Gymnastics Takeover: 2016 Secret Classic Senior Ladies Recap

By srasher
Jun. 09, 2016

The inevitable gymnastics takeover of this blog has begun. Relax; it's only temporary. It's been a slow off-season for figure skating, and the Summer Olympic Games are coming up. Oh, and with the US National Gymnastics Championships being held in St. Louis this year, I'm taking a little weekend road trip at the end of June. I'll be live tweeting from the cheap seats and recapping here on the blog. It will be my first live gymnastics event! I'm going to see Simone Biles in person! Excitement awaits.

I've held off on covering gymnastics before because there are so many good bloggers (and podcasters, and folks on social media) who know far more about gymnastics than I do. I've learned a lot from them, but I still usually need the slow-motion replay to tell the difference between a double Arabian and a full-in, and I will stammer heavily if you ask me what the difference is between a Gienger and a Tkatchev. 

...Okay, maybe I've picked up more tips from the Gymternet than I realized. Even so, there's going to be a lot more "she did a pretty" and a lot less nitpicky analysis than in my figure skating recaps, because I'd rather be vague than wrong. And also because my searches for gymnastics score sheets make me realize how spoiled I am, as a stats-obsessed figure skating fan, to have detailed protocols on hand for every major event. In gymnastics, all they seem to give you is a difficulty ("D") score and an execution ("E") score - not too helpful, since I'm still learning how to identify skills and spot deductions. I'm definitely writing as a figure skating fan who dabbles in really enjoying gymnastics, and not as an expert.

Since I think like a skating fan, I'm organizing this by apparatus rather than in the order the routines were performed: all the vaults, then all the uneven bars, and so on. The magic of YouTube is that you can watch routines in any order you want, and in a sport where there are often four athletes competing simultaneously, chronological order is often the worst way to get a handle on what happened. The other great way to organize gymnastics clips is to watch all of each athlete's routines back to back. That's actually my preferred method when I'm alone with my computer, but it makes for more confusing blogging. I'm not super clear about the final results, . 

Vault

MyKayla Skinner is known more for power than for grace, but boy, can this girl vault. There's some bellyaching in the YouTube comments about how many deductions she got, and her form in the air was gorgeous indeed, although it did take her a lot of flailing and one giant step to get control of her landing. If Skinner were the only American lady who could perform an Amanar (that's 2.5 twists after her hands touch the table, for those of you who just got here from skating land), the judges might have been more forgiving. But Skinner somehow looks awkward even when her form is right.

Rachel Gowey suffered some deductions for the big step on her landing, which took her slightly out of bounds, but her form in the air was so clean that the judges hardly took away anything else. Gowey isn't particularly known for her vault, so this solid effort went a long way toward proving her worth as an all-arounder.

Amelia Hundley earned one of the highest E scores on vault for a textbook double-twisting Yurchenko that came just short of a perfect stuck landing. She twisted in the air like she had all the time in the world - time enough for an extra half twist, maybe? Hundley is a talented journeyman who's never quite reached the top ranks, and an Amanar might make the difference.

I'm not sure why Alyssa Baumann didn't get more deductions for this, since her legs were apart in the air, then crossed. It seems like the judges pulled deductions out of nowhere for Hundley and Skinner and gave Baumann the benefit of the doubt.

Aly Raisman does a cute little hop before she starts her run, and it makes my heart smile every time. This was so smooth in the air that it's hard to believe it was an Amanar - she just sailed through those 2.5 twists. The landing was kind of rough, and I'm pleasantly surprised that she managed to stay in bounds.

Uneven Bars

Ashton Locklear was the first gymnast on bars, and she set a standard that no one else could come close to beating. She's not the most dramatic bar worker, but that's because she can throw incredibly hard tricks without making you worry that she's going to break her neck. More importantly from a judging standpoint, she holds her handstands perfectly perpendicular to the bars and keeps her pointed toes glued together. No other current American gymnast - and few others around the world - maintains form or body lines as effortlessly as Locklear. With only half a point in deductions, Locklear's E score was the highest that any athlete earned on any apparatus at the Secret Classic this year. It's almost unheard of for judges at this level to find so few deductions, but Locklear was just that unimpeachably good.

