(L-R) Khoi Young (traveling alternate), Garrett Braunton, Matthew Cormier and Isaiah Drake are heading to compete at the inaugural World Junior Gymnastics Championship in Gyor, Hungary on June 27.
There are world debuts and then there are worlds debuts, and this month, the planet’s top young Olympic gymnastics hopefuls will get to experience both at the same time.
The inaugural World Junior Gymnastics Championships, the first global event of its kind for gymnasts too young to compete at the senior level, begins June 27 in Gyor, Hungary. The competition is open to women born in 2004 or 2005, while men must have been born in 2002 or 2003.
Though women’s gymnastics was traditionally a sport for adults, it has been the adolescents — beginning with Nadia Comaneci, the Romanian who was just 14 when she captured the world’s attention with her perfect 10 performances at the Olympic Games Montreal 1976 — that have characterized its modern era. Subjecting very young athletes to the Olympic-sized pressures of world competition eventually came to be seen as more harmful than beneficial, and age limits were raised accordingly — today, gymnasts must turn at least 16 years old during the calendar year of the world championships or Olympic Games to participate at either event.
These days, age limits and a greater emphasis on artistry has swung the pendulum back toward slightly older athletes on the women’s side of the sport. The all-around podium of the Olympic Games Rio 2016, comprised of 19-year-old Simone Biles, 22-year-old Aly Raisman and 21-year-old Aliya Mustafina of Russia, was the first women’s all-around podium since 1968, where the average age was over 20. Around the world, a handful of formidable gymnasts in their 20s and 30s, as well as Uzbekistan’s Oksana Chusovitina, the grand doyenne of the sport at 44, have broken through the sport’s invisible age barrier.
But what about talented younger athletes?
“Gymnasts at the age of 14-15 are typically as committed as the older athletes,” U.S. women’s high-performance team coordinator Tom Forster told TeamUSA.org in an email. He’s all for a junior worlds, which he calls “a great opportunity for education, experience and motivation for these younger gymnasts.”
The lack of a major competition that allows juniors to shine caught the attention of Japan’s Morinari Watanabe, who took over as the International Gymnastics Federation president in 2017. One of his campaign promises was the creation of a junior worlds.
“Almost all other sports organize a junior world championships to great success,” Watanabe said during a roundtable at the world championships in Qatar last year. “I believe that the world junior championships will contribute to raising the motivation for junior gymnasts in each nation, including the developing nations.”
The concept has met with approval among much of the U.S. gymnastics community.
“I think it’s a great idea, and wish I had the opportunity to compete at one when I was an athlete,” said Brett McClure, a 2004 Olympic team silver medalist who is now the high-performance director of the U.S. men’s team. “In addition to building great international relationships, it will prepare these young athletes for an easier transition into the senior world championships.”
Junior world titles in team, all-around and individual event finals in men’s and women’s gymnastics are at stake in Gyor, though to decrease pressure on the individuals, the qualification round for the individual event finals will also serve to decide both the team and individual all-around medalists. Women’s junior national team members Skye Blakely, Sydney Barros and Kayla DiCello got the nod following a selection competition at the most recent women’s national team training camp. Konnor McClain was named the alternate.
“I believe we are sending our strongest team. Their skill level is excellent. They don’t have much international experience yet, but that is the purpose of this meet, to give them the opportunity to compete against their peers from around the world,” Forster said. “Each of these girls have worked extensively with our national staff for a few years already. We have seen them progress and are not surprised that they are on our first junior world team.”
For the men, Isaiah Drake, Matthew Cormier and Garrett Braunton have been called up, with Khoi Young serving as alternate.
“The U.S. team is ready to compete in the first-ever (junior) world championships with the thought of ‘expect the unexpected,’” McClure said. “This has never been done before and these athletes have prepared as they would for any major competition.”
Though age restrictions and lack of international experience make many of the Gyor generation unlikely to factor into the Tokyo 2020 picture, the championships could provide a glimpse at who could be front and center in Paris in 2024. Or perhaps not — in men’s gymnastics, the strength required to perform massively difficult skills typically only arrives after adolescence. The teenage years, when the body changes and centers of gravity shift, are not always indicative of whether a gymnast will become a star as an adult.
For women, especially at a time when puberty is no longer seen as the enemy, one’s junior record does not necessarily signal greatness in the senior division either. Biles, considered by many the greatest female gymnast ever, never finished higher than third all-around at the junior nationals. By contrast Kyla Ross, the 2012 Olympic team gold medalist and five-time world medalist, captured the U.S. junior title in 2009 and 2010.
Even though nothing in gymnastics is ever guaranteed, future Olympic contenders are likely in the mix.
“It is too early to tell how the individual athletes will develop as time goes on, but the strength of the entire junior program will show at this competition,” McClure said.