In a way, the junior competition at the P&G Championships was more exciting than the senior competition because of the sheer number of kids who could have ultimately challenged for the all-around podium.
In the end, things worked like clockwork for the kid who was pegged to win. Bailie Key, the fourteen-year-old who trains at Texas Dreams, was technically solid from start to finish during both days of competition. Even on bars, her weakest event, she looked mostly clean. When she came off the podium after hitting both days, she tried to play it cool, but the smile peeking out was one of both pride and relief. Key has super difficulty…and the execution to match.
It’s easy to find juniors throwing crazy skills they’re not quite ready for, but watching one who looks as polished and perfect as Key is incredibly rare. She was fully prepared and ready to win; it would have taken something spectacular to oust her from the top spot.
Thirteen-year-old Laurie Hernandez of MG Elite is almost that something. The polar opposite of Key, Hernandez – who moved up from 21st place last year to the silver medal this year and boosted her two-day all-around total by about 15 full points – lacks some of the polish and perfection but makes up for it in spades with her intense personality and exciting routines.
That’s not to say that she’s messy; on the contrary, she’s an incredibly perfectionistic sort of kid who attacks the bars with a look of total destruction in her eyes after a fall or a messy skill in warm-ups – and then she nails it the second time around. She hit well in competition, but tends to focus more on charming the crowd than on the finite details of every landing and skill.
Of course, what matters most in the elite code of points is that perfect combination of difficulty and execution, so Key became the junior champion while Hernandez came in a close second…though it was Hernandez who gained national attention for her unique style, especially after NBC chose to air her floor routine during the broadcast of the senior competition.
The best comparison I can make is to Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis in the film Black Swan; they’re both incredible at what they do, but have entirely different takes on the sport; put them together and you pretty much have the perfect gymnast. Together, they’re an incredibly promising pair; hopefully as they continue to grow as athletes, they’ll learn a thing or two from watching one another at camps and in competition.
Then there’s Amelia Hundley, the fifteen-year-old from Cincinnati Gymnastics who took the bronze medal (even with a fall on her front tuck on beam in prelims). Despite Hundley’s presence in the U.S. junior field since 2010 (“I feel like I’ve been a junior FOREVER!” she joked with the press), this is her first all-around medal at a National Championship meet, though steady improvement year after year makes this a natural progression.
Hundley is like the Aly Raisman of her generation – she’s solid and steady across the board and could be counted on to hit even her weakest event if she knew her team was depending on her. Nothing she does is really flashy; the potential to upgrade is there, but she tends to choose a clean and steady routine over debuting a cool but potentially dangerous upgrade.
She really wants to connect her Ricna to pak on bars, for example; though she hits it in training and warmups, her form on the pak is sloppy and would take so much in deductions it’d negate the point of the connection, so she takes a swing between and both skills are gorgeous. It will be interesting to see how she fits into the equation as a senior next year. I definitely see her filling the role Raisman played on the Worlds team in 2010, but would love to see her upgrade in order to have a standout event or two that will set her apart from the competition.
The remainder of the top eight – Nia Dennis, Norah Flatley, Nica Hults, Alyssa Baumann, and Polina Shchennikova – are the same athletes who made the top eight at the Secret U.S. Classic a few weeks earlier, so it’s no surprise this is the core group chosen by Martha Karolyi to represent the junior national team.
Dennis really stands out as someone who will be huge if she can get some of her huge skills under control. She easily would have placed third had she not fallen twice on her Gabby Douglas-esque Tkatchevs on day two, and some of her other standout skills – the DTY on vault, the standing arabian on beam – also give us a glimpse into the kind of athlete she’ll be as a senior. Flatley, meanwhile, doesn’t quite have the difficulty at this point (beam aside; she’s miles above the competition here) but she really doesn’t need it for the time being. Her coach Liang Chow knows pacing better than any elite coach in the country, so I wouldn’t expect to see a more difficult vault or big bars and floor skills until she absolutely needs to show them.
I’m a longtime fan of Hults and am beyond thrilled to finally see her make her first national team. Her bars and beam are incredible, both difficult yet beautifully executed, and I can see her serving a specialist role in this capacity as a senior. Baumann, who last competed as an elite in 2010, has dealt with injuries over the past three years and was surprised to get this national team spot on her first try since she was twelve. She shows promise on bars, but really stands out on beam and floor, where her presentation is just lovely.
Finally, Shchennikova continues to struggle a bit on her routines, especially when her difficulty is a bit too much for her. She has so many great skills and combinations on bars, for example, but doesn’t yet have the ability to tie it all together to make it a clean and solid routine. Still, I am glad Karolyi gave her another chance to gain international experience because with some work, she shows immense promise for the future.
While this group is easily the strongest of the bunch and fits the bill of “most likely to succeed” in terms of their current abilities, they do not comprise an exhaustive list of those with huge potential. The majority of the athletes competing were first year elites without the difficulty to really contend with the top girls; though you may see some big skills here and there (Grace Quinn’s triple full dismount from beam or Ragan Smith’s double arabian on floor, for example), the routines as a whole will build as the athletes age and grow. Lately, Karolyi has been inviting the younger juniors to national team training camps whether they’re on the national team or not; development is the goal, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see many of this year’s new kids on next year’s team.
Worth mentioning are the numerous injuries that knocked down a handful of junior athletes between training and competitions throughout the week. Alexandra Marks re-injured her ankle while dismounting bars during podium training, Ashley Foss dislocated her kneecap on the training day between prelims and finals, Emily Schild hit her head on the vault after balking on her Yurchenko during warm-ups on day two (though she decided to compete and hit an incredible floor routine later that day!), and Felicia Hano got a concussion after slipping off of the low bar at the start of her van Leeuwen during finals. We wish all of these athletes the best of luck and hope to see them return to elite competition next year.
Following the completion of Championships, top two finishers Bailie Key and Laurie Hernandez were selected to represent Team USA at a junior competition in Japan to be held September 22-25. Good luck ladies!
Article by Lauren Hopkins
Photo by USA Gymnastics