Aly Raisman is never great on bars, and she was a real mess last weekend. She took a costly tumble when she misjudged the distance from low bar to high and missed the bar on a blind transition. The rest was fine, with much better form than she had four years ago. For all the dramatic releases, though, this isn't as difficult of a bars routine as most of her top competitors can pull off: she does lots of showy release moves, but not enough of the connections and grip changes that boost a gymnast's D score. Bars are like ice dance that way; the flashy moves aren't necessarily what the judges care about most.

Madison Kocian had the highest starting difficulty on bars at the Secret Classic, which put her in direct contention with Locklear this summer, since USA Gymnastics has exactly one Olympic team slot for a bars specialist. Kocian's routine was full of the subtle skills that count most on bars: her hands were constantly in positions that make it difficult to grip the bar, let alone build up momentum for a release. This time around, Locklear beat Kocian on execution, and it made all the difference. Watch Kocian's legs and you'll see her ankles separate when they're not supposed to. The judges deduct for that every time, and it adds up.

Ragan Smith has some cleaning up to do - she's not quite vertical in some of those handstands - but I enjoyed this the most of any of the bar routines I watched. Tiny people don't always excel on bars, but Smith soars like a plucky little squirrel and makes her releases look huge.

Simone Biles had less to prove at the Secret Classic than anyone else, and she approached this bars routine like another day at the office. Of course, Biles's normal office days involve a stuck dismount, throngs of screaming fans, and a 9.000 E score on her weakest event. She wasn't the standout performer on bars, but she was the rock star.

For a minute there, we all forgot that Gabby Douglas is a legend. Douglas seems intent on showing that she has staying power, and that she's even better now than four years ago. On bars, she looked so certain about everything: the perfect vertical placement of her handstands, the controlled flight between the two bars, and the stuck landing that made the audience scream with delight.

Laurie Hernandez deprived us of her spunky presence by only competing bars at the Secret Classic, but that one routine was terrific. She takes advantage of great hip flexibility with all those piked and straddled skills. She's not quite on the same level as Locklear or Douglas, but she packs in more difficulty than Biles. She might have bounced a little too much on her landing for it to count as a stick, but her dismount soared so high that I'm going to count it in my heart.

Amelia Hundley isn't the greatest on bars - I'm sure she took a beating for leg separations in her release moves - but damned if that wasn't a stone-cold stick at the end.

Balance Beam

Before the Secret Classic, Jazmyn Foberg was in the conversation for the Olympics, but she might have permanently taken herself out of it. It's a shame, because she's one of those ball of sunshine types that it's hard not to root for. The wolf turn she fell on, which looks like a sit spin but is far more difficult in bare feet than on blades, is one of the toughest things to do on the balance beam and arguably one of the ugliest. The mistake appears to have rattled Foberg, because balance checks repeatedly broke up the flow of her routine.

Rachel Gowey might have started the competition in the Just Happy to Be Here ranks, but she proved that she's serious business with solid performances across the board. While most gymnasts bank on turns and tumbling skills, Gowey's strength is in her leaps and her ability to connect them to other skills. It's tough to transfer your momentum from a front tuck to a wolf jump, but Gowey managed it without a wobble. 

I've watched Alyssa Baumann's beam routine three or four times now, and it keeps not making an impression on me. It should, because it was one of the most difficult routines of the meet, only a tenth short of Simone Biles's D score. But what makes it whiz out of my brain is what made Baumann so successful: she was so calm and perfect that her big, impressive skills looked pedestrian. What you want from a beam worker is unshakable focus, and Baumann gives that so much that if you're not a gym nerd, you almost wonder what the big deal is. 

