putting the puzzle together: team USA

The reigning world champion, team USA is heading to the 2015 world championships as the clear favorite for the team title. As the recent national championships proved, USA has more depth than any other country in the world right now and their national team includes three Olympic champion as well as three world champions. Despite the impressive number of world class gymnasts in the country, the selection committee does not really have a difficult job since five athletes have already set themselves apart from the rest of the field. Those are, three times Olympic medalist Aly Raisman, two times Olympic champion Gabby Douglas, 6 times world champion Simone Biles, 2013 junior national champion Bailie Key and 2014 Pan-American champion Maggie Nichols. Other athletes vying for a spot on the team are Pan-American champions Rachel Gowey, Amelia Hundley and Madison Desch, Olympic and world champion Kyla Ross, Pacific Rim champion Nia Dennis and world champions Madison Kocian, MyKayla Skinner and Alyssa Baumann.

As I’m sure that everyone who has followed gymnastics during this quad knows, Simone Biles is a lock for the worlds team. The 2013 and 2014 worlds All Around champion, continued her dominance in 2015 by winning every single competition she participated in including the American Cup, the Jesolo Trophy, the US secret classic and the national 11012702_895474563834097_3360105701373513438_nchampionships. With the most incredible level of difficulty in the world, her fantastic execution and her impressive consistency, Biles seems to be unstoppable. In a time where most gymnasts are ecstatic to receive a score in the high 14s, Simone is capable of scoring in the high 15s in a good day. She has the absolute best amanar in the world right now and she lands it better and better every time she competes it. On bars, which is her weakest event, she actually has a world class start value and should be able to score close to 15 if she hits. Her beam routine, starts out of an insanely high 6.9 if she connects everything and her floor routine is simply unbelievable. Simone is USA’s most valuable team member and she is also the top contender for the all around, vault, beam and floor gold medals. All she needs to do in order to earn a ticket for Glasgow, is to stay in one piece until it’s team to get on the plane.

11838532_896804257034461_1466894041243689594_oAn other gymnast I would be very surprised not to see in Glasgow is Aly Raisman, who has pulled out the most impressive comeback of the quad (at least until Catalina Ponor competes again). Despite being away from competition for more than two years, Aly proved that she hasn’t lost much since she won three Olympic medals, two of which were gold, at the London Olympics. She started her comeback with one gold and two bronze medals at the Jesolo Trophy and she continued with a silver on balance beam at the Secret Classic. After that, she went to win the second national title of her career on floor as well as her fifth bronze medal in the All Around. Not every single routine she showed was perfect. She had two falls during the national competitions, which is very uncharacteristic for her, she had a couple of scary amanars and she had the form breaks we typically see from her. However, it’s hard to deny that the level of difficulty she has shown is beyond impressive. She has her amanar on vault, her patterson on beam and her signature 1.5 + double arabian + front layout on floor. She has added new skills and combinations, like a maloney + tkatcev on bars and a double layout on floor. In addition to the fantastic difficulty, Aly also brings to the table her experience and her leadership. At the age of 21, she is the oldest member of USA’s national team. She has been to worlds twice, she has been to the Olympics. She knows how it feels to compete in the sport’s highest stage and she can help her younger teammates to handle the pressure. In addition to being a great leader and a valuable team member, Aly is also a contender for individual medals on the All around, beam and floor and she can offer way too much to be left behind.

11899951_896803260367894_881276069827505832_nRaisman’s Olympic teammate Gabby Douglas has not been as successful as her, but she still is one of the top contenders for the team. She has been in elite training for significantly less time than Aly and she was still able to produce world class routines on all four events and she’s capable posting high scores on three events. Her floor still needs some work though. Throughout her comeback, Douglas has talked about having upgrades but she never competed them, probably because they weren’t quite ready. It will be interesting to see if she will add any new skills to her routines at the selection camp but this would probably be quite risky. Her biggest achievement in 2015, has to be the fact that she did not have any falls during three major competitions. This is not a small thing for an athlete infamous for her inconsistency. In terms of results, her proudest moment probably is the silver medal she won at the Secret Classic. After that, she was a bit shaky at nationals, where she wasn’t able to finish in the top 3 on the All Around or any event. However, she still has one of the highest start values in the country on bars and if she hits, she can score above 15 on three events so she is a valuable team member. Gabby is not going to win an All Around title at Glasgow, she’s not going be the super star of team USA but that doesn’t mean she can’t have a succesful world championships. If she lands on her feet at camp, I would be very surprised to see her staying at home.

