By Gina Pongetti Angeletti

Tonight, the U.S. women participate in the 2017 Worlds qualifier in Montreal to determine who will advance to vie for a possible 10 medals (2 max per country per event – AA, VT, UB, BB, FX).

Feature photo by Grace Chiu

The year after any Olympics is always an interesting one. Marred with politics and speculation of retirements and comebacks, most are quick to look past this individual competition and forward to next year’s team Worlds. They might even have begun packing for Tokyo already. As with the current landscape of this busy world, most forget to simply live in the moment. But the women of Team USA seem to be doing just that here in Montreal.

The U.S. program has had a major rise in success since the early 2000’s. There’s no sign of that rate of success slowing down anytime soon, with the preliminary planning for Tokyo 2020 having already started. These women have the chance to carry on the tradition of success, like with Smith in the all-around and Carey on Vault.

Carryover from Rio is felt here, with half of the team being traveling alternates from the 2016 Olympic Team. Ragan Smith (Texas Dreams) and Ashton Locklear (Everest) are poised and ready.  They have experienced the pressure of training, preparing, dealing with stress and expectations, fighting hard to be ready ‘just in case.’ They find balance with the other half of the team, the two relative newcomers, Morgan Hurd (First State) and Jade Carey (Oasis).

This week, they are the best that the U.S. has, with solid chances at medals in all event finals.

Per many conversations with Martha Karolyi  and Valeri Liukin (the retired and current U.S. Women’s National Team Coordinators, respectively), the key has been pressure. Making sure that the women feel, throughout the year, that a sense of ultimate preparedness is key to performing at their peak. It’s the thought process behind constant verifications, national team camps and never truly knowing that your spot on any team or event is locked. Keeping people on their toes has its downfalls (namely stress and self-doubt), but the results are tangible. The U.S. program is built on this mindset. But, with no veterans chasing at their coattails, are they feeling enough “push” to perform at their best?

Smith, the 17-year-old veteran from Texas, is the U.S.’s best chance at all-around gold. Her positive attitude and drive is paralleled with her coaches Kim Zmeskal-Burdette (Barcelona 1992 team bronze) and husband Chris Burdett’s fine-tuned machine that is Texas Dreams Gymnastics. She broke on the senior scene in 2016 with two major meets under her belt (2016 Pacific Rim Champion (team, BB) and silver at the Jesolo Trophy (AA)) before pushing for U.S. Nationals and, ultimately, Olympic Trials. Smith thrived in her role as an alternate in Rio. Still a young underdog at the time, Smith has transformed as a gymnast in the year since the Olympics, becoming a leader for the young U.S. program in the wake of other veterans’ absence or retirement. Her confidence has obviously increased. Her press interaction has improved. She’s won the all-around crown at both the American Cup and Nationals this year, with poise and grace. She wants her “triple crown” this year… Friday may just be her day.

Behind Smith is first-year senior, Morgan Hurd. At 16 years of age, she is a tiny box of energy. Her laughter, support and unwavering role as a team player is ever-present on the U.S. National Team.  Her sixth-place finish at Nationals this year was her imprint as a solid all-around athlete, preceded by a bronze in the AA at the Stuttgart World Cup and a solid performance to help push for team gold at the City of Jesolo Trophy. She hasn’t earned an individual event title yet, but her ability to be in the mix on all four may be her key, with event specialists growing in percentage in this new Olympic landscape.

Locklear brings a bars and beam focus, as a balance to Carey, whose physicality reminds us of names like all-around Olympic Champion Simone Biles, Alicia Sacramone and McKayla Maroney. Locklear has the most experience on the team, in her fourth year as a senior, springboarded by a team gold medal at 2014 Worlds.  After the Olympics, the event specialization focus took force, leading to a bit of overworking of the shoulder. Locklear had to take some time to rehab prior to 2017 U.S. Classics (only competed beam) and ramping up for Nationals where she stated that she had no doubt she would be recovered and peaked for Worlds selection camp. Apparently, she was right.

Carey was the only US female to present and compete two vaults at Nationals, vying for her spot as a specialist as well for the World’s team. A FIG requirement to perform two different vaults from separate categories, many all-around athletes cannot tolerate the rigors and pure repetition of training two vaults while also performing three other events. Clearly, her floor exercise start value (5.8 at Nationals) places her on the watch list for two possible event medals this weekend.  Her signature this week is, however, a vault named after her: The Carey. It is a tucked position Kasamatsu full and is near the top of the game for D-score. As long as her execution is spot on, the arena should go wild.

Despite this year being an individual event and achievement year, how these women perform as a team and mesh together to make up the “whole” U.S. package is still being observed through every turn and interaction. With solid reports of reigning Olympic Champion Biles returning to the gym, and teammate Laurie Hernandez training as well, the theme is right here, right now. Next year may be a whole different ballgame.

Inside Gymnastics is on-site at the 2017 World Championships and will be bringing you non-stop coverage of the premiere competition of the year! Follow Inside Gymnastics (@insidegym) on social and bookmark on your desktop or laptop for previews, recaps, features, photos and more!