Aly Raisman, on the other hand, made every skill look like a big deal. She'd just fallen on bars, so she knew another missed routine would be fatal. At times, she looked like she was trying to pound the balance beam into submission. Some fans complain when the American ladies look aggressive rather than delicate, but Raisman has presence like a long-lost Stark sister, and she's most engaging when she's in full-on warrior princess mode. When she threw herself into her triple tuck dismount, it looked like a finishing move in a video game. All that was missing was a mic drop.

It's incredible how much height Ragan Smith gets on her beam skills. Her knees were so high in the air in her sheep jump (the one where she bends her knees and arches her head back), I thought she might clear the flag backdrop behind her. She's also one of the few gymnasts who can make a wolf turn look elegant, mostly because she stays so low in her knee and maintains such a beautiful toe point. It's a shame about her rough landing on the dismount, although the judges ruled that she stayed on her feet.

Ashton Locklear's long legs and gorgeous posture served her well on beam. Her base difficulty wasn't as high as most others', but she made up for it by maintaining her strategy of near-perfect execution. Locklear is one of the few gymnasts to put multiple full turns into her beam routine, including a beautiful sequence where she does two in a row in opposite directions.

It's Simone Biles on beam - what do you want, coherent prose? What sets her apart on balance beam is her quickness: other gymnasts have to focus and collect themselves, but Biles just connects and connects and connects. Split leap-switch leap-standing back tuck? Like it's hard. She also did a sequence of three aerials and had about a foot of beam left when she was done. The irony is, this wasn't Biles's best, with a couple of balance checks marring the flow. The fact that she can take a few deductions and still win beam by three tenths is another reminder that she's a superhero, and we're lucky to be in her presence.

MyKayla Skinner is like a cat on beam, not because of any preternatural ability to find her feet, but because when she does miss slightly, she has a way of dancing through her balance checks like she meant to do that. The body of the routine is pretty standard, albeit with some nice connections, but she might have the most dramatic beam mount in America right now.

It was not Gabby Douglas's best day on beam. She suffered one big balance check near the beginning and looked rattled the rest of the way through, struggling to find her feet on almost every skill and ditching one or two planned connections to catch her breath. There is something glorious about the way her long legs fan in the air as she tumbles, like pages of a book fluttering to rest.

Floor Exercise

The NBCSN broadcast pretended Marz Frazier didn't exist, which was a bad call, and not just because she was in the top 3 for much of the evening. She's a powerful tumbler, if a bit out of control at times, but her charismatic, hip-shaking floor exercise should have been on TV. 

Graceful Rachel Gowey was at it again on floor, with sky-high triple twists and lovely form in her leaps. She wobbled into place at the ends of her tumbling passes, which chipped away at her E score, but she balanced out her risk-reward ratio well, avoiding the falls and out-of-bounds deductions that torpedoed many of her competitors. Big classical music is somewhat out of fashion among American gymnasts, but it's a great fit for Gowey's style.

Aly Raisman can fly. There's no need to break it down further than that. It's not just that she gets tremendous height, with controlled landings and great form in the air. It's not just that she had the highest floor D score in the meet by a half-point margin (in figure skating numbers, that's like having a 15 or 20 point advantage in base value) and the only E score in the 9 range. Raisman is also versatile, with each tumbling pass configured distinctly and featuring different body positions. Other top ladies might give you more of a dance, but Raisman's wow factor is through the roof.

Alyssa Baumann let her personality loose on floor, and it was fun to see. It's risky to open with a sequence of turns, but a smart move for Baumann, who showed off her control and balance beautifully. When she tumbled, her toes barely seemed to touch the ground. I loved the "beat this" look in her eyes while she pretzeled into her final pose, too. 

Abby Paulson was another of the floor exercise's unexpected delights. She made up for a modest D score with terrific execution. Her form in the air was gorgeous, especially in her twisting skills, and she made some beautiful shapes in her dance skills. That hideous wolf turn didn't do her any favors, but I guess we can't have everything. And the rest was fabulous.

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