BOSTON -- The U.S. Gymnastics Championships get underway Thursday night at TD Garden in Boston.
The four-day meet, which is part of the Team USA Summer Champions Series, presented by Xfinity, takes place Thursday and Saturday for the men, and Friday and Sunday for the women. Scores from both days are combined to name national champions in the all-around and on each apparatus.
Here are five storylines to watch going into this week’s event.
1) Simone Is Back
Is she ever.
Simone Biles, whose dominance of the last Olympic quad culminated in four Olympic gold medals in Rio, returned to competition at last month’s U.S. Classic and won going away. Despite falling on uneven bars, Biles outpaced the all-around competition by more than a point. In doing so, she posted the highest U.S. scores since the Olympic Games Rio 2016 on floor and vault. Her scores on floor, vault, beam and the all-around were the best of any gymnast this year.
So yeah, Biles, now 21, is most certainly back. And if she doesn’t add to her four U.S. all-around titles and seven U.S. apparatus titles this weekend, that would be the surprise of the competition.
2) Yul Or Sam: Who Will Reign Supreme On The Men’s Side?
Sam Mikulak had won four consecutive U.S. all-around championships before an Achilles injury limited him to high bar and pommel horse last year. In his place stepped Yul Moldauer, a University of Oklahoma student athlete whose precision made up for his relative lack of difficulty.
They’ll go head to head this weekend.
Mikulak, a member of the last two U.S. Olympic Teams (and the only Olympian competing on the men’s side), ran away with the all-around title at February’s Winter Cup, an annual domestic meet in which Moldauer only competed floor and horse. Mikulak also won all-around titles this year at the Men’s National Qualifier. Moldauer, meanwhile, closed out his junior season at Oklahoma with another NCAA all-around title — his second — while also winning the American Cup in April. This weekend marks the first time Mikulak, 25, and Moldauer, 21, have competed in an all-around together since the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Trials, which Mikulak won.
3) Impressive Cast Of Senior Women
As expected, the next generation began setting its foundation in the post-Olympic 2017 season. Ragan Smith, an Olympic alternate, won her first U.S. all-around title. With Smith injured, teammate Morgan Hurd claimed the world all-around title a few weeks later. Meanwhile, talented youngsters such as Maile O’Keefe and Emma Malabuyo established themselves as the next big stars while competing on the junior level.
Simone Biles’ return has overshadowed this new generation so far this season, but make no mistake, this is another group of seriously talented U.S. women.
All of the above except O’Keefe and Malabuyo (injured) are expected to compete in the senior all-around this weekend, and along with Riley McCusker they could all be competitive at the world level. And don’t sleep on Jade Carey, last year’s world vault and floor silver medalist; 2016 Olympic alternate Ashton Locklear; or Jordan Chiles and Trinity Thomas, two gymnasts who made a strong impression in their senior debuts last season.
With Biles and Hurd competing, it also marks the first time in six years that the field features two world all-around champions.
4) Which Men Will Step Up?
A generation of men’s fans got used to a handful of U.S. stalwarts — most of whom are no longer here.
Gone are two-time Olympians Jake Dalton, Jonathan Horton and Danell Leyva, and gone too are Olympians Chris Brooks and John Orozco. All have since retired. Even several gymnasts who regularly competed for world championships spots over the past two quads have moved on, names like Steven Legendre, Paul Ruggeri and Brandon Wynn.
Yul Moldauer made his case for the leader of the next generation at last year’s nationals, and Sam Mikulak appears back to full strength. As for the others? There’s plenty of room to step up.
One name to watch is Marvin Kimble. The high bar, pommel horse and rings standout made his world championships debut last season and was second in the all-around at the Winter Cup. Donnell Whittenburg and Akash Modi, the 2016 Olympic alternates, came into last year's nationals with big expectations, and now both are trying to come back after uneven performances in 2017. In Whittenburg's case, that also means coming back from shoulder surgery, so he plans to compete only on rings and parallel bars this weekend.
5) Worlds Implications
As always, nationals is about more than national championships. This year’s event serves as a selection event for the 2018 world championships, while one men’s gymnast will be selected this weekend to compete at the 2018 Summer Youth Olympic Games, which begin Oct. 6 in Buenos Aires.
Five men and five women will eventually be selected for the world championships, which run Oct. 25-Nov. 3 in Doha, Qatar. This year’s event includes a team competition in addition to the individual events. The top three men’s and women’s countries in Doha will earn a berth at the Olympic Games Toyko 2020.
Coming off the past two Olympic team titles and the past three world team titles, the U.S. women still boast an absurd amount of talent. Put another way, had Ragan Smith not gotten injured she would have been the favorite for the 2017 world all-around title that Morgan Hurd won. And now Simone Biles is back and is already the favorite for her fourth world all-around title. No matter who the U.S. picks, the Americans should be favorites in Doha.
The U.S. men haven’t won a world or Olympic team medal since finishing third in 2014.
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.