Lu YUfei

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.

Quick hits: 2019 American Cup

Rotation 1:

Leanne Wong (USA), vault: DTY, very very nice! Teeny little hop. Hello world! Excellent start for her. 14.666.

Mai Murakami (JPN), vault: DTY with a sizable hop back. Good everywhere but could have been a little better. Even Mai thinks so. 14.333.

Grace McCallum (USA), vault: Easy-looking DTY, hop back. Well done. Legs crossed in the air if you want to be nitpicky. Came on the table a tad high. But really, a nice vault. 14.566.

Sanna Veerman (NED), vault: Great Yurchenko 1.5 with just a tiny hop forward. Bravo! 14.1.

Rotation 2:

Ellie Black (CAN), bars: Toe Shaposh, uprise to Tkatchev. Taktchev, Jaeger, Pak. Toe Khorkina II to full turn, toe on front half dismount. After all that struggle in podium training, experience pays off. Good for her! 14.266.

Celia Serber (FRA), bars: Toe Shaposh to Pak, Ray. Toe blind and misses her pike Jaeger. Too bad, but good form overall. 10.666..

Grace McCallum (USA), bars: Wieler. Stalder Shaposh. Tkatchev. Pak. Toe Khorkina II. Toe stalder to toe full to full twisting double back. She didn't attempt any of the connections she's been training, but it was a clean, safe routine. McCallum seems quite happy with her 14.2. Sure, it could have been better, but better to go to beam happy than frazzled. 14.2.

Lu Yufei (CHN), bars: Jump to high, Tkatchev to Gienger, good. Blind to full spin to pike Jaeger to Pak, holds on to it. Toe shoot to nearly dead hang. Full twisting double tuck with a big step forward. Rolls her eyes as she walks off. 13.3.

Lee Yunseo (KOR), bars: Solid routine (some deductions for missed handstands) with Pak, pike Jaeger, toe Khorkina II, full twisting double tuck dismount. 13.6.

Kim Bui (GER), bars: Jump to high, hop change, pike Jaeger to Pak. Toe Shaposh, Bhardwaj. Toe Khorkina II, Toe full, close, to Gienger. Full twisting double tuck, nearly stuck. Excellent routine! 14.4.

Leanne Wong (USA), bars: Inbar stalder to inbar Shaposh to Pak to stalder Khorkina II, couldn't have asked for better. Stalder blind ot Jaeger. Toe full to giants to STUCK double layout. Wow! 14.1.

Sidenote: What is so impressive about Wong so far is how well she's hitting under pressure. And how much better those routines were in the competition after some little problems in podium training.

Mai Murakami (JPN), bars: Toe stalder to toe Shaposh to inbar Gienger, blind to pike Jaeger, hop to Jaeger. Toe full to bail to toe shoot to high, sticks the full twisting double tuck! She wants to win this. Not finish second. Win. 13.933.

Tim Daggett cannot believe that Wong and McCallum are tied after two rotations. "They're not going to tie," he says, with meaning.

Rotation 3:

Sanna Veerman (NED), beam: Punch front mount. Bhs, layout. Side aerial, small wobble. Switch to jump full turn. Side somie, bigger wobble but holds on. Goes for a switch three quarters and has to grab the beam. Stuck 1.5 twist dismount. 12.166.

Leanne Wong (USA), beam: Middle splits mount. Switch, straddle. Bhs, layout, layout, wonderful! Full turns in combo. Switch ring. So calm up there, much like Kyla Ross. Front aerial to ring jump. Side aerial. Side somie, first little wobble of the set. Then triple full dismount! 14.066.

Mai Murakami (JPN), beam: Switch leap mount. Front aerial to switch. Front pike, solid. Bhs, layout, nice...and comes off on her double wolf turn! Uh-oh…13.233.

Ellie Black (CAN), beam: Switch leap mount. Double turn to full turn. Front tuck. Bhs, layout to two feet. Switch to switch half. Side somie. 2.5 twist dismount, small hop. Well done for Ellie Black! 13.8.

