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The U.S. trials for both the world championships and Pan American Games teams were held over the past couple of days, with an all-around competition held on Tuesday, followed by a more relaxed situation where the athletes could pick two events. A couple of hours after the second day of competition concluded, the selection committee had two full teams ready to go, with the worlds team pretty strategically perfect, at least based on my very specific qualifications.

My impression of the first night was that many athletes looked exhausted and not quite up to the task, especially given how late in the day the competition was, and how long things dragged on, with each rotation taking around 45 minutes, double what these athletes are used to at elite meets.

The fatigue affected some of the best, including Simone Biles, who had some uncharacteristically weak form at various points throughout the night, which caused a fall on her van Leeuwen and some smaller mistakes on beam and floor. In her final event, Biles over rotated her Yurchenko double pike on vault, which ended up looking like more of a timer as she threw the skill to her back, but she nonetheless won the competition with a 55.700, down several points from what she showed she was capable of at nationals, but still enough to finish in first place and automatically qualify to the worlds team.

Coming closest was Shilese Jones, who had a very strong meet going up until bars. Actually, I’d Include bars as part of her strong meet, as the routine was excellent, and the mistake that ended up costing her a full point in deductions – a brush of her feet on the mat after her Pak salto – didn’t affect her rhythm at all to the point where it wasn’t noticeable to anyone watching. The view of her feet was cut off for the viewer watching on the stream, but while you’d still notice a flaw in the gymnast’s movements in most cases like these, Jones seamlessly continued into the rest of her routine and finished well. When her score came up as 13.5, it was shocking, but on the second day she came back sans foot drama, connected the Pak to van Leeuwen, increased her difficulty score to a 6.5 – third highest in the world – and scored a 14.75 total, once again proving what a threat she is for a bars medal.

Skye Blakely came into this trial as one of my three locks for the team along with Biles and Jones, and everything she did here to finish third all-around confirmed this opinion. Her floor still isn’t really usable, but she offers so much on bars and beam, both of which have been so consistent this season, and her vault is yet another solid Yurchenko double full, which the team might not need, though could use in a pinch if needed. She did have a fall on a bars release on day two, but with everything else she’s done there this year, this mistake changed absolutely nothing for me.

Rounding out the top five were Joscelyn Roberson and Leanne Wong, though they would have been my next team picks regardless of where they had fallen in the all-around rankings. While they weren’t locks for me in the sense that there were a few other solid options and I wasn’t sure if the selection committee would match my brainwaves, they were the two I wanted most to round out the team, filling the roles of a strong multi-event specialist as well as a well-balanced utility player who might not be a top-scoring athlete on any event, but who is absolutely vital to the team thanks to her ability to step in anywhere and score nearly as well.

In the latter role, Wong was the clear winner for me. She came into this season for the first time at the U.S. Classic in August, finishing second all-around, and then surprised to win all-around bronze at nationals with even-keeled and solid performances on every apparatus across both days of competition. Wong, who stuck with her Florida coaches this year instead of going back to GAGE, has been at a level we’ve never quite seen from her – maybe not gymnastically, exactly, as we’ve seen her look strong before and with higher difficulty in some areas, but in terms of her confidence and the joy she’s bringing to every performance.

I’ve always been a fan of built-in alternates for teams, and while everyone is calculating numbers and putting together spreadsheets showing the top-scoring teams, I’m keeping scoring potential in mind, but also always making room for someone who adds value in a different way. It’s not super often that teams need to replace higher scores with a more consistent low score, but two very recent examples include Biles being forced to withdraw from the team final in Tokyo and Blakely’s bars being considered too much of a risk at last year’s worlds, where Wong – who only competed on vault in qualifications – was able to come in and put up a steady score for the team. With only five athletes on a team and three scores needed for each event in the final, not having a trusted backup is a scary prospect.

Between classics, nationals, and trials, Wong hit 18 out of 18 routines. She also only won a single event medal, with her silver on vault at the U.S. Classic. So there’s a massive pro, but also a massive con, but is it really a con? Does everyone on every team really need to be an individual medal contender, or is there room for those who bring a different skillset to the mix, especially when the big scores are more or less covered by other athletes and the alternative would be another specialist with high-scoring potential but an inconsistent history? Not to mention that the top all-around athletes shouldn’t be required to compete all four events in the team final, and Wong is the best option to provide relief for Biles on bars and Jones on beam or floor, for example.

If Wong proved herself ready for a spot all summer, Roberson’s done it all season, going back to her fantastic performances on vault, beam, and floor at the Winter Cup in February to her multiple 14+ scores on floor in international competition – her 14.15 at the DTB Pokal Team Challenge, 14.1 and 14.067 at Pan Ams, and 14.066 at the Cairo World Cup are the top four international scores out of over a thousand international floor scores seen in the entirety of 2023 so far – to a domestic summer season that saw her win all-around bronze at the U.S. Classic before becoming the vault champion at nationals. In my eyes, she didn’t need to do much more at trials to show her readiness, but she did it anyway, finishing first on vault and second on floor.

While I was convinced, however, my concern was that the selection committee wouldn’t be, especially when the experienced Jordan Chiles made a strong case for herself on vault and bars despite looking a bit shaky elsewhere. Experience helps in situations like a world championships meet, and Chiles was a standout last fall, putting up four excellent scores to help the team win gold in the final before going on to win medals on vault and floor. Then there were a couple of other gymnasts with standout events, like Zoe Miller on bars and Kaliya Lincoln on vault, beam, and floor, both of whom put absolutely everything into Tuesday’s all-around competition with Lincoln’s score a career-best, as well as Jade Carey on vault, where the reigning world champion excelled, scoring a 14.8 for her Cheng on day two.

Roberson and Wong were my picks to round out the top all-arounders with both a specialist and the opposite of that, but I saw the value in selecting others as well, and felt like this team could have gone several different ways. But it seems the committee and I were on the same page for once, with Roberson and Wong joining the expected Biles, Jones, and Blakely trifecta, while Kayla DiCello – who kind of quietly slipped into seventh all-around here despite a fall on bars – was named the alternate.

DiCello was also picked to compete at the Pan Am Games, along with Chiles, Lincoln, Miller, and first-year senior Tiana Sumanasekera, who won this year’s Pan Am Championships all-around title back in May. Carey was also offered a Pan Ams spot, but turned it down due to a personal conflict and will instead compete at the Swiss Cup, while Alicia Zhou, Eveylynn Lowe, and Nola Matthews earned non-traveling alternate spots for Pan Ams, and Katelyn Jong previously earned an individual spot for Pan Ams by winning the Junior Pan Am Games title in 2021, though she was injured while training vault on Tuesday, so it’s unclear whether she’ll be able to compete or not.

I understand that Carey or Miller could have added more to the team’s scoring potential than some of those who were selected, and that there are very valid arguments for other combinations of athletes, but I love the strategy the selection committee ultimately went with, even if it was by coincidence if they ultimately just went with the all-around rank order from Tuesday’s competition. Either way, what stands out most about this team is that it wasn’t just the right team based on one night, but it was also the right team based on the months of tests that preceded the trial competition. This group of athletes is exactly who I would have selected after nationals, and the potential they have for success in Antwerp is nothing short of tremendous.

Article by Lauren Hopkins

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By: Lauren
Title: Why the U.S. Worlds Team is Perfect and Exactly What We Wanted
Sourced From: thegymter.net/2023/09/22/why-the-u-s-worlds-team-is-perfect-and-exactly-what-we-wanted/
Published Date: Fri, 22 Sep 2023 04:57:49 +0000

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