11887889_896800357034851_1395873633285049098_nThe most surprising contender for this world team has to be Maggie Nichols. When we were all making our predictions in the beginning of the quad, I don’t think anyone even mentioned her name but here she is, beating Olympic champions. After a dislocated knee prevented her from going to Nanning last year, Maggie seems to be determined to go to her first world championships at the age of 18. She has probably been the most consistent gymnast of USA’s national competitions, hitting routine after routine at Classics and nationals. And she did not play it safe, she did not go for easier routines she can hit. She went out there, threw crazy skills like an amanar, a silivas and a grigoras and she still had no major mistakes. After those amazing performances, she won a bronze medal at Classics and a silver one at nationals, establishing herself as one of the strongest contenders for Glasgow. Even though I am as impressed as everyone with Maggie’s progress this year, I feel that people overestimate her strengths at times. Don’t get me wrong, she is a great gymnast who has improved tremendously but even though she has massive skills on bars beam and floor, she does not have any massive start values and there are lots of flaws in her execution. Because of that, I don’t think she will be able to score above 15 on any event besides vault and I’m not sure if she can make the team finals line up anywhere else. That’s not to say that Maggie is not valuable to the team or that she should not go to worlds. Hell, she freaking earned her spot and her amanar is very useful. I just think that if she goes to Glasgow (which is almost certain at this point), she is going to be the solid team player and not the star of the team.

11223540_895475783833975_3457110036084039598_nUSA’s most anticipated new senior, Bailie Key also has a fantastic chance to make it to the worlds team. She really has done an excellent job this year, showing clean gymnastics under pressure. She started her senior career with beating Olympic champions Douglas and Raisman to win an All Around silver medal at the Jesolo Trophy and she continued with winning bronze medals on bars and floor at both Classics and Nationals. Unlike some fans out there, Bailie and her coaches realize that being a dominant junior doesn’t necessarily mean that she should also be dominating as a senior from the first year of her career so they are not pushing her to perform any skills she can’t do consistently and this strategy has paid of for her. Bailie could be used on every single event in team finals even though they will most likely not need her double twisting on vault and she’s capable of receiving scores on the high 14s – 15 range on every event. She could also make it to the all around, bars, beam and floor finals. Of course, it will be hard for her to do that over some of her older teammates.

So, we have:

VT: Key: 5.8, Douglas, Raisman Nichols, Biles

UB: (Raisman), Nichols:, Biles: Key, Douglas

BB: (Nichols), Douglas, Key, Raisman Biles

FX: (Douglas), Key, Nichols, Raisman Biles

photo by John Cheng

Just with those fantastic five athletes, USA could easily win the team finals with a significant lead. However, the teams are comprised by six athletes, and they can maximize their scoring potential by choosing the right sixth member. There only two weaknesses (can we even call them weaknesses?) with this team. The first one is that they’ll have to use Aly Raisman’s amanar on vault. Aly did an excellent job to get that skill back very quickly, but both her attempts to perform it at nationals were far from ideal. During the first day of the competition, she barely got the 2.5 twists around and she had to take a bit step outside of the vault corridor. Her amanar at the second day was landed with one of her legs completely locked and my knees hurt just thinking about it. It’s actually funny how not having three 6+ vaults in their line up is 11875091_896797383701815_408690912676223547_oconsidered a weakness for team USA, while other teams are struggling to even have double twisting yurchenkos but as mentioned above, they will be trying to maximize their scoring potential and send their strongest possible team. Τhe other place where they could improve their team total is the uneven bars. With the five gymnasts above, they will most likely have to use Simone on this event, which is her weakest. This is by no means a real problem since Biles can score on the high 14s on this event and even break 15 in a good day. Those are scores that most gymnasts would kill for. However, there are athletes in team USA who can consistently score in the low 15s and could improve the team total by a couple of tenths. So the sixth member would ideally be a great bars worker with a fantastic amanar. However, since Elizabeth Price is long retired and Brenna Dowell is not in the same shape she was in 2013, there is no such gymnast in USA. That means that they will have to make a compromise and choose which of those two events they will cover.

