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Who Are The Headliners, Contenders And Challengers Heading Into The U.S. Gymnastics Championships?

By Chrös McDougall | Aug. 07, 2019, 7:25 p.m. (ET)

Donnell Whittenburg (L), Simone Biles (C) and Riley McCusker (R) are among the competitors at the 2019 U.S. Gymnastics Championships.


Attention in this busy sports summer turns this week to Kansas City, Missouri, as the U.S. Gymnastics Championships get underway Thursday. The event, which is part of the Team USA Champions Series, presented by Xfinity, runs through Sunday and plays a key role in determining the teams that will represent the U.S. at the world championships this October in Stuttgart, Germany.

A two-part competition, the men compete Thursday and Saturday, with the women on Friday and Sunday. Scores from both nights are combined to determine the national champions.

Here are the gymnasts to keep an eye on.

The Headliners

What more is there to say about Simone Biles? Mary Lou Retton said five years ago that she “may be the most talented gymnast I’ve ever seen in my life,” and Biles has only gotten better. Now 22, Biles is a four-time Olympic champion and is coming off her best world championships yet in 2018. Despite competing with a kidney stone, Biles medaled in all six events, winning gold in four, to bring her career count to 20, which tied the women’s record held by Russia’s Svetlana Khorkina.

Biles, who swept all five national titles last year in Boston, will no doubt be a contender to do so again in Kansas City, especially if she breaks out some of the moves she showed in podium training on Wednesday, including a  double-double balance beam dismount.

On the men’s side, Sam Mikulak still stands atop the hill until someone knocks him off. The two-time Olympian, 26, has won five of the past six U.S. all-around titles, falling short only in 2017 when he was injured and unable to compete in all six events. Last year, Mikulak made his breakthrough on the international stage, winning a bronze medal on the high bar, and now he’s talking about competing well beyond the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020.

His biggest competition is likely to come from Yul Moldauer, the ’17 U.S. champ, who just wrapped up his college career at powerhouse Oklahoma, where he won 10 NCAA titles.

The Established Contenders

Four other gymnasts joined Biles in winning the 2018 world team title, and all are competing this weekend in Kansas City. Riley McCusker and Grace McCallum finished second and third, behind Biles, at the U.S. Classic in July at what’s typically the last tune-up before nationals. However, McCusker and four other gymnasts went right from Classics to the Pan American Games Lima 2019 in Peru, where they won the team title and a trove of individual medals — including three for McCusker: gold on uneven bars, silver in the all-around and bronze on balance beam. Fellow world team member Kara Eaker won the balance beam and took second on floor exercise in Lima, while Morgan Hurd, the 2017 world all-around champion and 2018 bronze medalist, also took part in the Pan Am Games.

Another name to watch is Jade Carey, who’s well on her way to making the 2020 Olympics using a new individual qualifying format. The 2017 world silver medalist on floor exercise and vault had to miss last year’s worlds to keep her eligibility in the individual qualifying route, but she tied for the second-best scores on floor and vault at the U.S. Classic. Keep an eye on MyKayla Skinner, another floor and vault standout, too. The 2016 Olympic alternate put her collegiate career on hold to go after a spot in Tokyo, and she tied Carey for the second-best vault score at the U.S. Classic.

On the men’s side, Akash Modi, a 2016 Olympic alternate, made his world championships debut in 2018,  then finished fifth at an all-around world cup earlier this year in Stuttgart. Colin Van Wicklen, a standout on vault and high bar, and pommel horse maven Alec Yoder also made their world championships debuts in 2018. Yoder is the two-time defending U.S. champ and this year’s NCAA champ on horse.

Meanwhile, former Oklahoma standout Allan Bower has proven himself to be one of the top U.S. all-arounders, and now he’s looking to showcase enough top-end ability to get on his first world championships team. Bower, who finished second at the 2017 U.S. championships and third in 2018, is solid across the six apparatuses but is still seeking his first national title on any event.

The Could-Be Challengers

Not only are the U.S. women good — they’ve won every Olympic or world team title since 2011 — they’re also deep, and there are no shortage of challenges who could move into contention for worlds this week. Atop that list is Leanne Wong. Last year’s junior U.S. champ won the American Cup this past March in her first senior international competition. Wong, a Kansas City native, also won the uneven bars silver medal at Pan Ams. Aleah Finnegan, who rounded out the Pan Am Games team, also trains in Kansas City.

Another first-year senior to watch is Sunisa Lee, who won three events including the all-around at the Jesolo Trophy earlier this year in Italy.

If history is any indication, though, at least one member of the 2020 Olympic women’s team won’t be in the competition this weekend — at least not during the evening sessions. The top U.S. juniors go for national titles of their own during the next four afternoons. Among the contenders who could break out as seniors next year is 2018 junior runner-up Kayla DiCello. She finished fourth in the inaugural junior world championships in June.

While up-and-comers try to work their way into contention on the women’s side, three established U.S. men come into 2019 looking to hit the reset button after injury-plagued 2018s.

A 2016 Olympic alternate, Donnell Whittenburg came into the new Olympic quad with big expectations and made his third world championships team in 2017. However, he discovered he had been competing with a torn rotator cuff and was limited in 2018 following surgery to repair that. Now Whittenburg is healthy enough to compete the all-around in Kansas City, and he’s aiming to regain a spot on the national team to realign his roadmap to Tokyo.

Donothan Bailey, meanwhile, finished fourth at last year’s nationals and looked like a contender to make his first world team thanks to his prowess on pommel horse and the bars events. Instead, he had to withdraw from consideration and have shoulder surgery. He’ll compete in four events this weekend. And then there’s Eddie Penev, a floor and vault standout who made his world championships debut in 2017 but tore his ACL and missed the 2018 season.

Last year’s U.S. still rings champ, Trevor Howard, is aiming for a breakthrough as well. He joined Bower as an alternate on the world championship team and comes into nationals following strong showings at the Winter Cup Challenge and National Qualifier earlier this year.

Chrös McDougall has covered the Olympic Movement for TeamUSA.org since 2009, including the gymnastics national championships and Olympic trials since 2011, on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc. He is based in Minneapolis-St. Paul.