U.S. gymnastics nationals brings a mix of brilliance, injuries, questions
Just two months before the World Gymnastics Championships in Tokyo and a year before the London Olympics, the U.S. teams emerged from the nationals in St. Paul, Minn., with a tablet of uncertainty.
At the top, Danell Leyva, 19, and Jordyn Wieber, 16, fulfilled a well of promise by taking their first senior national all-around titles. But the inexperienced men's team still has holes to fill and a women's team of established returnees endured mixed results and ailments.
Six gymnasts per team will compete in Tokyo, but with only five each filling the rosters in London, the U.S. Olympic teams, as gymnasts tend to be, are very much up in the air. The men's squad in Tokyo will feature Jake Dalton, Jonathan Horton, Steven Legendre, Leyva, Alex Naddour and John Orozco. The women's world team squad will be chosen after two training camps next month.
Here's a post-nationals status report of some key names:
Wieber was anointed as the next superstar of USA Gymnastics even before competing in her first national championship as a senior last weekend. Wieber had already won two American Cup titles and mowed down the fields as a junior. Last year, however, she hurt both ankles on her first event at USAs and had to withdraw from the meet. She has no apparent technical weakness. Wieber also sports a superb Amanar (round-off vault with 2½ twists) that ranks with the best, she kips twice on the low bar at the start of her uneven bar routine in the way the men usually do on the high bar, and she ends the routine with a double-twisting double-back dismount.
She has never been very expressive -- her coach, John Geddert, says she was a "robot" at age 10 -- but has been working on ballet and dance to improve that. Geddert says she is still checking too many of her skills out of caution at this point. To avoid burnout, her coaches have held her out of some of the team's selection and training camps.
Bross' status is uncertain after she suffered a scary dislocated right kneecap on vault. She was low and late pulling the final twist of a Yurchenko double full and never got square to the mat before she landed. But even before the injury, the defending champ didn't look right, falling from the beam on both nights. She also missed a reverse Hecht skill on bars that is virtually second nature to her. However, Bross is strong willed and businesslike. Last year she came back with four world medals after breaking her foot, but the setback is sure to test her in the run-up to London.
Sacramone admitted that her goal in returning to the sport last season was to redeem herself for mistakes in the team finals at the Beijing Olympics. By winning a gold medal on vault at the world championships last year, she upped her world and Olympic medal total to 10. Yet again in St. Paul she fell on a tumbling pass (2½ twist to punch front) that has given her trouble before.
The 2005 world all-around champion was off to a strong start at nationals when she had the top beam score on the first night. She featured a new floor routine with four tumbling passes, including two front and two backward passes, but her vault and conditioning are not yet up to par. Unfortunately, Memmel could not close as well as she opened, and was unable to get through her uneven bars routine in the final rotation. She fell twice on a simple giant swing-pirouette combination and called it a night, placing an ice bag on the right shoulder that was surgically repaired in 2006. She says she will be well enough to attend the team camps and would be available, if needed, for Tokyo.
The Cuban-born Leyva had a breakthrough meet in St. Paul. He possesses four release skills on high bar with great extension on his Kovacs skills. He also has superb swings on parallel bars and one of the best combination skills (peach-Diamidov) in the world in the event.
After Leyva clinched his crown on Saturday, teammate Jonathan Horton walked over to him on the floor and said, "You do that in Tokyo and I won't mind at all." And watching Leyva's arm-waving stepfather/coach Yin Alvarez guide him through a routine is as much fun as watching Leyva himself.
The two-time defending U.S. all-around champion finished second behind Leyva, but may still be the team's best hope for an all-around medal in Tokyo. In St. Paul, Horton never recovered after an early fall off of the pommel horse, which is his notoriously weak event that hinders his all-around score.
"I jumped up like a little scaredy cat," Horton said. "I was off balance on my first circle and by the third circle I was off the horse. The routine is not hard, but it was in my head."
Horton watered down his rings routine by three-tenths to protect a sore shoulder (he had an MRI earlier in the week that revealed swelling, but no tears), which also detracted from his score.
After accepting an assistant coaching position at Ohio State, the all-around gold medalist from the Athens Olympics was on the floor coaching in St. Paul. Though he won't be in Tokyo this year, Hamm still has his eyes on a return to the Olympics in 2012, when he will be a month shy of his 30th birthday. Hamm is seven months removed from shoulder surgery, and says he is close to full speed on floor and pommel horse, two of his better events, 75-percent ready on parallel bars and horizontal bar, and barely starting on rings and vault.
"I got hurt when I tried to come back four years ago, and it just fueled the fire," Hamm said. "I still feel like there's something there."
Hamm may actually benefit from the team's weakness on the pommel horse, an event in which he has won multiple national championships and can still add support to the squad.
As just mentioned, the U.S. men have a salient weakness on the pommel horse. To stabilize the team on that apparatus, the U.S. added Oklahoma Sooner Alex Naddour, the NCAA champion on pommels. He may well compete in the team final -- three gymnasts compete and all scores count -- in just that one event. Naddour posted the two highest marks of the meet (15.400 and 15.700) on pommels at the U.S. championships.