As the United States continues to evolve into a stronger and stronger women’s artistic gymnastics (WAG) superpower, its success at the Olympics has lead to domestic competition experiencing a boon as well. Take it from someone who spends a lot of time talking about the old Soviet dynasty, some of the most interesting start lists in WAG history can be found at national-level Soviet meets.
My favorite example is the 1976 USSR Cup, which featured the famed trio of Ludmilla Turischeva, Olga Korbut, and Nellie Kim. But also Natalia Shaposhnikova, Elena Davydova, Maria Filatova, and Elena Mukhina amongst many others. It is insane to think about all these gymnasts, many of whom are associated with different generations all competing alongside each other. Even more so when you factor in the dozen of lesser known gymnasts in attendance such as Nina Dronova who were fan favorites in their era.
And that’s how I feel while watching podium training of the 2021 U.S. Classic.
The overlap of Chellsie Memmel, Laurie Hernandez, and Konnor McClain is perhaps the most fascinating multi-generational dynamic I have ever seen. Not only are all three gymnasts associated with three different generations, but until recently, no one would even put them as belonging to consecutive generations.
Memmel is most frequently associated with the 2008 quad, Hernandez with the 2016 quad, and McClain with the 2024 quad. Originally labeled a “one & done” gymnast, Laurie competed in just one major senior level competition. After a five year absence, conventional wisdom dictated she was unlikely to ever return to senior competition in a serious role.
Laurie Hernandez’s 2020 comeback had initially been dismissed as an attempt to strengthen her standing with sponsors and not an attempt to actually win medals.
But then came the horrific details of the Maggie Haney abuse scandal and the gymnastics fanbase saw the full horror of what Hernandez had gone through. And in Laurie’s own words, her comeback was part of her healing process. To partake in gymnastics on her terms, in a non-abusive training environment, and to tap into the passion that was always there.
All of the sudden, the five year comeback that didn’t look like a serious attempt at a comeback was realized to be something entirely different. The gymnast with two Olympic medals and unquestionable determination is now the gymnast no one would dare underestimate.
But Laurie Hernandez isn’t even the most unusual comeback of the 2021 season. That honor goes to Chellsie Memmel who is coming back after a decade-long absence from the sport. In WAG, most athletes retire before their 23rd birthday. Most gymnasts who try to take a break struggle to comeback after just three years being removed from the sport. Remember how I said even Laurie coming back after five years was mindblowing?
Chellsie Memmel may very well have the most insane comeback story of all time in WAG history. It is even more impressive that she is doing it in the American program where aging veterans are widely discouraged from advancing their careers. Because team coaches have so many options for the Olympic team, it discourages a gymnast such as Memmel from even trying. But Memmel is doing exactly that and she is competing against a bunch of gymnasts much younger than herself.
One of which is Konnor McClain who is just 16 years old. In fact, Konnor McClain was born in 2005, the very same year Chellsie Memmel won an All-Around gold medal at the World Championships. Remember what I said about this being a sport where most retire in their early 20s? Well having gymnasts with medals just as old as the gymnasts they are competing against is another dimension to how much insanity is occurring at this one competition.
Konnor McClain was born in 2005, and that means something. For the rest of WAG history, gymnastics fans will always come to remember the significance of the 2005 birth year. They are the class of gymnasts who were too young for the Tokyo Olympics in 2020, but when COVID-19 delayed the Olympics into 2021, all of the sudden they became Tokyo-eligible.
They will be remembered for experiencing the most extreme and unusual predicament of being allowed to contend for a spot on an Olympic team with just 15 months notice. In a flash, all their previous planning and pacing for an Olympic voyage four years down the road was suddenly brought forward by three years. In an instant, a gymnast who wasn’t all that widely known outside the gymnastics community found themselves getting blitzed by the national media.
Long considered the strongest American prospect of the 2005 class, the gymnast who could succeed Simone Biles once Simone Biles retires, in a weird twist of fate Konnor now finds herself competing against the very gymnast she was once pegged to replace. The duo that until last year most assumed were unlikely to ever compete against each other in a competition.
That is one of many dynamics facing Konnor McClain. There will always be the prospect of another Memmel/Hernandez style comeback. Its practically a “when” not “if” situation that somewhere down the road we will see another gymnast attempt what Laurie and Chellsie are currently attempting. But the 2005 situation is likely (hopefully) never to be repeated again. Making Konnor a one of a kind gymnast with a one of a kind story. Perhaps the most unusual and unprecedented storyline in a competition filled with so many of these dynamics.
But what about Simone Biles?
Besides the obvious, that whenever Simone Biles walks into a competition, the atmosphere of the whole competition changes. Firstly because the whole competitive field becomes a race for second place, secondly because the media can’t get enough of Simone Biles coverage and will push every other gymnast out of the way to reach her.
But even by Simone-standards her presence is a little bit more special than it normally is. Because of the COVID-19 hiatus, it has been awhile since we have last seen her perform. It is as if the 2021 U.S. Classic will be another one of those “return of the Queen” moments for the gymnastics community. The excitement of what we have been missing for far too long has finally returned.
