Gymnastics is my life-long passion. It is also one of my favorite ways to celebrate the weekend! And what a celebration of the sport it has been this past weekend in Boston at the 2018 U.S. Championships.
Alive and Kicking!
Gymnastics fans from all over the world tuned in to grasp the state of American women’s gymnastics team which has dominated the sport over the last four Olympic cycles (with the all-around titles in the last four Olympics, the team title in the last two, and all all-around World titles since 2011). With no team training center and no national team coordinator for a good portion of the year following the biggest scandal in sports history, the team’s status was a big unknown to the fans and federations around the world. Two days of amazing routines later (with the entire new senior national team – eight members- performing eight clean routines each over the two competition days ) – the answer is clear. American women’s gymnastics is very much alive and kicking!
“Success of the program is not in the national camp staff,” – said Paul Ziert, publisher of International Gymnast magazine. “It’s the individual club coaches that know how to develop the gymnasts. Many clubs now have World and Olympic champions, they know how to get the job done!”
I compared the technical difficulty scores at the recent European championships with the scores in Boston and U.S. women’s team is way ahead of the competition on three events out of four: Simone Biles’ and Jade Carey’s 6.7 and 6.3, respectively, on floor; Simone’s 6.5 and Kara Eaker’s 6.4 on beam, Simone’s 6.0 vault (with a near-perfect execution!) and Jade’s potential “arsenal” of vaults. And even on the uneven bars, U.S.’s traditionally weaker event, Biles’ 6.2 was close to Europe’s best difficulty, while Riley McCusker’s final 14.8 set could rival the best “European” bars lines.
Simone (and Sam)!
When I asked Ziert (over a lovely dinner in Boston’s North End) how he would remember these Championships – in one word, he exclaimed: “Simone!” IG Editor Christian Ivanov added: “Simone and Sam!” Simone Biles and Sam Mikulak dominated women’s and men’s competitions respectively, each winning their fifth all-around national title. Over the two days’ of competition (the two days’ scores are combined) Sam was ahead of the second place (2017 the Floor World medalist) Yul Moldauer by more than 4.5 points and Simone won over second place finisher (2017 World all-around champion) Morgan Hurd by six and a half points!
Both Sam and Simone have returned after spending time off the competition floor. Having dominated the last Olympic cycle (which culminated in winning five medals -four of them Gold- in Rio) Simone’s comeback is the biggest global story in the world of gymnastics right now. She won all four events with the upgraded routines in Boston (yes, including her “weakest” – the uneven bars) and she is now better and stronger than in Rio!
Stars of the Show
While Simone stole the show in Boston, she was not the only star in it! Morgan Hurd was a deserving and consistent second place finisher (performing slightly downgraded difficulty) and Riley McCasker overtook the judges and the audience alike with her perfect balletic positions and spirited performances (what a comeback from an injury and falls-prone last season!)
Favorite Competition Moments
I love the suspense of sports competition and there were plenty of moments to keep me (and the rest of the TD Garden’s audience on the edge of our seats). How about Yul Moldauer’s climb from six place following day one to second place overall! Yul started the “rise” after the third rotation (the floor exercise) -he was now third and then climbed to second after the fourth rotation, a position he kept through the finish of day 2. Yul was followed on the podium by Allan Bower in third place, who was rock solid for two days!
Another fun competition unraveled during the junior women’s day 2, when three of the top scorers (Sunisa Lee, Skye Blakely, and Kayla Di Cello) tied for second place following 7th rotation (out of 8 of the two-day meet). Di Cello went on to win the all-around silver medal place following her spectacular double twisting Yurchenko vault. Lee was third and Leanne Wong (from Gage) won the gold.
In sports there are no celebrations without defeats and it was not all roses for some of the competitors. 2017 U.S. Champion Regan Smith, one of the gymnasts I came to cheer for at this meet, had a lackluster performance to finish tenth in the all-around. This is the girl who was second (by only one of a thousand of the point) to Japan’s Mai Murakami following 2017 Montreal Worlds’ Qualification round. (Regan did not get to compete in the all-around in Montreal as she injured her ankle in the warm-ups just minutes before the all-around competition). I am not sure whether it is the lingering injury, the growth spurt or something else, but I surely hope Regan gets an invitation to train with the team and work on her confidence to have a chance at making the Tokyo 2020 team.
Another person with a disappointing meet was Jordan Chiles, who was second in the all-around at the 2017 Championships (and many felt deserving to be on the Montreal World team). Chiles was actually a leader after the very first rotation (she earned 15 for her new Amanar on vault to Simone’s 14,450 on floor).
On the mens’ side, one of my favorites, (and a co-winner of sports person of the year award) Akash Modi went from second (on day one) to sixth place following day two, but he was named to the national team and the Worlds selection camp so he will surely have another chance to prove himself this season.
The Voices in the Stands
Was it worth it paying (not cheap!) ticket prices to attend the events live? My answer is: absolutely! I loved the set up at the TD Garden arena (this is where my sports blogging passion has been ignited at the 2016 Figure Skating Worlds!). You could see perfectly from as high as 18 row of the loge (my family’s seats during day 1 of senior women’s competition). The audience on day 2 was nearing eight and a half thousands and it was so special to be a part of the roar celebrating Simone’s near-perfect final vault set (she earned 9.6 – the highest execution score of the meet) and Morgan’s final tumbling pass of her floor routine which happened to be the final routine of the 4-day competition.
My neighbors in the stands were gymnastics families from neighboring Connecticut, the fans from New Jersey cheering for their ever elegant MG Elite juniors and seniors, the coaches from Louisiana, and the family of GAGE coaches Armine Barytyan (former Soviet national team member) and Al Fong, whose pupil Leanne Wong became the junior national champion and Kara Eaker made the senior national team. As Armine was blowing kisses to her daughter (who was sitting next to me) in the stands following the competition, I felt… a part of the big gymnastics family and a part of the celebration!
Another neighbor – Nicole Longevin – the owner of Precision Choreography – was telling me about her experience timing the touch warm-ups on the beam (“there were hardly any falls and nothing for her to do,” she complained jokingly).
There was nothing like feeling the arena’s energy right before the beginning of the meet, observing your favorite gymnast’s personality and how she gets into the “zone” before her performance, or how she cheers on her friends’ and competitors and receives the last-minute coaching…
And look, here is Simone waving back at someone in the crowd (at the competition of her eighth’ routine, of course)! These are the things you only get to experience live at the arena and I cannot wait for the gymnastics competition to come to the city near me!
Luckily for me, I enjoyed the competition as the guest of USA Gymnastics.