Rotation 4:

Celia Serber (FRA), floor: Full in tuck, steps out of bounds. Straddle full. Wolf turn. Double pike. Punch front to double twist. I suppose what you'd call "showy" choreo and music. 12.6.

Sanna Veerman (NED), floor: Nice opening sequence! Arabian double front, very nice. Not a natural ballerina but this routine is choreographed well. Double tuck. 1.5 to front layout full. Then hands down on her double full! Too bad! 11.833.

Kim Bui (GER), floor: Lovely double layout! Tourjete full. Double tuck, hop back. Stylish routine, a real pleasure to watch. 2.5 to front pike. Double pike with a shuffle back. Very well done. 13.233.

Mai Murakami (JPN), floor: Her iconic routine...triple turn, a little overdone. Double double tuck. 2.5 to front layout full. Double pike, stuck! Well, a good way to finish for her. 14.133.

Ellie Black (CAN), floor: Straddle full. 2.5 walkout to double tuck. Front double full to punch front. Double full. Such an invigorating routine, and she carries it off so well. 13.233.

Grace McCallum (USA), floor: Double double tuck, small hop to the side. "Hava Nagila" epic film 10,000 extras cut. Front layout to front double full, good! Very nice triple twist, maybe a shade underrotated tho. Double tuck, hop back. Total success. 13.866.

Leanne Wong (USA), floor: WOW! Perfect Arabian double pike to single stag. Wow! 3.5 twist! Beautiful again! Now this is a debut. 2.5 to front layout. Triple full to end, step back. Phenomenal. #AmericanCup champion! 13.933 feels a little light but the judges probably took a little on the landings of her second and fourth pass. No matter. Still basically perfection.


Results:

1 - Leanne Wong, USA, 56.765
2 - Grace McCallum, USA, 56.465
3T - Mai Murakami, JPN, and Ellie Black, CAN, 55.732
5 - Kim Bui, GER, 54.199
6 - Lu Yufei, CHN, 51.699
7 - Sanna Veerman, NED, 50.765
8 - Celia Serber, FRA, 49.798
9 - Lee Yunseo, KOR, 47.866

American Cup 2019: Women's competition breakdown

Mai Murakami of Japan.

Mai Murakami of Japan.

The American Cup stands as a particular point of pride for the U.S. women, where the last non-American to win the title was Elena Zamolodchikova in 2001. The list of champions after Zamo’s name reads like a roll call of American greats: Schwikert, Patterson, Liukin, Johnson, Wieber, Bross, Ohashi, Price, Biles, Douglas, Smith, Hurd. Among them you find ten Olympic gold medals and two appearances on Dancing with the Stars (with Ohashi’s candidature still pending.)

To resume: The American Cup is always the first all-around event on the international calendar and (almost always) the one in which an American walks off with first place. The rest of the world tends to see this meet as an extended world cup podium training or a water-testing of new seniors, but Americans take it very seriously indeed.

Except this year, the headliners are heading elsewhere. Simone Biles is preparing for the Stuttgart World Cup, and 2018 American Cup champion Morgan Hurd is going to the Tokyo edition later this spring. Fortunately, American depth has become as renowned as American difficulty, so while Biles prepares to bulldoze the competition in Germany and Hurd practices her Japanese greetings, we’ll be treated to a most interesting matchup between junior national champion Leanne Wong and 2018 world team gold medalist Grace McCallum, the breakout star among the new seniors last year.

Both have terrific qualities: like so many gymnasts who train at GAGE in Missouri, Wong is impeccably polished, but she also possesses a zen, Kyla Ross-like calmness on the podium. Thrust onto the world stage last October, McCallum didn’t flinch either: she nailed every routine and comes to Greensboro with a dramatic new floor routine and the confidence boost of having won the latest national team camp.