11914745_896801290368091_8756420170722695637_oIf USA decides to go for a vault specialist, the obvious choice is 2014 bronze medalist on vault, MyKayla Skinner. I’m not saying that Skinner has better technique than Raisman. The issues she has with her block have been discussed to death and her form is far from flawless. However, none of the vaults she competed this year looked like an injury waiting to happen and she got 9.3 execution scores for her vaults at last year’s worlds so there’s no reason why she shouldn’t be receiving high scores once again. As one of the best tumblers in the world right now, Skinner would also be valuable on floor, where she has a higher start value than Maggie Nichols or Bailie Key. The truth is that a floor line up of Skinner, Raisman and Biles would be epic, despite lacking a bit in artistry. MyKayla would also be one of the front runners for a medal on vault and that could improve her chances to be named to the team.

picture by John Cheng

USA decides to follow the alternative and take a bars specialist to worlds, the obvious choise is Madison Kocian. There are a few athletes in the country who are beautiful on bars, like Ashton Locklear, Rachel Gowey and Kyla Ross but Maddie is the one who has proven herself as the country’s best on this event. Ashton became USA’s national champion and world finalist after showing tricky combinations performed with gorgeous execution last year. However, she had a shoulder surgery a few months ago and even though she has had a remarkable job to come back, she does not have all her difficulty back. No matter how stunning she is, her 6.1 start value and her performance at nationals was not enough to put her on the national team so unless she makes massive progress in the next month, she is very unlikely to make it to the worlds team. She does have a couple of months to work hard though so you never know what she can do. This girl went from unknown to world champion in one year so we should not underestimate her. Rachel Gowey did an excellent job at the Pan-American Games, where she won the gold medal11855702_895463760501844_6365089666548298679_n on the uneven bars. During her routine she shows a fantastic level of difficulty, and besides her flexed feet, her execution is quite clean. However, after missing a couple of connections at nationals, she only finished in 6th place on the event and a potential bars specialist needs more than that. Just like Ashton, Rachel was not named on the national team so she will have to really prove herself at the selection camp in order to be considered. Then, we have Kyla Ross, who has been a key player for team USA for the last three years thanks to her impressive consistency and clean execution. However, 2015 hasn’t been Kyla’s year and she did not hit a single routine during Classics and nationals. On top of that, she does not have one of the highest start values we’ve seen so even if she hits, she is unlikely to score much higher than Simone Biles. On the other hand, Madison Kocian has scored well above 15 multiple times and she has shown consistency and great difficulty. She missed the first half of the season due to injuries but she came back strong to win won the uneven bars title on both Secret Classic and nationals. It looks like her routine, which starts out of a 6.6 is now easy for her. Last year, she used to connect her chow 1/2 to her pak 11904670_895457483835805_3487390223724620488_nonly half of the time and some of her handstands were a little off at times, but now, she has hit every combination every single time she competed, her pirouettes were pretty close to perfect and she looked more confident than she ever has in the past. Maddie will obviously need to hit her routine at camp, but if she does I think she has an excellent chance to go to her second world championships. Hopefully, if that happens she will have a better performance at qualifications than last year and she will be able to advance to the bars finals.

