Myriad of motivations, loads of determination mark GK U.S. Classic field
By Blythe Lawrence
LOUISVILLE — Plenty has changed in Simone Biles’ life since last year’s GK U.S. Classic. The reigning Olympic all-around champion has been busy “adulting” — having bought her first house, she’s also discovered some of the startling things that come with owning one’s own place.
“The cleaning!” Biles exclaimed. “You wipe down a counter, you walk by five minutes later, and it’s somehow dirty again…that blows my mind. And all the bills! I try to count how many days I can go without spending, but then my gas runs low or this happens, and I’m always somehow just spending money.”
One thing that hasn’t changed: A year after making her grand return to gymnastics after taking time to breathe following the 2016 Olympics, Biles remains the one to beat. The 22-year-old made that clear during Friday’s podium training session at the KFC Yum! Center, where she took both of her new tumbling passes — a gravity-defying triple-twisting double tuck somersault and a double layout half out to immediate punch front layout — onto the raised competition floor, known as the “podium,” for the first time.
“It’s a good stepping stone for the future meets,” said Biles, who won’t necessarily compete both the new passes at Saturday’s competition. Still, the experience of doing such hard skills in a competition setting is an important part of the learning process, and a stepping stone to next summer’s Olympic Games in Tokyo.
“Leading up to the Olympics, you don’t do too many upgrades, change too many things, just make sure everything’s really consistent,” Biles said after Friday’s training. “This year is a good concrete year to lay out anything that you’ve been wanting to work and put out in front of a crowd.”
“Gaining experience” is one of the themes of this weekend’s Classic, for Biles as well as her peloton of challengers on the U.S. Team. After a fairly quiet spring marked by World Cup appearances here and there, Saturday’s Classic marks the beginning of the season in earnest for elite women gymnasts, who are aiming to qualify for next month’s U.S. Championships in Kansas City, and U.S. National Team members seeking to polish skills or lock down a team spot at the upcoming Pan American Games in Lima, Peru.
Further off into the distance is October’s World Championships, and a good showing at the GK U.S. Classic can help a gymnast make her case for inclusion on that team, too.
For five-time World medalist Morgan Hurd, Louisville is a chance to get back into the game. Hurd’s only competition appearance so far this year came when she won the Tokyo World Cup back in April, and she’s planning to use her weekend to “gain back some confidence and get back into the mode,” she said. The recent high school graduate has undergone her own spate of changes lately, including getting a brand new floor routine, set to a vocals-laden piece of music, and choreography infused with her special variety of poise and expressiveness.
“This routine, I decided I’m a warrior, Amazonian-esque, and going into battle. At the end I’m like mourning the dead,” she laughed. Being done with school has changed her schedule “tremendously,” and for the better, she added: “I take a two-hour nap between practices every day, and it’s great!”
MyKayla Skinner, a two-time World team member who has spent the past three years competing for the University of Utah, comes to Louisville determined to re-stamp her mark on the elite scene, where she believes her Amanar vault would be a key asset to the U.S. team. Older and more experienced, the 22-year-old from Arizona hopes to harness her explosive power on vault and floor, coupling it with the steadiness and attention to detail she’s been able to glean in the NCAA.
“Since I’ve been in college, I’ve been able to narrow down and work on the little things: the execution, the form, just trying to straighten my legs a little bit more. I’m not very flexible, so it is very hard for me, and it was nice going back and taking a step back and being able to work on those things,” Skinner said. “The difficulty is coming — it’s not fully there yet, so I hope by championships I can get it to where I need it to be. Other than that, I’m just going out there and trying to get back from where I left off, and hopefully be even better.”
Fifteen-year-old Leanne Wong, who showed exceptional potential with her win at the American Cup in March, agreed with coach Al Fong’s assessment of her as a silent force. “I’m pretty quiet, but it means I’m really determined to win and work hard,” she said. A spot on the Pan American Games squad is her next big target.
For 2018 World team gold medalists Grace McCallum and Riley McCusker and double World silver-medalist Jade Carey, Louisville is another opportunity to demonstrate what they’re capable of. The competition is an “icebreaker” for the rest of the year, said McCusker, a contender for both the Pan Am and World teams.
“Just going up there, getting the kinks out and having a great meet would be my goal,” she said. “I definitely still get nervous, but I feel like I’ve matured. This is my fourth Classic now. I feel like I definitely know how to handle the nerves a lot better, and I think that’s just something you gain from experience.”