McCallum and Wong are similarly balanced in D-score capability (according to last season’s numbers) which is prone to make the battle close. Both competed double-twisting Yurchenkos (5.4 D) and had bars sets around 5.7. At the close of 2018, McCallum had a edge of a couple of tenths on both beam and floor, but they are close. McCallum’s difficulty, calculated based on what she did in 2018, is 22.2, the highest in the field, but Murakami is just behind with 22.1.

The biggest threat to American domination in Greensboro is likely to come from world all-around silver medalist Mai Murakami, who looked sharp and ready in Thursday’s podium training, and Ellie Black, who struggled here and there but whose potential difficulty, if well played, could land her on the podium. If she does everything she’s capable of, Black’s total difficulty is around 21.8, same as Wong’s.

Among the international field, the experienced Kim Bui, 30 and stronger than ever, has potential fantastic difficulty on bars but is unlikely to challenge for the podium due to a weak vault and beam, which she doesn’t compete too often these days.

Celia Serber, the French junior national champion last year, impressed with big skills and excellent form and should prove an exciting addition to the field. The Netherlands’s Sanna Veerman is a bright young competitor for a country that has made remarkable strides in the past few years. Veerman has the skills but lacks some of the polish, and this competition should be excellent experience for her.

2018 Youth Olympian Lee Yunseo of Korea is making her senior international debut at the American Cup and has some excellent skills up her sleeve. Of the eight women in the field, we saw the least in podium training from China’s Lu Yufei, who remains a question mark.

Quick hits: 2019 American Cup podium training

12:34 p.m.: The most anticipated matchup of the weekend on the women's side is Grace McCallum vs. Leanne Wong, the team player who's a budding star in her own right vs. the extremely elegant and poised junior national champion.

12:36 p.m.: Will also be interesting to see whether Mai Murakami (JPN) and Ellie Black (CAN) or someone else will be able to beat one or both of the Americans here. It's never a given at the #AmericanCup, but the U.S. women have 18 years of history going for them...

12:38 p.m.: Both the Americans have upgrades in their pockets, though both expressed some doubt they'd do everything. McCallum has a new FX to "Hava Nagila" and has been working a new pass and new series on beam and bars.

12:40 p.m: France's new senior Celia Serber makes quite a nice impression with her form on beam. Great lines but also looks very athletic. A little wobbly on some things, but great potential.

12:42 p.m.: Grace McCallum on floor: Oh my, that is some epic music! Like, film with 10,000 extras that spans history of a nation epic. Lawrence of Arabia epic. It's "Hava Nagila" all right, and a very dramatic cut of it. Hands down on triple full third pass, but she's still getting warm, it seems.

12:45 p.m.: McCallum's last floor set was from when she was 13, so she was very excited to get a new one. Choreographed by Dominic Zito. McCallum and coach Sarah Jantzi listened to a lot of music in choosing her new set, and this piece was the one that made Grace light up, according to Sarah.

12:46 p.m.: Also, there's a part where Grace does a wolf turn to the sound of a lone horn. Not so easy to actually choreograph a wolf turn into a floor routine -- Zito did well. Also a couple moments in the corner before her last pass where she's definitely channeling Aly Raisman there.

12:47 p.m.: Over on beam, Kim Bui and Murakami are doing battle with particular skills. For Bui it's her bhs, layout stepout series. Murakami takes a few tries to get her wolf spin in order, but then delivers a beautiful Humphrey.

12:49 p.m.: Leanne Wong's vault regime today consists of Yurchenko layout timer after Yurchenko layout timer. Over on bars, Ellie Black is looking a bit frustrated with her release skills. Great swing and big air, but hard to control.

12:55 p.m: Murakami looks strong and focused on beam -- except for that wolf turn, which continues to give her problems. She's done about seven now and has made one well.

12:57 p.m.: Seeing ambitious routines from Sanna Veerman (NED) on bars and beam. Nice full set from McCallum on bars, ending with toe full to immediate full twisting double back. Confidently performed all the way through.

