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Just a few pre-meet thoughts about the Senior Covergirl Classic, which begins tonight in Chicago, Illinois:

The Big Story

Alicia Sacramone is the main attraction, hands down.  Watching her beam from podium training, she pretty much looks like the same old Alicia…still very physically fit, sharp and crisp movements, and her trademark punch front skills and layout to two feet.  Looks like she’ll be dismounting with the same two back handsprings to double pike as well.  She’s supposedly performing her same two vaults too…the DTY and a handspring rudi.  All in all, I’d have to say I’m VERY impressed…this comeback is totally for real.  The best sign of all is that her body hasn’t changed at all, and in fact I bet it’s much healthier than it was in Beijing.  From what I’ve seen of comebacks, the ones whose bodies haven’t changed are the ones who prove successful…examples include Svetlana Boguinskaya, Amy Chow, Dominique Dawes, and Paul Hamm.  You don’t recall every seeing them overweight do you?  It’s great to see that Alicia doesn’t look like she’s gained a pound…I’m very excited to see how she does tonight, although the only thing we can ever predict about Alicia is that she’ll be unpredictable.

The All-Around Favorite

Brestyan’s Gymnastics will surely hold the spotlight at this competition, as Alicia’s teammate Aly Raisman has to be considered the favorite for the all-around title here.  She has had an incredible senior breakout year, and she already showed several new skills and combos on beam in podium training (switch-half to back pike, punch front to immediate back handspring layout, and tour je te-half).  I have a strong suspicion she’ll win here, and it will be a great setup for her in preparation for nationals and world selection.  Although her bars is not very strong, she can typically put up a near-14 score, which should be plenty to win if she hits the other three events.

The Two World All-Around Medalists

The top two ranked gymnasts in the world, Bridget Sloan and Rebecca Bross, will be using this competition as a final chance to get their feet wet before battling for the U.S. all-around title again in Hartford, Connecticut in less than three weeks.  After losing the world all-around crown with a fluke mistake on her final tumbling pass in London, Bross has had a successful year, winning both the American Cup and Pacific Rim Championships.  Sloan, on the other hand, has essentially been out of competition since stealing the world title from her teammate, aside from performing one bar routine at the Pacific Rim.  Neither will be competing in the all-around at this competition, but their presence will surely add immensely to the level of competition in Chicago.

Other Key Challengers

All Olympia’s Mattie Larson and Samantha Shapiro and Texas Dreams’ Chelsea Davis have to be considered the next big story at this competition, as all three have been injured and out of competition for the majority of the last two years.  We’ve seen glimpses of all three on the comeback trail this year, but this competition will be their biggest test.  Larson showed a magnificent double layout and her trademark beautiful triple full on floor in podium training, indicating that her ankle is no longer an issue.  Shapiro has thickened up a little – though not in a bad way – and showed her characteristic gorgeous style on beam during practice.  Bars is certainly the area where she could contribute the most, but in podium training she had turned her in-bar stalder skills into toe-on skills…a huge decrease in value.  She still has a great swing, but she’ll need more difficulty than that if she wants to be a bars specialist on the world team.  And Chelsea Davis is a fierce and determined competitor, overcoming some serious back problems over the last two years to salvage her elite career.  Her bars in podium training looked very good, and if her other events are equally solid she could certainly be a surprise all-around threat at this meet.

CGA’s Cassie Whitcomb will also be looking to make this her breakout year.  She wasn’t quite ready for a world team spot on last year’s four-woman squad, but with six spots available, is there room for Cassie?  Many think so, as she has added some difficulty to her technically precise bar routine, including a beautiful stalder-piked Tcatchev.  A typical Cincinatti product, Whitcomb is a solid all-around gymnast who is very strong on bars and beam, pretty good on floor, and weak on vault.  Cassie’s biggest advantage is that most of the other world team contenders are weak on bars, and the USA will need a third bar worker to add to Bross and Sloan.  Tonight’s competition will be Cassie’s first big chance to prove she’s it.

The New Kids on the Block

Several of the top junior competitors from last year’s junior national championships will be looking to make a splash in their first year as seniors.  Amanda Jetter (CGA), Morgan Smith (Brandy Johnson’s), Briley Casanova (WOGA), Sophia Lee (WOGA), and Sophina DeJesus (SCEGA) will all have a chance to prove they belong with the big girls in this tune-up competition for the upcoming Visa U.S. Championships.

Injured or Not?

Will Kayla Williams and Kytra Hunter be competing in Chicago?  I’ve heard rumors from both sides, so we’ll have to find out for sure this evening.  Both are not only two of the USA’s most powerful tumblers and vaulters, but two of the most powerful gymnasts in the world.  It’s hard to imagine 2009 world vault champ Kayla Williams NOT being named to this year’s world team, but after she was out of training and gym-hopping for a period and is now challenged by both Sacramone – America’s most successful vaulter of all time – and Aly Raisman, one of our hottest new vaulters as well, her spot is completely up in the air.  And Kytra Hunter has made an international name for herself over the past year with a stunning full-twisting double layout and one of the biggest DTY’s around, but an injury has slowed her training recently.  If healthy and ready to compete tonight, Hunter could shake up things not only on her specialties, but in the all-around as well.