In many ways, the Secret US Classics can be one of the most exciting meets of the year. It is the time when we see impressive upgrades, gymnast debuts and begin to really get an idea of the overall picture for the US women’s team. It is also a meet where anything can happen, as the girls routines are not yet polished and perfected. This year boasts an extra level of excitement with the return of many beloved gymnasts, upgrades in unexpected places and the place in the Olympic cycle where gymnastics fans can begin to see glimpses of next year’s Olympic team.
“The energy in the arena was intense,” said gymnastics photographer Christy Linder. Gone were the smiles and casual jokes, instead the girls had stoic, focused expressions. And while it is still early in the lead up to the selection of the world and ultimately the Olympic team, the intensity of the competition is beginning to show. With just over a year to go, everyone has Rio on their mind.
“Classics is always really important. It is the meet right before championships, so it allows you to see where you are and it allows you to try out your new skills… and to see if it is still worth it to push for the new skills, because after this meet you can’t really try anything new at championships or world championships,” said Aly Raisman in an interview with USA Gymnastics after podium training. Raisman is trying out a new skill on floor, adding a front tuck after her incredibly difficult pike double arabian in her second tumbling pass. “That’s still something relatively new, adding it into the floor routine, so hopefully tomorrow it will go well.”
And Raisman is not alone. In 2012 the USA seemed like an amanar factory. However, the number of gymnasts performing this high scoring vault consistently has diminished to just one – Simone Biles. Returning gymnasts Gabby Douglas, Raisman and Brenna Dowell all competed the amanar previously. Bailie Key is also training this vault. But the only person to actually show it in podium training today was Maggie Nichols. Welcome to the amanar club Maggie!
Speaking of Simone Biles, though she already has the most difficulty in the world by far, she is always pushing herself for more. Biles showed off two new skills on beam. “I added a Barani on beam [front tuck with a half twist] and a front pike… and then I got a new floor routine, so I am excited about that… and then I was supposed to compete a Cheng on vault, but that’s not going to happen, so hopefully for P&G’s,” said Biles in her post podium training interview. Biles also added a full twisting double layout on floor at Jesolo earlier this year and will be competing that along with a brand new floor routine.
Kyla Ross has spent this year focusing on bar upgrades. “I’ve been working hard to be able to compete a more difficult routine,” said Ross. She debuted a Bhardwaj (full twisting pak, a transition flip from the high to low bar) during podium training and also a new double front dismount. She has also changed some of her connections on beam. However, bars and beam are all we will see tomorrow as she won’t be competing all-around. “Unfortunately I am not going to do the all around this weekend because I hurt my heel a little bit, but I am hoping to go back after this competition and train hard for P&G’s.”
Bailie Key will not let her US senior debut come and go without upgrades of her own. “Training has been going really well. I am excited to compete here as a senior at the Secret Classic, and I thought training here, podium training, went really good too. I am most excited for floor because that is my big upgrade. I am putting a double layout in and moving my other passes back,” said Key. Along with her upgrade, Key also brings a brand new floor routine of her own.
Gabby Douglas is excited to be competing again, but will wait to unveil her new upgrades until P&G National Championships. “I’ve been working on a little bit of upgrades, which you guys will see at P&G’s, and being consistent and patient,” said Douglas after podium training. She knows that to make another Olympic team, she is going to have to give it her all. “We have so many good girls, all fighting for that spot and the competition is more dynamic… all the gymnasts, especially me, are going to have to pull out the best of the best. Especially with Simone. We’re gonna all have to bring out our best skills.” Douglas gave us a preview, showing off her new floor routine.
In addition to the upgrade frenzy were a number of familiar faces making their way back into the elite scene. Brenna Dowell, Polina Shchennikova and Sabrina Vega are all returning to elite gymnastics. Dowell just took a short hiatus to try her hand at college gymnastics. After a successful freshman year, she showed up to podium training looking better than ever on bars. Shchennikova showed off her gorgeous lines and flexibility on beam and bars, reminding everyone why she has been one that always catches your eye. Vega has been out since the 2012 Olympic Trials and is looking to begin her journey back into competition this weekend.
2014 World Champions MyKayla Skinner, Alyssa Baumann, Ashton Locklear and Madison Kocian are all out to prove that they are still in the running this year, even with the return of so many other gymnasts. Kocian and Locklear are both coming off of injuries as well, and will be looking to show that they are fit and ready to go. Standout junior Nia Dennis will be making her senior debut, looking to make a place for herself as well.
All in all, the gymnasts everyone expected to look great, do. And the gymnasts we have been wondering about- look great as well. This year, more than any before, seems to be an embarrassment of riches. Let the fun begin.