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Weekend Gymnastics Roundup: Carey and McCusker on World Cup podium

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World medalists Jade Carey and Riley McCusker headlined gymnastics action over the weekend as the World Cup circuit continued with an all-around competition in Birmingham, England, and an apparatus event in Doha, Qatar.

Carey won both the vault and floor events in Doha, pushing her to the top of the standings on both apparatus (she also won the vault and floor competitions the previous weekend at the World Cup in Baku, Azerbaijan).

Doha marked the halfway point of apparatus World Cups, putting Carey in a promising position to qualify for the Tokyo Games heading into the next four events. The apparatus World Cup series includes a total of eight competitions spread over two seasons, and one gymnast per apparatus will qualify for the Olympics based on his or her top three results across the eight events.

Carey, 18, was the 2017 world silver medalist on vault and floor. But she opted not to try for a spot on the 2018 World Championships team due to the International Gymnastics Federation’s rules that active team members who help their countries qualify team spots for Tokyo (as the U.S. women did in November) cannot earn individual spots. Carey, an apparatus specialist rather than an all-around gymnast, chose the World Cup route to keep open her options of qualifying individually.

McCusker, who was part of the U.S. team that won the world title last year, finished second at the all-around World Cup in Birmingham, posting the top scores on the uneven bars and floor. Russia’s Aliya Mustafina, a seven-time Olympic medalist, won the event. Mustafina bounced back from a shaky showing last weekend at the World Cup in Stuttgart, where she finished fifth in an event won by Simone Biles. Mustafina, 24, is trying to qualify for her third Olympics after giving birth to daughter Alisa in June 2017.

The all-around World Cup circuit continues on April 7 in Tokyo, Japan, where two-time world all-around medalist Morgan Hurd and two-time Olympian Sam Mikulak are expected to compete.

New U.S. star Jade Carey passes on gymnastics worlds with Olympics in mind

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Jade Carey, who in 2017 won two world championships medals in her first year as an elite gymnast, will not try out for this fall’s world championships team because it could shut the door on a possible path to the 2020 Olympics.

Carey, 18, gave up her spot at next week’s USA Gymnastics selection camp for worlds later this month despite being the U.S.’ second-best woman on floor exercise and vault behind Simone Biles. Carey earned world silver medals on both events last year.

The move was made because of changes to Olympic gymnastics qualifying for 2020.

Starting in Tokyo, Olympic team event roster sizes are cut from five gymnasts to four, but (and this is key for Carey) a nation can also qualify up to two more individual quota spots for gymnasts outside of the team event. Those individual spots are determined at international events the next two years.

In that case, six gymnasts from one country could compete in qualifying at the Olympics, but only four would be eligible for the team event (while all six are eligible for individual finals, max. two per country in the finals).

How do the 2018 World Championships factor into this?

Olympic gymnastics qualification states that any gymnast who helps a *team* qualify for the Games (if the U.S. finishes top three at worlds in Doha or, if not, top nine at 2019 Worlds) cannot qualify an individual spot for herself at individual apparatus World Cups over the next year and a half.

There are other paths to the U.S. getting those two extra individual spots, but apparatus World Cups is essentially* the only one where a gymnast can qualify a spot for herself rather than for USA Gymnastics to later decide who fills it. (*It’s also possible via a 2019 World Championships route, but only in the very unlikely case the U.S. does not earn a team medal in Doha.)

Carey’s father and coach, Brian, said they decided in July to prioritize this Olympic qualifying route over worlds and that it was fully supported by USA Gymnastics high-performance team coordinator Tom Forster.

“I’ve known about this qualification process for over a year,” Brian said. “I’ve studied it, researched it and stayed up to date on changes. If I did have questions or wanted to confirm things, I’ve been dealing directly with FIG [International Gymnastics Federation], but the bottom line is, if Jade competes at the world championships this year in 2018 [and the U.S. gets a team medal], then certain doors will be closed for her for the remainder of the quad leading up to 2020. We’re basically keeping all [Olympic] doors open [by passing on 2018 Worlds].

“I’ve lost hundreds of hours of sleep on that decision. Ultimately, it was every way we look at it, we either keep doors open or close them. We didn’t make the rules. It’s just my job to stay on top of the rules, stay updated, make sure I’m doing what’s in the best interest for my athlete.”

Simply put, gymnasts control their own Olympic destiny at apparatus World Cups. One gymnast per apparatus will qualify for the Olympics via the apparatus World Cup series (max. one per country).

In the eight-event series from November through March 2020, the three best results per gymnast per apparatus are tallied. Carey would have a significant chance to top the floor or vault standings, boosted since gymnasts are excluded if they compete at the next two worlds for a team that qualifies for the Olympics.

For example, if Olympic floor and vault champion Simone Biles helps the U.S. to a team medal in Doha (extremely likely), she can’t qualify for the Olympics via apparatus World Cups.

Why is the apparatus World Cups path more valuable to Carey than, say, Biles? In part because the Olympic team event size cut from five to four makes gymnasts who are strong on all four apparatuses more valuable in Olympic team selection.