1:03 p.m.: Very good bars set from Wong follows: Stalder, Stalder Shoposh to Pak to immediate toe Khorkina II to a bunch of other stuff and that gorgeous floated double layout.

1:06 p.m.: McCallum UB: Wieler to Shaposh to uprise Tkatchev, Pak to stalder Khorkina II to toe stalder, toe full to full twisting double back with a small hop. Two in a row.

1:10 p.m.: Murakami FX: She's kept her 2017-2018 routine. Double double tuck, no problem. Double layout, very nice. 2.5 to front full, very nice as well. Double pike. Sharp stuff all the way through.

1:12 p.m.: Seeing gorgeous things on beam from Lu Yufei. The typical China beamwork (switch ring, etc) but done with a lightness and extension rare even for a Chinese gymnast. Wonderful to watch.

1:16 p.m.: Wong UB: Inbar stalder to Shaposh to Pak to Khorkina II. That or some variation of that is the combination a la mode on bars today, but Wong's having trouble with it so far here -- two falls so far and some problems on high bar too before turning in a good routine.

1:17 p.m: That being said, one thing Al Fong was adamant about in conversation a couple weeks ago was what a competitor Wong is. She's quiet and reserved, he said. But make no mistake -- she wants to win, he said. And she does.

1:20 p.m.: Bui FX: Same stylish routine as 2018. Double layout, well done. Double tuck. Wonderful piece of music that suits her well. Double full. Didn't see the final pass.

1:24 p.m.: McCallum BB: Back dive mount, two wolf turns back to back, straddle jump half turn. Side aerial, layout stepout, nicely done! Punch front. Reminds me little of Alicia Sacramone up there. Timer for double back.

1:25 p.m.: Serber (UB): Second half - Toe Khorkina II, blind to pike Jaeger, full turn, full twisting double layout.

1:30 p.m.: McCallum sticks her double tuck dismount after her second beam routine. The way things have gone here is she's done one routine and it's been good -- and then a second that's been better.

1:35 p.m.: Wong BB: Middle splits mount. Bhs, layout, layout, solid! Turn with leg up in combination with second turn. Switch ring. Front aerial to ring jump. Side aerial. Side somi. Timer dismount. Doesn't get lots of height on her layouts but you can't argue with solidity. After a couple more timers, she shows a lovely triple full dismount.

1:38 p.m.: Lu on floor: Well. Stylishly choreographed routine with layout tumbling passes.

1:40 p.m.: Veerman FX: Music is one of those lovely Russian folk songs that gets faster and faster, meaning the audience is exhilarated and the gymnast exhausted at the end of it. Arabian double front. Form on a turn. Double tuck. 1.5 to front layout full. Double full.

1:41 p.m.: Black’s go to vault is usually a handspring front pike full, which she performed beautifully at Elite Canada a few weeks ago. Today she’s having troubles just doing a handspring front pike half. Sitting deep in conversation with coach Dave Kikuchi. This hasn’t really been her day, but it’s training, not competition.

1:45 p.m.: This podium training has left no questions about Murakami's preparation for this meet. She looks great and is a real contender for the title. Her floor difficulty is likely higher than both Americans, which could be critical.

1:46 p.m.: Veerman VT: Powerful Yurchenko 1.5. Slightly bent legs in the air but great height/distance.

1:48 p.m.: Curse of the liveblogger (and, according to Olly Hogben, the commentator): you need only write/say something like "Boy does [gymnast] look solid!" than said gymnast falls, or does something to prove you wrong. Murakami/Bui presently on the struggle bus on bars.

1:50 p.m: Thing is, both have solid technique and oodles of experience. They start doing their skills, swing efficiently and well, and then just lose it somewhere. Elite gymnastics is hard, guys.

1:52 p.m.: Women's podium training is nonstop action. Men's podium training is, uh, decidedly slower paced. Props to Petro Pakhniuk (UKR), who just did an honest to goodness tumbling pass (Randi) and then bent over to examine the dust on the carpet for the next 90 seconds.