Sunisa Lee competes on the balance beam during the 2021 Winter Cup on Feb. 27, 2021 in Indianapolis.
Who’s going to be on the U.S. Olympic gymnastics teams this summer?
The short answer is that it’s way too early to tell. But last weekend’s Winter Cup in Indianapolis provided some tantalizing clues about who could get there, and the names aren’t all usual suspects. Here are ten takeaways from the event.
Jordan Chiles Is The (Super)hero Of Her Own Story
Jordan Chiles has always been entertaining to watch, and not strictly for gymnastics reasons. At her first senior U.S. nationals in 2017, she delighted fans with a GIF-worthy save on balance beam, and in 2018 she suited up in a sparkly “Wonder Woman” leotard to coordinate with her floor music. At Winter Cup, she displayed something new: consistency.
“I really wasn’t playing it safe,” said the 19-year-old, who put up the highest scores of the competition on vault and floor. “I was going out there and doing it how I practiced everything. I was myself, I was happy, I was enjoying everything.”
Ranked second in the nation in 2017, Chiles has been sidelined by injuries at key moments and hasn’t been a part of as many teams as she otherwise might have. In the 18 months since her last competition, she had to choose between continuing to train for the Games or going to UCLA. Choosing the Olympic path, and to do gymnastics for herself and nobody else, has helped her mature as a person and gymnast. “I have come a long way,” she said, crediting coaches Laurent and Cecile Landi with bringing her level up.
Chiles’ recipe for success in Indianapolis was a combination of big skills, like her new full-twisting double back beam dismount, and a healthy attitude toward it all. “I’ve gotten my love for the sport back, my physical and mental health back,” she said. “I’ve just enjoyed this more than I have before, and I honestly can say that I’m very proud of myself.”
Cameron Bock Has Overcome A Crisis Of Confidence
Admittedly, Cameron Bock harbors bad memories of Winter Cups past.
“I broke my ankle pretty badly doing vault at the 2014 Winter Cup, and I’ve just had vault struggles my entire career,” he said.
So beginning on vault with an excellent Kasamatsu with one and a half twists at this year’s edition might actually have helped him banish some of that negative energy. Heading to his best event, parallel bars, straight after probably didn’t hurt either.
Of everything that happened in Indianapolis, Bock’s win over more seasoned teammates does rank high on the list of surprises, even to Bock himself. The 22-year-old, a senior economics major at Michigan admitted that he’s questioned whether he was good enough to compete among the country’s best. Norman Vincent Peale’s 1952 classic The Power of Positive Thinking helped change his attitude.
“Today I was filling my head with pretty positive thoughts, telling myself that I do belong here and I do belong at the top,” he said.
Looks like it worked.
The ‘Human Emoji’ Is Back And Happier Than Ever
One of the questions heading into Winter Cup was how Laurie Hernandez would look four and a half years removed from the 2016 Olympic Games, where she won gold with the team and an individual silver medal on balance beam. To keep things chill, Hernandez opted only to do beam and floor, which she and coach Jenny Zhang approached with the simple goal that Hernandez go out and enjoy herself.
This is different from what Hernandez is used to, and she embraced her part. On floor, she was the host of her own dance party, to music that included “The Room Where It Happens” from the Hamilton soundtrack, and on beam she displayed the same calm steadiness that made her such a deadly competitor in Rio.
As always, the emotions were varied and vibrant.
“I was really nervous and then I felt really excited, almost like calm and composed on the equipment, which is not something I felt when I was 16,” she said. “It was terrifying to initially go back out there. I think the four and a half year gap between competing then versus now really made a big difference, but at the same time having time away from gymnastics to go and do my own thing and then come back, it was like coming back as a new person but with old skills in my body, it felt like I had a one-up on myself.”
Sunisa Lee Is Swinging For The Fences On Uneven Bars
The reigning world bronze medalist on uneven bars posted the highest score of the entire competition, 15.05, for a crisp, impeccably performed routine where she manages two immensely difficult combinations.
And to think that’s just her backup set. Lee showed an even more complicated routine in the training, connecting a full-twisting backflip transition from the high bar to the low bar with an immediate transition back up to high, an original combination no one else has attempted before.
How does she come up with this stuff? “I chuck skills and then me and my coach will just decide which ones I can do the best and which ones will be best for my start value,” explained Lee. “I like having a unique routine.” Her goals for the next few months include improving her consistency, and building herself back up on vault and floor, where she’s been slowed by an ankle injury.
