If there were any questions as to whether Simone Biles was an inconsistent gymnast after her off night at the CoverGirl Classic in Illinois two weeks ago, her performance on the first day of competition at the 2013 U.S. Championships probably answered them: Biles is a contender, no doubt about it.
The 16-year-old from Spring, Texas ripped through four extremely difficult routines as competition for the U.S. title got underway Thursday. Biles tallied a grand total of 60.5, averaging an impressive 15.125 for each apparatus.
That was 0.75 ahead of her nearest competitor, 2012 Olympic team gold medalist Kyla Ross, who performed cleanly on all four events in spite of a whirlwind year that included winning Olympic gold, participating in the post-Olympic Tour of Champions and growing about four inches, all of which can make training more difficult.
Though Ross seemed to a slight favorite for the women's title going into the meet, Biles literally overpowered her, using her explosiveness on floor (double twisting double tuck, double layout, 2.5 twist to front layout and full twisting double back), beam (two back handsprings to stuck full twisting double tuck dismount) and vault, where her Amanar gave her a half-point advantage, to leave the ever-consistent Ross three quarters of a point behind her. She ended with the highest scores on beam (14.95) and floor (15.05).
For the first time since the Tropheo di Jesolo this spring, Biles attempted a second vault, nailing a beautiful roundoff, half on, front layout half off, which with her Amanar puts her in contention for a vault medal at Worlds, in company with names like McKayla Maroney, 2008 Olympic vault champion Hong Un Jong (PRK), European vault champion Giulia Steingruber (SUI), Alexa Moreno (MEX) and Ksenia Afanasyeva (RUS).
But Ross looked solid too, especially on vault, where she threw a beautiful stuck double twisting Yurchenko, as on bars, where getting taller has just made her routine smoother and more elegant. She had a few nervous breaks on beam but handled all of them with her almost preternatural calm. On floor, she threw four passes containing double saltos (Arabian double front, full in tuck, double pike and double tuck), appearing slightly winded at the end of the routine. She totaled 59.75 thanks to a 15.5 on bars, the highest score of the night on that event by half a point.
Biles's abilities have never been in question, but her consistency at performing such difficult routines was. At the U.S. Classic, she fell from the bars and on floor, grabbed the beam to stay on and crashed her vault in the warmup. After that, Biles and her coaches made the decision not to vault, costing her a shot at the all-around title (which went to Ross) but also giving her a blank page to start with at the U.S. Championships. (She can also now say that she didn't get beaten by Ross at the Classic since she withdrew, a subtle psychological advantage.)
Maroney, whose return to the gym hasn't been stopped by online fame, three leg surguries following a fractured tibia or a budding TV acting career, showed strong routines on floor (double layout, 2.5 to punch layout full, double Arabian and double pike) and her usual spectacular vaulting abilities to take the top spot on vault (15.5) and second on floor (14.85). Maroney has not been shy about wanting to go to the Rio Olympics, nor has she been cautious about training bars and beam in front of the cameras in Hartford. Although she only did two events, she does show potential as an all-around gymnast.
GAGE's Brenna Dowell, who won the Mexican Open last October after finishing ninth at the 2012 Olympic Trials, came to Hartford with hugely upgraded routines on all events. On night one, she showed off her new Amanar vault and a daring Tkatchev half combination on bars. Though sitting third at the moment behind Biles and Ross, Dowell has the potential to improve her standing on night two with hit routines. She has already made an excellent case for her inclusion on the World Championships team, the invisible prize everyone in Hartford is chasing.
Notes: Texas Dreams's Bailie Key leads the Junior all-around race with 59.2 points after a solid four-event performance. Lauren Hernandez of MG Elite might not have been quite as solid as Biles, but put on a show as she always does on floor and was clean on vault and bars to finish second (58.0).
The talented Nia Dennis of Buckeye Gymnastics in Ohio is sitting third with 57.2, ahead of Amelia Hundley of Cincinnatti Gymnastics, who fell from the beam on a punch front and totalled 56.725.
2012 Junior National Champion Lexie Priessman looked good during podium training, but withdrew from the competition as a precaution after straining her Achilles.
Props to Texas Dreams's Kennedy Baker for being the gymnast with some of the most original elements in the entire competition. Baker's beam featured a Humphrey turn (triple turn in sit position), which she followed up with a double turn in sit position for good measure, as well as a Patterson dismount (Arabian double front), the only one done in the competition.
Elizabeth Price, the only 2012 Olympic team alternate to compete in Hartford, is recovering from hip injuries and was only showed vault (double twisting Yurchenko) and uneven bars on day one. Price told reporters that she is preparing her routine on beam and tumbling on floor as well, but is not rushing her recovery.
Familiar faces: USA Gymnastics's livestream of the competition was excellent, and they made sure that videos of almost every performance made it onto their Youtube channel. Amongst the judges were some familiar faces, including 2005 World champion Chellsie Memmel judging bars and 2012 Olympic alternate Anna Li as a line judge on floor.