Winter Cup Solidifies Super Hero Status

By Christy Sandmaier

When Jordan Chiles solidly lands a full-in dismount off beam with all eyes on her the first time she’s attempted it in competition en route to the win, and Laurie Hernandez debuts a floor routine with music from the Hamilton score in her comeback meet, all suddenly can seem right in the world of gymnastics for a moment or two.

And so it went with Winter Cup over the weekend, the first step back to gymnastics in front of judges for most of the athletes in a little over a year. While the story will continue to write itself as the countdown to Tokyo ticks on, here are a few of our reflections from the women’s competition in Indianapolis.

Chiles Sends A Message

With her Spiderman-themed floor routine and soaring confidence, Jordan Chiles captured the first-ever Winter Cup Senior Women’s All-around title. For decades, Winter Cup has been exclusively a men’s event, but this year the competition featured an expanded field that included both men’s and women’s junior and senior artistic gymnasts.

Chiles, who trains with Cecile and Laurent Landi at World Champions Centre along with Simone Biles, was strong from start to finish opening on floor and finishing on beam. She’s always been known for the power events and didn’t disappoint here with four solid tumbling passes including a sky-high, very solid double layout 1/1 (Chusovitina) to open for a 13.6. She posted the highest score on vault for her double twisting Yurchenko with a 14.9. 

But where Chiles stood out most in this meet for us was in her improvement on bars where she posted a 14.050, and beam where she was the final competitor in Saturday’s competition. With the first place position on the line, Chiles was calm, cool and collected throughout the routine, completing the now almost obligatory side aerial to layout step out layout step out as if it was a walk in the park. And, as the final exclamation point to a competition that was the best we’ve seen from her in a long time (and probably ever), she landed the full-twisting double back dismount she competed for the first time ever in competition. There was small hop forward, yes, but for her, it was mission accomplished.

The UCLA-bound Chiles, who says she contemplated heading for Westwood early on during the pandemic and foregoing her shot at the Games, was all smiles this weekend where she posted a 57.050 total for the win, automatically qualifying to the 2021 U.S. Senior Women’s National Team. Following the meet when asked what being coached by Cecile and Laurent has brought to her gymnastics and what she’s most proud of, Chiles told the media: “I think, everything. I found my love for the sport… I found my physical and mental health.” 

We absolutely loved seeing Chiles embrace competition this way and not be afraid to let everyone see her personality and hear her voice. And with this win, Chiles also hopes to send a message to the selection committee: “I put what I know and how I am as a person out there. I showed people what they needed to see.”

In the All-around standings, Shilese Jones, who completed a very solid competition including much-improved bars and beam sets and was leading after two rotations, finished second with a (55.100), followed by Emily Lee at 53.400.

Full results can be found here.

In an Era of Masks, Hernandez’ Smile Still Shines the Brightest

The competition also stamped the very much-anticipated return of Rio gold and silver medalist Laurie Hernandez.

Competing for the first time in four and half years and donning her Captain Marvel-inspired leotard, the 20 year-old showed up to impress and showed much of the fabulous sass and personality that fans remember so well from the Rio quad. She didn’t show full difficulty on floor or beam, the two events she competed, but Winter Cup proved to be a great launching pad.

While the nerves were certainly there for Hernandez who said at first it all felt “terrifying”, she also showed up to have fun. We got a relaxed smile out of her before warmups, where she was in the zone and headphones on with new coach Jenny Zhang by her side. Zhang, who also coached the legendary Kyla Ross, together with Howie Liang at Gym-Max, have provided a calming, caring atmosphere for Hernandez. After the competition speaking to the media, Hernandez noted that Zhang, who saw her struggling in warmups with tumbling, asked her to take out some of the difficulty in her floor routine so Hernandez could simply focus on “just enjoying the competition.” What they’re doing is working and it’s refreshing, to say the very, very least.

Following the meet, Hernandez took to Twitter posting clips of her new Hamilton floor routine and tagging Lin Manuel Miranda and Leslie Odom Jr.: “hey @Lin_Manuel @leslieodomjr, what do y’all think of my new floor routine” which Odom retweeted and congratulated her, emphasizing how impressed he was. It’s just one of the many, many positives Hernandez will take home from this competition. 

She also received the stamp of approval from Captain Marvel actress Brie Larson after posting: “Ok so I told some of y’all that my leos I designed for this year are all inspired by superheroes… here’s the first one! @brielarson queen do u approve?? #captainmarvel” – Larson herself responded with, “Consider this my formal stamp of approval!!”

For us, seeing Hernandez smile wide even through her mask throughout the meet, her eyes bright and that fist pump as she came down from the podium after hitting beam was everything. And wherever the next steps in her journey take her, she’s already won.