VT: (Key: 5.8), Raisman: 6.3, Nichols: 6.3, Skinner: 6.4 Biles: 6.3

UB: (Raisman: 5.8), Nichols: 6.1:, Biles: 6.1, Key: 6.2, Douglas: 6.4

BB: (Nichols: 6.2/5.9), Douglas: 6.4, Key: 6.1, Raisman:6.8, Biles: 6.9

FX: (Nichols: 6.0), Key:6.3, Skinner: 6.5, Raisman: 6.7, Biles: 6.8

Difficulty total with 4 events counting: 102.6

Difficulty total with 3 events counting: 77.8

In a team with Madison Kocian

VT: (Key: 5.8), Douglas: 5.8, Raisman: 6.3, Nichols: 6.3, Biles: 6.3

UB: (Raisman: 5.8/Nichols:6.1), Biles: 6.1, Key: 6.2, Douglas: 6.4, Kocian: 6.5

BB: (Nichols: 6.2/5.9), Douglas: 6.4, Key: 6.1, Raisman:6.8, Biles: 6.9

FX: (Nichols: 6.0), Nichols: 6.0, Key:6.3, Raisman: 6.7, Biles: 6.8

Difficulty with 4 scores counting on each event: 102

Difficulty with 3 scores counting on each event: 77.9

So, Skinner significantly improves the team’s difficulty total in qualifications while Kocian improves the team’s total at the team finals by only one tenth. The question is: do those extra tenths in qualifications really mean much to a team like USA, who is most likely going to win in the 6-5-4 format anyway? Skinner has a better chance to win an individual medal but Kocian has performed better this year. Moreover, Marta often talks about the significance of bars specialists and she wants to have athletes like Kocian on the team in order to minimize Russia’s and China’s advantage on this event. Those athletes both have lots of things to offer and everything will come down to how they will perform from now on.

It looks like the rest of the athletes who are part of the worlds training squad are most likely going to be fighting for the alternate spot. Of course, they have every reason to be extremely proud of themselves just for making it that far and they are both excellent athletes, who would be strong contenders for most countries’ world teams but their level of difficulty is not quite where it needs to be in order to become world team members in the strongest gymnastics country in the world.

photo by John Cheng

While choosing an alternate, you usually want to have an athlete who is capable of posting solid scores on every event. There are quite a few people who can do that in team USA and the alternate of last year’s world team and Pan-american all around silver medalist, Madison Desch is one of them. She has a beautiful double twisting yurchenko, a much improved bars set, which includes a downie and a ricna to pak, an impressive beam, and a fabulous floor routine, which includes a whip + double arabian combination and a 1.5 into a double front twist. Unfortunately, after having some ups and downs at the Pan-American Games, Maddie had a really rough time at nationals, falling on beam and struggling on floor during the first day of the competition. She was not healthy enough to compete at the second day and therefore wasn’t able to place in any events. She will have an other chance to prove herself at camp while she’s healthy but in my opinion her chances don’t look great. She has been struggling for a while now and there are younger gymnasts with more potential who are stronger contenders than she is. For example, 16-years-old Nia Dennis had an excellent performance at Classics and Nationals and secured a spot in the country’s senior national team. After not making the Pan-American Games team, Nia decided to switch gyms in order to improve her consistency and surprisingly, this choice worked out for her. She didn’t show the most difficult routines of the competitions, but besides a major problem on her pak salto at day 1 of nationals, she did not make any mistakes, which is a massive achievement for her. She is capable of a great double twisting yurchenko on vault, sky high releases and the uneven bars.  Right now, her best event is the balance beam, where she11889478_896796713701882_3641419207603808806_n tied for fourth at nationals after barely wobbling during the two days of competition. Her floor is very promising but an injury has held her back this year. The only problem with the routine is that she does not meet the requirement of a twisting salto, since her tumbling passes are double layout, double arabian, double tuck and double pike. However, I do expect her to bring her 1.5 step out back for the selection camp and if she does that she will have a very respectable 5.8 start value. With solid routines on every event, Nia would be a good alternate and the fact that she was added to the national team proves that Marta is pleased with her progress and sees potential in her, so maybe she’ll want to give her this chance.

11891186_895459340502286_5307310191504810195_nThen, we have 17-years-old Amelia Hundley, who was USA’s most successful athlete at the recent Panamerica Games. After struggling with injuries for the first year of her senior career, Amelia upgraded her routines and showed impressive difficulty and consistency at the Panamerican Games and the first day of the national championships. She has one of the best double twisting yurchenkos in the country, an impressive bars routine which includes a ricna + pak and a van leeuwen and an entertaining floor set, comprised by difficult tumbling passes like a double layout, a piked full in and a whip int ao a double tuck. Her beam is a bit weak and she struggled to break 14 this year though. Unfortunately, Hundley suffered slight meniscus tear and wasn’t able to compete at the second day of nationals. She already had a surgery and she is expected to recover in time to compete at the selection camp but we can’t know in what shape she will be in. I just hope that she isn’t pushing herself too hard and that she will not put too much pressure on her body.

