The annual Visa U.S. Championships are set to begin this week in St. Paul, Minnesota. As it has traditionally done over the last several years, the competition will serve several major roles on both the men’s and women’s sides: 1.) To name the 2011 U.S. national champions in the all-around as well as on every individual event, 2.) To name the 2011 national team members who will be eligible to represent the United States internationally over the next year, and 3.) To serve as a qualifying step for the 2011 world championship team to represent the United States in Tokyo, October 8-16th. For the men, the world championship team is expected to be announced following the Visa U.S. Championships, unless some unexpected “petitions” complicate the process. For the women, this competition will merely help the women’s selection committee choose which gymnasts will move on to the final world selection camp to be held in September, and the final world team will be announced some time after the conclusion of the camp.
This year’s competition promises to be the most fierce national championships of the quadrennial thus far, as we’re now just one year away from the 2012 Olympic Games in London. This week marks the return to the national stage of 2008 Olympians Chellsie Memmel and Shawn Johnson and 2009 world team member Tim McNeill, all of whom have refueled their Olympic aspirations and made major comebacks to the sport. We’ll also enjoy some exciting rivalries on both the men’s and women’s sides, with young stars Jordyn Wieber and Danell Leyva both in prime positions to upset reigning national all-around champions Rebecca Bross and Jonathan Horton. And finally, the selection process for the final and most important world championships of this Olympic cycle will be officially underway in just a couple of days.
Let’s take a look at five major storylines to follow on the women’s side this week in St. Paul:
Wieber vs. Bross. It’s like Shawn vs. Nastia all over again, only Jordyn Wieber and Rebecca Bross actually have quite similar styles. As a first-year senior, Jordyn Wieber has already overturned the reigning world all-around champion Aliya Mustafina at this year’s American Cup and will be looking to do the same to reigning national all-around champion Rebecca Bross this week in St. Paul. While Wieber has enjoyed a stellar senior breakout year, Bross has been on the injury mend and has essentially been out of competition since the world championships last October. With Wieber having more recent competitions under her belt, Bross will need to rely heavily on her international experience and multiple world medals from 2009 and 2010 to defend her national title. Although Wieber does throw a much more difficult vault than Bross, across all four events these two powerhouses are quite evenly matched in terms of overall difficulty and scoring potential. Stuck landings on dismounts, vaults, and tumbling passes will all be critical, as the gymnast among these two who hits the eight cleanest routines this week will likely be the 2011 national champion. Look for Aly Raisman, Gabrielle Douglas, Makayla Maroney, and possibly even Chellsie Memmel to battle for the bronze.
Johnson and Memmel Competing All-Around. The Covergirl Classic in Chicago three weeks ago was a walk down Olympic memory lane, as former world all-around champions and Olympic medalists Shawn Johnson and Chellsie Memmel both showed up in competition uniforms and looked in fantastic physical shape. Memmel’s four-for-four performance was the more impressive of the two, but both are expected to compete the all-around this week and will be two of the most popular draws for the fans this week. Look for the always gutsy Memmel to throw in some upgrades from Covergirl and possibly make a case for this year’s world team. And while Shawn wasn’t quite the confident Olympic champion we saw in Beijing or even the smiling showgirl we saw on Dancing With The Stars, I expect after getting those first-meet jitters out of the way in Chicago we’ll see her step it up a bit in St. Paul and prove some of her recent skeptics wrong.
Vaulting Showdown. We’ve potentially got five tremendous vaulters on the U.S. team right now, including current world vault champion Alicia Sacramone and four additional powerhouses all capable of the coveted Amanar – or Yurchenko with a 2 ½ twist. We already know that Wieber and Maroney have two of the best Amanars in the world and have landed the vault consistently in competition, and we saw Aly Raisman land the vault recently at the Covergirl Classic. If Gabrielle Douglas also successfully debuts this vault in St. Paul as she has stated she intends to do, she could really make a case for being more than just a bars specialist on the world team – and could even potentially upset our two all-around favorites.
Bars Battle. While Bross and Wieber are likely locks for the world team, we don’t yet have a third “lock” who could compete bars in the world team finals. Anna Li, the Caquatto sisters (Mackenzie and Bridgette), Chellsie Memmel, Gabrielle Douglas, and McKenzie Wofford are all vying for a chance to represent the U.S. on this crucial event where the U.S. has been outclassed by China and Russia over the last few years. Lots of high flying release moves, intricate combinations, and world team significance will make this event an exhilarating part of the competition this week.
World Team Drama. No world selection process is without a little drama and suspense, and this year will be no exception. Although we won’t know the women’s world team for several more weeks, we’ll know a whole lot more about each gymnast’s chances after the competition in St. Paul. While most consider Jordyn Wieber, Rebecca Bross, and Alicia Sacramone to be locks, that still leaves three spots open with at least nine gymnasts fighting for them. Pay special attention to the vaults and bar routines of all the gymnasts listed above, and don’t count out Memmel and Johnson just yet, because if there’s one thing that’s predictable about every world or Olympic selection process, it’s that there are going to be some surprises.