Five Reasons You Shouldn't Miss This U.S. Gymnastics Nationals
The U.S. gymnastics nationals (called the P&G Championships) start Thursday in Pittsburgh. Since it's August 2014, exactly the midpoint between Olympic Summer Games, it's possible that this competition could sneak by unnoticed, without the looming O-word to get everyone's attention.
But it shouldn't. This national championships will feature some of the best athletes (and most mind-blowing tricks) in the world and provide plenty of intrigue as to which gymnasts will become the next Olympic stars. Here are the five things you should watch for this weekend, along with five trailers that will give you a taste of what to expect:
The most talented American gymnast of all time will be on the floor
Simone Biles may still be under the radar, but she won't be for much longer. Last year, as a rookie to the senior ranks, she won the U.S. national all-around title then topped that by becoming the world all-around champion with a 1.00-point blowout and winning medals in three of the four individual events.
What really sets her apart, however, is her ability to perform massively difficult skills with an ease that few -- if any -- have ever had. Yes, a double-twisting double back is as hard as it sounds. Watch Biles do it and you'll think that it's something gymnasts learn in grade school.
Don't miss the skill named after her on floor (a double layout with a half twist), but really, don't miss any of her routines. She dominated one of the recent qualifying competitions, the U.S. Classic, and is looking even better than she did last year.
You'll never fear balance beam again
If you dread watching the most nerve-racking event in the sport, it's probably because you've never seen someone own a beam routine like Kyla Ross. The 2012 Olympian was the youngest member of the London squad, and in keeping with the ultra-quick life cycle of female gymnasts, she's now the veteran of the national team at only 17. She also has the rare ability to rock beam, even with everything on the line.
Watch Exhibit 1, from the 2013 world championships:
Biles and Ross have been a 1-2 duo since last year's nationals and are as different as two gymnasts can be. Ross is more than a head taller than her slightly younger U.S. teammate and focuses on exceptional technique instead of high difficulty. The result? A classic rivalry -- though for now, Biles certainly has the edge.
The men's field is absolutely stacked
While Ross is the only Olympian on the women's side, the men's competition has all five 2012 Olympians on the roster: Jonathan Horton, John Orozco, Sam Mikulak, Jake Dalton and Danell Leyva. This group led the world in the qualifying round in London then fell to a discouraging fifth in team finals. So you know they are already thinking about Olympic redemption.
The easygoing Mikulak won the U.S. national all-around title last year and is on the rise internationally, and Orozco, the 2012 U.S. champ, is back healthy after two years of on-and-off injuries.
If the Olympians aren't enough for you, the three Olympic alternates are competing as well, including Steven Legendre, who is able to throw vaults that pretty much seem impossible.
We may solve the mystery of Danell Leyva
Leyva was the 2012 Olympic bronze medalist in the all-around and the 2011 world champ on parallel bars and was considered to have near-limitless potential. He even skipped the fun of the post-Olympic tour, a 40-city series of pro gymnastics shows, supposedly to focus on serious training instead.
But then he fell off the map. Leyva finished a disappointing seventh all-around at last year's nationals, withdrew from the world championships team shortly thereafter and has had modest results in 2014.
Will Leyva be one of the best in the world once again? Or is he slowly heading into retirement?
His coach and stepfather Yin Alvarez has consistently added his own sort of spice to competitions, with over-the-top celebrations after every one of Leyva's hit routines.
This one, from 2009, sums up Alvarez's typical reaction:
Will Alvarez be celebrating again this week?
The new Gabby Douglas story could emerge -- and the original may return
Sixteen-year-old Rachel Gowey has never competed at a U.S. nationals before, even as a junior. But she has the benefit of being coached by gym guru Liang Chow. He's the one who took Douglas -- a middle-of-the-pack, seventh-place finisher at the 2011 U.S. nationals -- and turned her into Olympic all-around champion just one year later. (His other famous student? Shawn Johnson, owner of four Olympic medals and possibly the most popular American gymnast of all time.)
It appears Chow has worked his magic again because Gowey has come out of nowhere this year to become a contender for the top three at nationals. Her style has glimmers of Nastia Liukin-like grace, and Gowey combines that with power too -- she completes both the tricky Amanar vault and a back three and a half twist on floor.
For a few short months this year, Gowey was training alongside Douglas at Chow's. In April, after two years mostly out of the gym, Douglas announced an official comeback and said Chow would be her coach. She attended two national team training camps with him and looked to be in fantastic shape -- but then she left Chow's gym abruptly in July and hasn't offered an explanation as to why.
Douglas is now training at a club called Buckeye Gymnastics in Columbus, Ohio, alongside standout junior Nia Dennis. What this means for her comeback plans is unclear; Douglas now says she won't be competing until 2015. Whether she can make it back to the top without Chow will be a question left unanswered for the moment.
For now, Chow is focused on his new protégé -- and she could surprise everyone, starting on Thursday.
Update (8/20): USA Gymnastics has announced that Rachel Gowey injured her ankle on Wednesday during training and, unfortunately, has been forced to withdraw from the competition.