Overall, Lee is optimistic about the future.
“I think this year’s going to be pretty good,” she said.
Taking A Spill Can Be Just As Thrilling As Sticking The Landing
Yes, OK, technically you’re not supposed to catch your Cassina on high bar with just one hand, like Shane Wiskus did during the all-around final Friday night, but if you happen to and manage to pull it off, you do look like a superhero doing it. Same goes for pommel horse specialist Stephen Nedoroscik, who literally backflipped off the apparatus when things went wrong midway through his intricate routine.
Wiskus was sheepish about his error; Nedoroscik was incensed. When all was said and done and most people had left the arena on Friday night, Nedoroscik stayed put, climbed back on the pommel horse, and ground out a full routine, bowing to no one as he finished.
Yul Moldauer Is Firmly Focused On The Future
2017 U.S. champion Yul Moldauer had a rockier competition than he would have liked, falling on high bar during the all-around final, where he finished third, and on pommel horse and while attempting a new vault on the second day.
Still, handling big skills takes practice, and Moldauer has some of the biggest on the U.S. team, which will be aiming to medal for the first time in 12 years in Tokyo. The 24-year-old’s philosophy is that it’s better to mess things up at Winter Cup and nail them at the Olympic Games than the other way around.
“It doesn’t matter what we look like right now, it matters what we look like in six months,” he said matter-of-factly after the competition. “It was important to go for these new skills.”
The Kids Were More Than All Right
If these were normal times, Konnor McClain and Skye Blakely wouldn’t have been eligible for the Olympic team this year. The pandemic — and the ensuing decision to let 2005-born gymnasts compete at the Games — has accelerated their timetables. Neither looked fazed by it: Blakely turned in a flawless beam routine that set the standard on the event, while McClain impressed with supreme athleticism on both beam and vault. If they keep this up, both could potentially be in the conversation when Tokyo tickets are being doled out.
Something Good Is Happening In Arizona
Here’s an original idea: Identify your polar opposite, go train with her, and hope a little of what she does off. It’s working for Jade Carey and Riley McCusker, who moved to Arizona last year from Connecticut to train with Carey following a break with her coach. McCusker’s specialties are bars and beam, while Carey is best on vault and floor, though in Indianapolis McCusker demonstrated newfound strength and power on her double-twisting Yurchenko vault, while Carey looked much improved on uneven bars and rock steady on beam. Coincidence? Maybe not.
“We’ve been able to help each other a lot,” Carey said.
Donnell Whittenburg And Shilese Jones Are Two To Keep An Eye On
These two may not have commanded the lion’s share of attention in Indianapolis, but both put up impressive numbers. Jones, who competes a rare one-and-a-half twisting double tuck on floor exercise, posted top-five numbers on vault, bars, and floor.
Whittenburg, a two-time world bronze medalist, placed second on rings and did especially well on parallel bars and floor exercise on the second night of competition. Whittenburg recently left the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Center and feels he’s thriving at his new club.
“It’s been quite the process, but I’m enjoying it,” he said. “I’m a fighter, so I’m just going to keep pushing through as much as I can.”
The Olympic Team Selection Committee Is In An Unenviable Position
After round one, one thing is clear: the Olympic selection committees are going to have a tough time picking their teams due to the number of worthy candidates.
The pandemic has wreaked havoc on the international schedule and Tokyo Olympic qualification process. The latest bombshell landed last this month, when the International Gymnastics Federation cancelled the All-Around World Cup series, in which the U.S. men were well positioned to grab an extra Olympic quota place.
That’s bad news, given that they’re unlikely to earn a quota through the Individual Apparatus World Cup series, leaving only the continental championships, scheduled for June in Brazil, as a path toward getting an extra gymnast on the team.
“It’s devastating,” said U.S. men’s High Performance Director Brett McClure, who said he felt “ill” when he had to communicate the news to the national team. “It’s a tough situation. I understand it, it’s nobody’s fault, but man it stings.”
Women’s High Performance National Team Coordinator Tom Forster shouldn’t have this problem. His concern is likely to be the embarrassment of riches that comes from having a deep national program. Beyond Tokyo, Paris is already on his mind.
“I think we’re going to have a fair number of these girls stick around for the next three years,” he said, “and I think that’s really going to help us.”