11872166_896798070368413_370035642775533287_o2014 World champion Alyssa Baumann also had a great national championships, winning a silver medal on her favorite event, the balance beam and placing 7th in the All Around. In addition to her gorgeous beam routine, which includes a standing arabian and a stunning switch ring, Alyssa also has a consistent double twisting yurhcenko and a solid bars set. Her floor routine is also very promising and it features difficult skills like a double layout, a piked full in and a gomez as well as elegant choreography. However, she struggled with her landings and turns during nationals and wasn’t able to score in the 14s on this event. I’ve seen people putting Alyssa on their predicted world teams but unfortunately, I don’t think this is very likely to happen. She is probably my favorite American athlete and she could very well win a beam medals at worlds if she does what she’s capable of but it doesn’t seem like she fits into team USA. With Biles, Raisman, Douglas and Key, the team already has four fantastic beam workers, who may not be as beautiful and elegant as she is but they are just as efficient. If Alyssa had a second event to offer, than maybe her chances would be better, but the middle 14s and the high 13s she scored on bars and floor are simply not competitive against her teammates.

11875111_896799557034931_9084118802425910162_oThe last member of the training camp is everyone’s favorite, Brenna Dowell. Brenna’s performance at nationals was very impressive for someone who had not trained elite routines until the beginning of the summer, but that doesn’t mean that it’s enough to put her on the worlds team. She has a good double twisting yurchenko, a spectacular bars routine (her tweddle + ezhova is what I live for!) and some fabulous forward tumbling on floor. But during nationals, she had a fall on bars, she was shaky on beam and she didn’t control all her landings on floor. In Dowell was in her 2013 shape, then she’d have a brilliant chance to travel to Glasgow but it’s 2015 and she just doesn’t have enough difficulty and numbers behind her to be a top contender. All her competitors have been working out as elite athletes for the entire year and she only has a few months of elite training behind her so she is not as well prepared as them. Given the depth of team USA right now and the fact that she has never been Marta’s favorite athlete, it’s hard to imagine her being named to the worlds team.

The truth is that USA doesn’t really need an alternate because their team will most likely include 5 strong All Arounders. If for example Raisman gets hurt, Key will compete on floor and beam instead of her. If Douglas gets hurt, then Biles or Nichols will replace her on the bars line up. Sure, they won’t score as high as the gymnasts they replaced, but they will score just as high as any alternate would. I could see Rachel Gowey being a strong contender for that alternate spot if she competes 11029506_896804547034432_7228620950373436472_non all four events at camp though. She is still coming back from an injury and has only competed on bars and beam this year but in the past she has shown an amanar on vault and 3.5 twists on floor. I obviously don’t expect to see those skills from a gymnast who hasn’t competed in the All Around for about a year, but I do think she can get her yurhcenko double full and a respectable floor routine by the time the selection camp begins. If she does that, while hitting her impressive bars and beam routines, she could make a case for herself. The same goes for Kyla Ross. She has had a very rough year, falling in every major competition she participated in but she still is Kyla. She has handled the pressure at worlds, she has handled the pressure at the Olympics and she is definitely an athlete that Marta trusts. Because of that, she could still be part of the discussion if she shows her old self at camp. However, I don’t think that being an alternate at worlds would really be beneficial for her. She clearly does not need the experience and it’s probably better for her to take some well deserve rest and take care of herself physically and mentally before she starts preparing for Rio.

If I had to make a prediction I would say that unless Asthon Locklear comes back with an epic bars routine or Rachel Gowey breaks 59 in the All Around, Simone Biles, Aly Raisman, Bailie Key, Maggie Nichols, Gabby Douglas, Madison Kocian and MyKayla Skinner will all travel to Glasgow. There, Kocian and Skinner will compete for the last spot and after podium training, one of them will be the alternate.

All photos are by Christy Ann Linder unless it’s stated otherwise

3 thoughts on “putting the puzzle together: team USA

  1. That would be real interesting scenario to take both Kocian and Skinner and let them fight it out during podium training. I do have my suspicion however that this will be decided before they fly to Glasgow.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if Ross will be picked as an alternate, possibly with some sort of a few downgrades to help her out with endurance and consistency. Kyla is a better alternate than either Kocian or Skinner.


    1. Neither Skinner nor Kocian are the typical alternate who can step up on every event but I think that’s ok because there are already so many great All Arounders in the team and they can make up for pretty much every event if someone get injured.

      Yeah, it’s probably going to be like last year, when there was no official alternate until after podium training but we all knew that the alternate was going to be Desch


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s