’s program. Since taking over as national team coordinator in 2001, Karolyi’s semi-centralized system produced the Olympic all-around champions in 2004, ’08, ’12 and 16 and Olympic team champions in ’12 and ’16. That’s not to mention the boatload of world championships over the years as well. But Karolyi stepped down after the Olympic Games Rio 2016 and has been replaced by Valeri Liukin.
Liukin, who coached his daughter Nastia Liukin to the 2008 Olympic all-around title and has led the U.S. developmental program since 2013, took over for Karolyi after the Rio Games. Gymnasts say Liukin has put his own stamp on the program while maintaining the high standards set by Karolyi. This will be the first big showcase of that.
A New Men’s All-Around Champion
With Mikulak limited to just high bar and pommel horse, the national all-around title he’s held since 2013 will be up for grabs. The last two NCAA champions are eager to take it. 2016 U.S. Olympic Team alternate Akash Modi wrapped up his senior year at Stanford by winning his second NCAA all-around title in March. He also won in 2015. What happened in between? That would be Oklahoma freshman Yul Moldauer.
Although Modi won back his title this year, Moldauer, who is known for his precise gymnastics, has some momentum of his own. Competing at his first senior international meet, Moldauer won the American Cup in April. Even more impressive, he beat not only Modi but also Oleg Verniaiev, the 2016 Olympic all-around silver medalist from Ukraine.
Much is being made of this budding rivalry, but this won’t necessarily be a two-man show.
Enter Donnell Whittenburg. The top U.S. performer at the 2015 world championships, Whittenburg came into 2016 as a favorite to make that year’s Olympic team. Instead, he went to Rio as an alternate. The 22-year-old says he’s as motivated as ever to make up for that shortcoming. And with his ultra powerful gymnastics style, he has the potential to post monster scores on his four big events — floor exercise, parallel bars, rings and vault — that could propel him to the all-around title.
A New Women’s All-Around Champion
As Biles steamrolled her way through gymnastics history in the years leading up to Rio, her teammates often joked that they competed in two divisions: Simone, and everyone else.
With Biles sitting this year out, along with the rest of the 2016 Olympic team, the competition is open for somebody else.
That somebody could be Ragan Smith.
The Texan, an Olympic alternate last year as a first-year senior, has established herself as the gymnast to beat on the women’s side. She won the American Cup in April and took first place in balance beam and uneven bars, the two events she competed in, at the U.S. Classic last month.
With the turnover on the women’s side, the 17-year-old Smith seems like a grizzled veteran. Her biggest competition for the all-around title could come from Riley McCusker. The New Jersey native has shown promise in her first season on the senior level, winning the all-around title at the City of Jesolo Trophy in April. But she also struggled in a fifth-place showing at the American Cup and has been battling injuries of late.
Floor exercise whiz Morgan Hurd is another name to watch, as is Alyona Shchennikova, who took the all-around title at the U.S. Classic.
Specialists Will Play A Role, Too
Event specialists will take a greater role in gymnastics beyond this year’s world championships. That’s because the Olympic format for 2020 will allow for two individuals per country who are not part of the team competition.
The change is ideal for athletes like Naddour and Ashton Locklear, a 2016 Olympic alternate on the women’s side.
Naddour went to Rio as the team’s resident pommel horse ace, and he came home with an Olympic bronze medal. It was the first medal in the event for an American since 1984. Now 26, Naddour has dialed back his training to just horse and still rings, and he’s amped up for not just this year but the whole Olympic quad.
“That’s kind of my new motivation is to push for that gold medal, and I think I can do it, man,” he said. “I feel good about it.”
Locklear is taking things “one year at a time” with an eye on the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, she said, and this year looks like it could be a good one for her. Despite her medal potential on uneven bars, her skill set didn’t quite match Team USA’s needs for Rio, so she went as an alternate. Now Locklear is working her way back into shape and plans to compete bars and beam in Anaheim, and she’s toying with adding floor exercise to her repertoire. If her bars are anywhere close to last year’s, that could be her ticket to Montreal.
Who else might factor in as a specialist this year? Look no further than Mikulak. Still recovering from an Achilles tendon injury in February, he’s eager to make his mark on high bar and horse so he can go to his third world championships.
On the women’s side, look for Hurd on floor exercise or Jade Carey on vault to push for specialist spots.
Yes, This Really Could Be A Preview For Tokyo 2020
The gymnasts competing at this year’s P&G Championships will all be gone by the time the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 come around, right? We all know the stereotype: Gymnasts, especially the women, retire when they get their drivers license. The reality, especially lately, doesn’t back that up.
Four years ago, fans in Hartford, Connecticut, got to witness a 16-year-old Biles win her first national title. She went on to win the next three world all-around titles and capped off the run with five medals, including four golds, as a 19-year-old at the Rio Games last summer. Among her four teammates, only one was younger than 19, and two were competing in their second Olympics.
The men traditionally have more staying power, and recent years have been exception. Mikulak, who competed in his second Olympics last summer in Rio, made his senior nationals debut in 2012 and plans to compete through 2020, while Naddour has been competing at the senior level since 2009 and also plans to compete through Tokyo.
But with several longtime men’s stalwarts bowing out after Rio, there is still plenty of opportunity for a new batch of stars to begin establishing their national team bona fides this week.
Chrös McDougall has covered the Olympic movement for TeamUSA.org since 2009, including the gymnastics national championships and Olympic trials every year since 2011, on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc. He is based in Minneapolis-St. Paul.