The U.S. Classic, initially conceived as a qualifying meet for the much bigger U.S. National Championships, has during the past few years morphed into something more. This is due to a growing level of excitement surrounding Olympic niche sports (and gymnastics is the Olympic niche sport) and also to technology that provides access to sports that don’t have 180 games per year or generate mammoth amounts of advertising revenue.
Between Youtube, Twitter, internet streaming, blogs, speciality sites like Gymnastike and USA Gymnastics’s own realization that it needed to up its coverage to compete with all of the above, the presence of a major TV network is no longer necessary for hard-core fans (and even fair weather ones), to follow the competition.
Hence, the U.S. Classic, held this year in Hoffman Estates, Ill., is now perceived (correctly) as a sort of sneak preview of the U.S. Championships, a semi-final draft of performances that we’ll be seeing there and later on in the season at the World Championships. From a once little-discussed national qualifier, it is now a major event with a headline sponsor (Secret, maker of deodorant), a huge media presence and, for the first time this year, a livestream of podium training and both the junior and senior competitions.
Still, as this was a sort of dress rehearsal for the bigger events to come, it’s fitting that both the livestream and the gymnastics were a bit choppy. Four years is a long time between Olympics, and nobody wants to appear at the apex of her career at this moment. In her new role as team leader, 16-year-old Kyla Ross, the youngest and least well known member of the gold-medal winning Fierce Five team, took the all-around title in spite of an uncharacteristic fall on her final tumbling pass (double pike) on floor. Ross scored 58.65 to win the title over first-year senior Peyton Ernst of Texas Dreams (58.25) and Olympic Trials competitor Brenna Dowell (57.7).
Ernst, who has been climbing her way up through the junior ranks for the past three years notched the night’s top score on beam (14.7), and Dowell, who has massively upgraded her exercises on every event, both looked sharp — at least, they made no noticable, ungainly errors. But what aided Ross in her comeback was her experience (after competing beam at the Olympic Games, nothing will ever be as scary in gymnastics again) and the top score on bars (15.4), but also the fact that many of her competitors looked like it was early in the season.
The energetic Simone Biles, who had a starmarking debut at the American Cup in Massachusetts in March, had an off day in Hoffman Estates, overshooting her Tkatchev on bars for a fall, looking rattled throughout her difficulty-packed beam routine (she grabbed the beam on a turn and nearly fell on her dismount, an incredibly tough two back handsprings to full twisting double tuck combination) and managing just a 13.7 on floor, far short of what she usually achieves. Calling it a day, Biles opted not to vault.
Lexie Priessman, the reigning Junior National champion who is also a first-year senior, watered back her difficulty on vault, where she showed only a double-twisting Yurchenko and opted to skip balance beam. She did, however, earn the highest score of the day on floor, a 14.8 for a jam-packed routine including a double twisting double tuck and full-twisting double layout. Madison Kocian, a talented junior-turned-senior, self destructed on balance beam (12.8) in spite of impressive performances elsewhere.
MyKayla Skinner, who became the first woman to compete a double twisting double layout on floor earlier this season, showed big skills on all events, including a Cheng on vault, but botched her bar routine and had noticable errors on beam and like Ross, counted a fall on her last pass on floor. Maddie Desch, one of the U.S.’s top juniors last year, only performed on balance beam.
But it was McKayla Maroney, the vault specialist-turned-internet-meme star, who stole the show. Nine months after fracturing her tibia landing a layout dismount off uneven bars during the second stop of a 40-city post-Olympic tour, Maroney debuted a new floor routine with a new tumbling pass — a big, bold double layout — and showed again why she’s so famous on vault.
With little to prove and legs to protect, Maroney exited stage left after her triumphant vault, although though she’s likely to do all four events at next month’s U.S. Championships. It was a good move — in spite of the hype around it, the Classic is just a stepping stone, and the experts know that it’s best used as that.
— A bout of stomach flu didn’t keep Bailie Key from winning the all-around in the junior women’s competition. The Texas Dreams junior star scored 58.25 after being inserted into the floor lineup at the last minute to best Amelia Hundley of Cincinnati Gymnastics (57.95) and Nica Hults of Texas Dreams (56.8).
Surprisingly, the top two didn’t have any of the top scores per event: Hults, who has already signed with UCLA for college, had the top score on bars (14.55), while Buckeye’s Nia Dennis, fifth all-around, received the highest mark on vault for her double-twisting Yurchenko (15.25). Up-and-comer Norah Flatley of Chow’s, fourth, won beam with a stellar 15.2 for a superb routine, while MG Elite’s Laurie Hernandez, sixth, danced her way to the floor title (14.65).
— Senior Lacy Dagen of San Mateo Gymnastics sustained a strained neck muscle on a fall from the uneven bars during the Saturday morning training session, causing her to withdraw from the event. Her San Mateo teammate Erin Macadaeg finished ninth overall.
Complete results: USA Gymnastics’s Secret Classic website
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