It’s hard to predict 2020, but for now the U.S. has the Olympic all-around champion Biles, the world all-around champion Morgan Hurd and Riley McCusker as strong all-arounders, plus more talented teens yet to make a splash on the senior stage.

Carey was sixth in the all-around at the U.S. Championships in August but top three on both floor and vault at nationals and the U.S. Classic that preceded it.

Carey’s father stressed that their decision isn’t putting all her eggs in the apparatus World Cup basket.

For one, she might not finish first overall on floor or vault and could miss out on qualifying via that path. Even if she does qualify, she could decline the spot to prioritize trying to later be selected for the U.S. for the Olympic team event (in which case the U.S. couldn’t get that individual spot back, however. “We’re going to be very aware of that and very careful,” Brian said.).

“We’re keeping that [apparatus World Cups] door open,” Brian said. “With this new four-team-member format, it can be argued that the [USA Gymnastics Olympic] selection committee is going to want to send four strong all-arounders [to Tokyo]. If we go this path [passing on 2018 Worlds], it gives Jade more time to work on her other two events also. If we go for worlds this year, we’re going to lose more time on training [uneven] bars and [balance] beam. We also don’t know with 100 percent certainty who’s going to be on that selection committee in 2020.”

Carey hopes to compete at the 2019 World Championships. Given her experience in 2017, bursting onto the elite scene and earning two world medals, missing the biggest meet of this year was a tough sacrifice.

“That was hard, but we talked about long term and what she wanted long term and what her long-term goals were,” Brian said. “She deferred going to college and wanted to go at this 100 percent. Then you have to put on the table, what’s more important, if you’re basically committing the next two years of your life to this, is 2018 Worlds more important or is giving yourself a shot at 2020 more important?”

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Three thoughts from U.S. Gymnastics Championships

Simone Biles, Sam Mikulak
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Three thoughts off a U.S. Gymnastics Championships that saw Simone Biles swiftly, powerfully, insert adverb reclaim the throne and Sam Mikulak match her national title for national title … 

1. An all-timer for Simone Biles
After Biles retires, which as of now will be at the Tokyo Games, this fifth national title may trail only the Olympics on her remember-when list of all-around performances.

Only once before has Biles been so dominant to win by an event-record margin with the highest scores on every apparatus.

At the 2015 American Cup, Biles nearly doubled the previous record margin, winning by 4.467 points in a one-day competition (Biles won nationals by 6.55 over two days). But this year’s nationals field was without a doubt stronger than the American Cup.

While Biles was challenged in the last quad — Katelyn Ohashi and Kyla Ross beat Biles in two of her first three senior competitions in 2013; Romanian Larisa Iordache made the 2014 World Championships interesting — there is nobody in the world who appears up to the task at the moment.

Biles’ worst all-around score of her three days of competition in her comeback (58.7 with an uneven bars fall) is still better than anybody else in the world since Rio.

At worlds, she should break Svetlana Khorkina‘s record with a fourth all-around title to extend a five-year win streak.

The only gymnast to have a longer run of major-event dominance is 18-time Olympic medalist Larisa Latynina, who won every Olympic, world and European all-around title from 1956 through 1962, save the 1959 Euros, which she appears to have sat out following childbirth.

GYM NATIONALS: Women’s, men’s results

2. The U.S. women are loaded
It’s so hard to predict far ahead in this sport. Promising gymnasts can turn senior elite at the beginning of an Olympic cycle and retire before the Games. There are no junior world championships (though that soon will change). So in 2016, as great as the Americans were, it wasn’t clear just how long they would stay at the top.

Halfway through this Olympic cycle, it appears the only changes are in the names who will stand with Biles on the gold-medal podium step at worlds in October.

Morgan Hurd and Riley McCusker counted zero falls between two days at nationals. One of them will likely join Biles on the all-around podium at worlds (an American always has). Jade Carey earned world silver medals on vault and floor exercise last year in her first year as an elite gymnast.

The teams at worlds are five women each, but the Americans have the luxury of using their fifth spot purely on a gymnast with the best chance at an apparatus medal.

The team will be named after an October selection camp.

MORE: Biles comments on statement-making leotard

3. The U.S. men must dig deep
Sam Mikulak 
and Yul Moldauer (when healthy) represent the best U.S. one-two all-around punch in several years, but the depth is not there right now. Mikulak is the only active man with Olympic experience.

Of the rest of the 2017 World Championships team, only Donnell Whittenburg competed at nationals. He was limited to two events after shoulder surgery and left off the eight finalists for the five-man world team.

When the Americans line up for team qualifying at worlds in Doha, Mikulak will be the only one who has been in that situation before. Moldauer and Marvin Kimble competed at 2017 Worlds where there was no team event.

Though Kimble missed nationals due to injury, he arguably became more valuable to the program last week, especially given the awful Thursday competition. He can contribute in a three-up, three-count team final on high bar (where the only man to crack 14 at nationals was Mikulak (14.7)) and two or three other events. His gym said Saturday that he was already back training.

The U.S. team will be named after a September selection camp. It will go to Doha as an underdog for a medal behind at least Japan, China and Russia.

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