But there is more to be said. Gymnastics fans are blessed to be living in the era of Simone Biles, but we are even more blessed to be living in the second half of Simone’s career. Simone’s mentality today is far different than what we saw prior to 2018. Whereas before Simone was simply winning medals, she has come to realize simply winning medals is boring for her now.
Now Simone seems motivated to break the Code of Points in every way possible. By coming out with as many new and legendary skills as she can. Adding icing to the cake to empower the legend who will already be remembered alongside Nadia Comaneci as a timeless name.
The 2021 U.S. Classic will be the next chapter as Simone walks the path of trying to get yet another new vault into the Code of Points. Gymnastics fans have had to make do with analyzing brief training footage provided by 60 Minutes, or a teaser trailer for an upcoming documentary. But now gymnastics fans will get to see it for real.
But we aren’t even close to the end of the list. Next up is Morgan Hurd who in my opinion is one of the most underrated gymnasts in this current generation of American WAG. Morgan Hurd is the third gymnast in this competition with an All-Around title.
Morgan Hurd has always been willing to take a political stance or advocate a cause she feels passionately about. But in recent months Morgan Hurd has turned up the volume. Speaking out against the wave of hate and discrimination against the Asian-American community.
It is hard not to get chills thinking about what Morgan Hurd’s career represents. How she was the right gymnast for the right time. How the first Asian-American gymnast to ever win an All-Around title not only had the athletic ability to do it, but the bravery to take up the cause of such an important issue, while also having the intellectual strength to convey her message effectively.
Reading through the entire lineup, there are gymnasts such as Grace McCallum, MyKayla Skinner, Kara Eaker, Riley McCusker, Jade Carey, and Sunisa Lee. All of which are proven veterans, with medals at the World Championships, and have been the core of the American program for years. Those names alone would make this a memorable competition and one of the most talented lineups ever assembled.
Did I forget to mention that most All-Around Champions retire within three years of winning an All-Around title? This competition features Morgan Hurd who is four years removed from her All-Around victory. Simone Biles is eight years removed from her first. And Memmel is competing 15 years after her famed 2005 victory.
That’s on top of so many other supporting cast members who are also widely respected such as Leanne Wong. Or Skye Blakely and Sydney Barros, the other members of the 2005 class who might have a word or two to say about Konnor being treated as the best American with that birth year.
But what about Kayla DiCello? Before COVID-19 it was Kayla who was supposed to be the most anticipated young gun of the Olympic year before the 2005-born gymnasts also crashed the party.
Don’t take me not listing other gymnasts as an indication I don’t think there are wonderful things to say for them as well. This competition is simply so loaded, that I may as well list the entire field and say “this gymnast is special…that gymnast is special.”
Emma Malabuyo the widely loved fan favorite who has had to overcome so many injuries just to get here, that simply being able to compete is a gift in itself. We also have Mya Witte competing, the gymnast who many first discovered when footage of an 8-year old training Yurchenko style vaults made its rounds across the Gymternet.
Not only is Mya Witte a 2005-baby born in the same year Chellsie Memmel won an All-Around title, but Mya is coached by Jana Bieger, one of Memmel’s teammates from the 2005 and 2006 World Championships. I’d also like to point out that on top of it all, Memmel is the rare example of a mother who is currently competing in high level WAG.
There are roughly 25 gymnasts in this competition whom I would classify as someone of interest. Someone who most of the gymnastics fanbase knows as either a fan favorite, has a really interesting backstory, or has already made her mark as a medal winning gymnast.
This 2021 U.S. Classic is going to be special, even before knowing what the final results will be. If Chellsie Memmel and Laurie Hernandez finish in the bottom two spots, that wouldn’t bother me. Just having them amongst so many other notable names is enough for me. Anything else is a cherry on top.
I love the stories behind so many of these gymnasts. From the relatively inexperienced 16 year old trying to hold her own against Simone Biles, to the aging veteran who refuses to be pushed out of the sport. For me personally, one of the greatest appeals in gymnastics are the stories behind each of the athletes competing.
Gymnastics is a grueling sport, a physically demanding sport, where often times a gymnast needs a dozen things to all go right just to get to Olympic Trials. Every gymnast appears to take a different path. And as both Memmel and McClain are proving this year, every time you think you have seen it all, a gymnast enters the hall of a competition in a way that you could never have imagined the sort of twists and turns her career would entail.
I love reading through the names of a results list and seeing how many of the gymnasts in attendance are memorable figures in some way. I love seeing two gymnasts who each have an inspiring story present in the same lineup. Where their mutual presence means they are supporting each other, pushing each other to be better, empowering each other, and improving the quality of the competition as a whole.
That’s how I feel with just a couple of gymnasts listed in the competition who I relate to in this way. This 2021 U.S. Classics field has 25 (and counting) or so gymnasts like that, nearly twice as much as what we usually see. With COVID-19 impacting the way this lineup was formed, it has given what in my opinion is one of the most interesting lineups of gymnasts ever assembled.
Years down the road gymnastics fans are going to look at this lineup and be in disbelief at all the names in attendance. The reason I say “25 and counting” is because the legacy of this competition will only grow with time as the younger gymnasts go on to win more medals. As some of the lesser known gymnasts go on to achieve success and become fan-favorites themselves, the perception of this lineup will only grow with time.