Gymnastics Takeover: P&G Championships, Senior Women Day 1

By srasher
Jun. 26, 2016

I didn't even manage to live tweet day 1 of the senior women, despite high hopes. I was busy making friends with the people in nearby seats, and there were so many routines to watch, with so little downtime, that I barely had a chance to pick up my phone. By comparison, a figure skating competition is leisurely, with all the scoring breaks and ice resurfacing, and only one skater or team on the ice at a time. Gymnastics goes by in a flash - the senior women began around 8:00 PM, and I was in my car by 10:00 -  but there are no pee breaks.

I'm about a day behind, obviously; I'm finishing this post up at Starbucks just before I head back to the arena for night two. If you're interested in juniors,  I'll have recaps of today's events, as well as of the senior men from last night, later this week.

Maggie Nichols is kind of back, although it looks like she peaked a year too soon. She's clearly not all the way recovered from her disastrously timed injury, and from what I saw last night, it's unlikely she'll be there in time for Rio. Still, she looked solid on bars, and she capped it off with a terrific stuck dismount.

The internet is in a small-scale tizzy about what will happen if Ashton Locklear is named to the Olympic team. She only competes bars and beam, and in a year when Marta Karolyi has said flat-out that Team USA doesn't need any more all-arounders, her focus might be an advantage. She won bars last night, and she won on the basis of her almost impeccable execution, leaping effortlessly between skills and making seamless connections. She's no joke on balance beam, either, and once again it's her E score that sets her apart. Her gymnastics are consistently gorgeous, and there's a strong chance her reliability will win out over the slim chance that one of her teammates gets injured late in the game in Rio.

Christina Desiderio is unlikely to earn a trip to the Olympics, but her floor music is already on a journey to Rio. Her smiles looked genuine when she shook her hips, embracing some cute choreography. She also brought some of the cleanest tumbling of the night.

Similarly, Brenna Dowell probably doesn't have enough in the tank to take her to Rio, although it's cool to see her coming back from collegiate gymnastics to give it a shot. The crowd cheered wildly for her, and her vault gave her fans a sweet payoff. Her DTY was one of the best in the field, high in the air and straight down the middle.

Rachel Gowey is one of the most beautiful current American gymnasts, but her nerves seemed to get the best of her in every routine. She looked lovely on floor, aside from some big steps in her landings and a weird form break in one of her turns, but her difficulty got knocked way down. I'm not enough of a gymnastics expert to understand where those deductions came from, but I'm enough of a fan of pretty things to mark this routine as a highlight despite the low score.

Poor Ragan Smith is in the conversation for Rio, but her nervous performance last night spells trouble. After a nightmarish floor exercise, she bounced back somewhat on beam, with several saves that made me hold my breath. Unlike several others, Smith hung on, and most importantly, she maintained most of the connections that keep her difficulty high. The silver lining for her is that she proved she can refocus in the middle of a troubled routine and finish strong.

I feel like a jerk for skipping Alyssa Baumann, but she was pretty middle-of-the-road throughout. I missed her best performance, on beam, because I was watching someone else, or in the bathroom, or something. That's one of the ongoing dangers of live gymnastics.

MyKayla Skinner is downright overshadowed on the other three events, to the point where she probably won't go to the Olympics despite being one of the best vaulters in the world. She's cleaned up her technique massively, although from my angle in the stands, it still looked a little one-handed as she touched the table. 

I just love watching Amelia Hundley, who finished the evening in a surprisingly strong 6th all-around. In vault, her DTY was one of the largest and most controlled of the night. Hundley stood out most on bars, though, giving a focused and unhurried performance. She made up for a low starting D score by hitting every handstand flawlessly and sticking her landing, to a backdrop of uproarious cheers. Looks like I wasn't the only Hundley fan in the building.

Madison Kocian was pretty good on beam and floor, but she was great on the one event where she had to be, bars. Like the rest of the top bar workers, she's detail-oriented rather than explosive, with her multitude of pirouettes and other in-bar moves picking up more points than a series of showy releases can. Her natural rivalry with Locklear arises from differences in style: Kocian whirls on bars, constantly in motion, sometimes breaking form slightly to squeeze in one more grip change. 

Gabby Douglas lacked her usual sparkle and bounce throughout Friday night, and she admitted in interviews later that she hadn't been all there mentally. Nowhere was her subdued attitude more apparent than on floor exercise, where a serious expression took the place of her usual ebullient smile. She had no trouble on her tumbling passes, though; maybe her detached demeanor was strategic, after all.

In the end, though, Douglas faded because the top three were such showstoppers. Laurie Hernandez was the revelation of night one, earning big scores across the board for a quartet of near-perfect performances. On floor, she showed off her tumbling power, with a double Arabian so high that I thought she might kick out the lights. But she had fun, too, swirling her hips and grinning during her dance moves.

Hernandez showed a more elegant side of her personality on balance beam. After building confidence with a sequence of leaps, she built momentum for clean, connected tumbling passes. She even had the confidence to make a slight wobble on her sheep jump look like part of the choreography. Throughout the evening, Hernandez looked polished and secure, more like a veteran than a first-year senior barely old enough for Olympics eligibility.

Meanwhile, the true veteran, Aly Raisman, had to fight her way into a second-place all-around tie with Hernandez. She looked off-kilter everywhere but floor, relying on high base difficulty to keep her near the top of the vault and beam ranks, and almost throwing it away on bars. But floor exercise is Raisman's domain. In person, it's clear that she tumbles bigger than any other American woman. And her muscles are so defined that even from high above the podium, I could see them shift as she turned and leaped.

Simone Biles is in the lead, obviously. She's on another level, and she makes it look easy. That's what makes her special: every move is so perfectly executed, there's just nothing to deduct. What you can't see on the video of her vault is, she flew more than halfway down the landing runway, and she hit the mat so lightly that I'm surprised she needed that tiny step to center herself. On beam and floor, her routines are so much harder than anyone else's that the deck is stacked in her favor from the start, but she doesn't need the advantage; she also earned the highest execution score on both events. And through it all, she never stops smiling. Nobody on the podium has more fun than Biles.

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