A new crop of U.S. women’s gymnasts is ready to take on the world.
Jade Carey, Morgan Hurd, Ashton Locklear and Ragan Smith will represent the U.S. at this year’s world championships, which run through Oct. 8 in Montreal, and although only Locklear has experience at this level, senior vice president of the women’s program Rhonda Faehn said the team has responded well so far to everything that’s been put in front of them.
“It’s always fun and exciting to see the looks on their faces as they experience everything, especially the athletes who haven’t been to the world championships,” Faehn said. “And not only the athletes, but some of the coaches, because a lot of the coaches haven’t experienced this, so it’s a great learning experience for them as well.”
There is no team competition at this year’s world championships, only all-around and individual apparatus events. In choosing the team, Faehn said, the strategy was to select the athletes with the best opportunity to medal based on selection camps and performances. Three athletes per country can compete in the qualification round on Wednesday, while a maximum of only two per country can advance to the all-around or event finals later in the week.
Smith will lead the U.S. hopes in the all-around and is also a contender on floor and balance beam. The 17-year-old, who was an alternate for the Olympic Games Rio 2016, was crowned the U.S. all-around champion in August and also won the floor exercise and balance beam.
Hurd, 16, will also compete in the all-around, while 19-year-old Locklear, another 2016 Olympic alternate and a member of the 2014 world championships team, will compete on uneven bars and balance beam. Carey, 17, who was the only U.S. woman to perform two vaults at the national championships, will compete on that apparatus as well as floor exercise.
“The most important thing is that all these athletes are going to go out there every single day and perform their hearts out, train as they know how and compete as they know how, and that’s all we ask,” Faehn said. “They are young and they haven’t had a lot of experience, so their goal is going to be to not get ahead of themselves, take one day at a time and one event at a time.”
It will be a new look for the women’s team in many regards. Since 2013, when she made her senior debut, Simone Biles has been the undisputed queen of the all-around, winning an unprecedented four world or Olympic all-around titles in a row.
Biles is still not yet training full time after a post-Rio break, and none of her Olympic teammates are competing on the elite level right now either. This will also be the first time in more than a decade that the U.S. women have gone to the world championships without Martha Karolyi acting as the national team coordinator. Karolyi retired after 2016, and Valeri Liukin has now taken over those duties.
There have also been changes to the code of points for this Olympic cycle in the skill values and overall scoring, in which the coaches and athletes are still gaining experience, Faehn said.
Despite the U.S. women’s dominance in gymnastics in recent years — a U.S. woman has won the world or Olympic all-around title every year since 2011 — Faehn said there is no sense of something to prove, and certainly no pressure on Smith to follow in the footsteps of Jordyn Wieber, Gabby Douglas and Biles as world/Olympic all-around champions and keep the streak going.
“Not at all, and I don’t think that would be fair pressure to put on anyone,” said Faehn, who as a gymnast competed at the 1987 world championships and was an alternate on the 1988 U.S. Olympic Team. “When I was a gymnast, my coaches always shared with me that whether it was the world championships or the Olympics, we were to treat it as any other competition in our minds so that we weren’t going to get overwhelmed by the magnitude of the event. So for all the athletes it’s just going to be important that they stay in the moment and focus on what they need to do to perform their best and not think about the expectations or the history or anything else being placed on them, because those are things they can’t control.”
Following closely behind this year’s crop of athletes are several juniors who will be ready for senior competition next year. Maile O’Keefe won this year’s all-around and balance beam titles and finished second on floor, vault and bars at the junior national championships, and Emma Malabuyo took second in the all-around and beam, first on floor and third on vault. Another strong junior competitor, Gabby Perea, missed the age cutoff for this year’s senior world championships by just 24 hours.
“We have a lot of exciting young talent, and our future is bright and strong,” Faehn said. “We’re excited about that. But at the same time we’re excited about this year’s (senior) team. It’s a great opportunity for some young athletes to get out there and show all the hard work they’ve been doing.”