Monday, December 20, 2010

USA WAG: The Year Ahead (Part I)

       After winning team silvers in Athens and Beijing, the United States faces a daunting task to make the third time the charm in London.  With Russia’s formidable trio of Komova, Mustafina, and Grishina, and the next wave of underage Chinese darlings sure to come, the United States is put in shaky stead to get an Olympic team gold, something not done since 1996. 
       The United States women were the third best women’s team entering the 2010 Worlds team finals; yet numerous mistakes from Russia and China could have enabled the Americans to win.  They almost pulled it off, losing by two tenths, yet the girls didn’t because one of the most disastrous routines from a top American gymnast in memory: Mattie Larson’s floor.  While the depth of the 2010 women’s field was a far cry from that seen in 2004, the field is bound to improve in the coming two years.  With potential comebacks from Shawn Johnson and Nastia Liukin and talented juniors coming up, the United States team, although perhaps not the favorite, cannot be counted out for a gold medal in Tokyo or London.

2010 World Team

 Rebecca Bross-  Coming back from a stress fracture, Bross is eligible for American Cup but is doubtful to compete again until July at the U.S. Classic.  Her bars alone make her a lock for this year’s World Championship team, and her beam and floor sets will be some of the highest scores for the States on those events.  Bross’s stress fracture could be a blessing in disguise, as it will give her more time to upgrade uneven bars, perhaps the only apparatus she is capable of significantly upgrading.  A lock for the World team, the questions surrounding Bross lie in the bigger picture.  Although considered a strong contender two years in a row for a World all-around title, she lost the gold on her last floor pass in 2009 and really didn’t have a chance to begin with in 2010 with Mustafina in peak form.  This year, Bross should merely be fighting for a spot on the podium, and with Komova and Wieber turning senior, her chances for a first World AA title seem out of reach.  Individual medals on beam and floor are possible, although an event final is what is most attainable on bars unless if she upgrades.  UB upgrades are also helpful for the team and Bross’s own AA medal chances.
Mackenzie Caquatto- Off to UF

Chelsea Davis-   Out for the entirety of 2009, Davis made a comeback at the 2010 Covergirl Classic, where she tied for 5th on bars.  She competed all-around for the first time in over two years at the Visa Championships, where she placed 5th overall and 5th again on bars with a fall on the second day.  Davis was chosen for the training squad going to Rotterdam, and it actually looked as though she would be selected to perform in prelims.  Unfortunately, right before the selection was to be made, Davis dislocated her right knee, taking her out of contention.  Davis really had a lot more to gain than lose by competing in Rotterdam, because her chances for any major team in the future are relatively slim but not entirely impossible due to her bars strength.  For a World team, Davis needs Liukin to prolong her time away until 2012, which seems likely to happen. She will also need to beat Sloan and upcoming senior McKenzie Wofford, among others, on that event at Nationals. 

Mattie Larson-  Larson actually became a decent competitor for a short while at the 2010 Covergirl Classic, where she won, and at the 2010 Visa Championships, where she finished second AA and first on floor exercise.  An exquisite, polished gymnast, Larson was a fan favorite entering Worlds.  Yet her headcase ways returned in Rotterdam, and she found herself falling on a double layout in prelims.  But that was just the tip of the iceberg.  Martha Karolyi risked putting Larson up on floor in team finals, and the result was catastrophic:  Larson completely omitted her front somi after her 2 1/2, costing her a point for missing two EGRs, and she later fell on a double pike.  At the time, Aunt Joyce declared that Larson’s Olympic dream ended that day, and I must agree.  However, it’s difficult to say just how in contention Larson would have been this year even if she hasn’t bombed at Worlds.  Larson isn’t in the top three in the country anywhere but floor.  It’s difficult to see Larson gaining 0.7 on Raisman via floor — 0.7 she will need once Raisman’s Amanar surfaces — and Raisman has the additional advantage of being a superior competitor.  Even if Raisman’s Amanar fails to materialize, Maroney has one of the best Amanars in the world, and solid floor lineups can still be made around three of Wieber, Bross, Johnson, Sacramone, and Raisman. 

Alexandra Raisman-  Raisman may have substandard leaps, void artistry, and Brestyan-quality bars, but she came through for the team in Rotterdam and is looking to maximize her potential acrobatically with an Amanar on vault and a Dos Santos on floor.  A surprise pick for the 2010 American Cup, Raisman performed superbly en route to finishing second.  She repeated that placement at the Pacific Rim Championships and went on to finish 3rd AA at the Visa Championships in Hartford.  Although a sure bet for the team, few expected her to perform so well, and be scored so well, in Rotterdam.  Raisman finished third all-around in qualifications and made floor finals, finishing fourth.  Interestingly, after performing well for the team, she faltered when her own pride was at stake during the all-around, where a disastrous bars spot plummeted her to 13th.  In spite of that disappointment, Raisman should be on this year’s World team if she has her Amanar mastered.  Assuming she has the upgraded vault, Raisman will be considered ahead of Maroney because of Raisman’s strong advantages on beam and floor.  Shawn Johnson’s comeback is something Raisman should be worried about, but perhaps not for this year.  Johnson’s Amanar is questionable to surface for the coming year because of her knee and former tendency to underrotate, thus ensuring Raisman’s advantage there.

Alicia Sacramone-  The big question for Sacramone in 2011 is whether she adds floor, an event she is resistant to compete for injury concerns.  Sacramone has stated in an Inside Gymnastics interview that she can still do her tumbling passes from 2008, so it really is a matter of assessing the field and knowing whether she has to do it this year.  It is doubtful, however, that she needs floor to make this year’s World team.  The United States has a good floor line-up: Bross, Raisman, and Wieber, athletes who can all contribute elsewhere, and that is ignoring what Johnson can bring to the table with her comeback.  Sacramone has voiced plans to upgrade on vault and beam.  Her proposed upgrades on vault (handspring double twist and Amanar) are especially ambitious, but unlikely considering that she is in a late stage of her career and has still never attempted either vault.  A punch front+BHS+back pike is the most logical upgrade on beam, but even that one will require much effort, as Sacramone has never been great at connecting skills on beam.

Bridget Sloan-  An Olympian in 2008 and World Champion in 2009, Sloan battled injuries for much of 2010 and didn’t prove her worth to the World team until she actually competed in Rotterdam.  Sloan qualified to the uneven bar final and finished 4th, and she remains a threat for a World team based on that apparatus alone.  She is also usable on floor, although her contribution on vault is over unless she is to upgrade to an Amanar.  Even a healthy and peaked Sloan is not a lock for a World team this year and certainly not an Olympic team in 2012.  If by the off chance Liukin shows up to Visa Championships this year, even just doing bars, that spells bad news bears for Sloan.  With Wieber and Bross as locks, the U.S. is going to look for one more spot to fill on bars, and Liukin has far more scoring potential there than Sloan.  Add to that the U.S. is stacked on vault, they don’t need her on beam, and her floor spot can be taken by a number of girls (Johnson, Raisman, Sacramone, Wieber).

Part II:  Analysis of U.S. juniors coming up and comebacks from Johnson and Liukin.