Leanne Wong tumbles off with the American Cup, and a star is born

Leanne Wong didn’t have to do it, but of course she did.

Leading the American Cup by a margin of 0.233 heading into her final event, floor exercise, 15-year-old probably could have played it safe with the routine she used to seal her junior national title six months ago. But Wong and her coaches had had some surprises in store, and Wong felt that now was the time to unleash them.

Talking upgrades two weeks before the meet, Wong declined to say exactly what she was working on, better to preserve the secret. “If they’re ready I’ll put them in, but if they’re not then I’ll just keep them out,” she said at the time.

Turns out they were ready. As the women’s competition reached its crescendo Saturday, Wong stepped up with two rare and difficult new tumbling passes, a final fireworks display in a competition where she had already flashed plenty of brilliance.

Despite the presence of World silver medalists Mai Murakami of Japan and Ellie Black of Canada, Wong and 2018 World team champion Grace McCallum were always the headliners of the meet, and one or the other was expected to carry on the long tradition of American domination at the event.

From her first vault, Wong established herself as the champion-in-waiting. Her 14.066 for her double-twisting Yurchenko was the best in the field, and though her 14.1 for her intricate bar routine was only the fourth best in the field, she hit it well enough to keep herself close to the lead. Add in the highest score on beam for the toughest routine of all competitors and by the time floor came around she was poised to be the breakout story of the night. The two new tumbling passes clinched it. Never mind if the judges may not have credited her 3.5 twist. She can do it, and it will only get better from here.

For her part, McCallum showed a steady poise and refused to be ruffled by small errors. In a way, the pressure on her was greater than it was on Wong, because after a highly successful Worlds debut last fall, McCallum was a known quantity with a reputation to nourish. Nobody would have blamed Wong had she shown senior debut nerves; for the world team champion, expectations were higher. Never mind her ranking -- the victory for this Minnesotan was competing without fault. Mission accomplished.

By tying for third, Black and Murakami, each the best female gymnast their nation has ever produced, showed that the American Cup is not just a showcase for talented U.S. gymnasts. Black, who hurt her knee in training, came out with four solid routines all the same, while Murakami’s bid to become the first foreigner to win the cup since Elena Zamolodchikova in 2001 was spoiled when she dropped off the balance beam. The two tied for third, causing the gymternet to give a collective “awwww!”

Germany’s Kim Bui, fifth, posted the highest score on uneven bars. Thirty years old last month, she competes like someone ten years younger, the result of quality training combined with a genuine love for the sport. Though she prefers to steer clear of the balance beam these days, she put up respectable scores on every event.

Overall though, the night belonged to Wong. “It was really exciting competing at my first senior meet, and I thought it went pretty well,” she said afterward. Us too, Leanne. Us too.