Game On

Very much on the Road to Tokyo are Jade Carey, Sunisa Lee, Riley McCusker and Konnor McClain.

Carey, who has already mathematically qualified for an individual spot in Tokyo, chose to sit out floor this competition but impressed on vault, bars and beam. She told us before the competition she was “very improved on bars and beam. Beam, overall my form has improved and just being more confident. Bars, I’ve been working a lot of new skills and I’m excited to compete a new connection and new dismount this meet.” She didn’t compete the double double bars dismount but the new combinations including the Ezhova were right there and competition-ready. On beam, she was super-solid. 

It’s wonderful to see Carey really focus on being a four-event gymnast, when it could have been easier to just continue to maintain her vault and floor and still be in medal-contention in Tokyo. Instead, she’s chosen to up her game even further everywhere and be ready to compete for Team USA wherever they need her most. It speaks to her character and the plan she and her coach (and dad) Brian Carey have put in place.

Carey’s teammate at Arizona Sunrays, Riley McCusker, also opted to compete just vault, bars and beam and had a great comeback competition going until beam where she was claimed by the wolf turn and put her hands down on her double back dismount. McCusker’s very evident improved strength and new-found confidence is right there however, and while we didn’t see a full floor routine from her here, the peace on her face during her dance thru in podium training did not go unnoticed. 

Earlier in the February, McCusker spoke to the Olympic Channel about finding her joy in the sport again following a tumultuous couple of years. That joy was apparent as she appeared more relaxed here than we’ve ever seen her in training and in competition – laughing, smiling and cheering on her teammates, and doing some incredible gymnastics along the way (her bars are better than ever and she’s displayed some awesome power on vault!). 

It seems McCusker and Carey have brought out the best in each other gymnastically for sure. But what was most fun was seeing their comradeship throughout training and the competition. It’s a match that’s going to take them far.

Come time for choosing the team for Tokyo, we believe McCusker is going to be right there.

And then there’s Sunisa Lee, the current world silver-medalist on floor and bronze-medalist on bars. After a tough year taking time off during the pandemic and recovering from an ankle injury, Lee did beam and bars in Indianapolis, opting to continue to rest her ankle and pace herself throughout the long Olympic year. Asked by the AP if he was concerned about her getting back to full strength on all four events by the Games, National Team Coordinator Tom Forster says he has “no doubt” Lee will be ready.

Some of the best soundbytes of the weekend came from Lee who, when asked about her outrageous bars combinations (Nabieva to Bhardwaj, van Leeuwen – piked jaeger to Pak to Maloney to Gienger here) and how she decides which ones to compete, said, “I just chuck a bunch of skills and then my coach and I decide what we think will work best.” She said the routine she competed Saturday was her “B routine”, which by the way, registered a 6.5 in difficulty. If a 6.5 D score is her “B” routine, we’re already beside ourselves over the “A.”

Just in time to make a run for Tokyo is Konnor McClain.

She competed on vault and beam here, scoring 14.7 and 14.0, respectively. There’s something captivating about McClain, especially on beam. Her sky-high layout, Onodi and back tuck full were all confident and beautifully done. Her leaps are gorgeous, too. Seated as close to the beam as we were, it was fun to see the look of confidence on her face and certainty in her skills throughout the routine. Although it’s early, we believe McClain could be there this summer to surprise everyone at Trials and beyond. She’s got the look of a star for sure.

Team USA

With so many contenders for the U.S. team in Tokyo, the excitement and anticipation will only build from here as we head to Olympic Trials and the deciding moment.

Biles, and world champions Kara Eaker, Morgan Hurd, and Grace McCallum, Rio alternate MyKayla Skinner, and 2019 American Cup Champion Leanne Wong all stayed home, opting instead to wait to show off full routines until Classic in May or Championships in June. Kayla DiCello, the 2019 U.S. Junior National Champion and 2020 American Cup runner up was also expected to compete in Indianapolis. And, of course, we have to mention the extraordinary comeback effort of Chellsie Memmel, the 2005 World All-around Champion and 2008 Olympic silver medalist. If Chellsie is in a competition, Chellsie is a factor, and no one can count her out.

In the end, the competition and the shining women’s field at Winter Cup marked an exciting moment in the sport as the athletes returned to the floor ready to compete. The year away from competition was the ultimate challenge and the competitors here truly rose to the occasion throwing new skills, displaying improved execution, and doing what great athletes do – staring down an obstacle and coming out stronger. 

And while the Road to Tokyo “Take 2” is still long and winding, the U.S. women proved once again this weekend that super-hero status has already been achieved.

Photo credits: Lloyd Smith

Look for more on Winter Cup and our Road to Tokyo series in the March/April Issue of Inside Gymnastics Magazine! Click Here to Subscribe!