Women's Gymnastics

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.

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.

From the press gallery, an American Cup memory

Gabby+2012.jpg

Podium training day at the 2012 American Cup in Madison Square Garden. The general warmup was over, and the U.S. women went to beam. First up: Gabby Douglas. In the media stands, reporters waited, fingers poised over their keyboards.

American unknowns don’t go to the American Cup. The U.S. takes its only world cup event of the year far more seriously than any other nation competing there, and selects its women’s representatives with special care. There’s a reputation to uphold. The last time an American woman didn’t win the cup was back in 2001, as it shook off the last doldrums of the unlucky 1997-2000 quad.

2001 was also the year Martha Karolyi was named U.S. National Team Coordinator, and the meet held special significance for her. It was at the inaugural American Cup in 1976 that the USA first met Nadia Comaneci, who, foreshadowing things to come, scored a 10 on floor exercise en route to winning the meet. The Europeans already knew who Comaneci was, since she had smoked at the 1975 European Championships, taking the all-around and everything but floor (where she finished second).

Then she came to the States and trounced the competition there too. It must have given Martha Karolyi a terrific amount of pride to think that a gymnast she molded had won the inaugural American Cup, and those she helped direct year after year kept winning them.

So, the American women don’t go to compete at the American Cup. They go to win. That’s why the vast majority named to compete there a) already possess world or Olympic medals already, or b) have at least won a junior national title or two.

In 2012, everything was flipped upside down. The two solid contenders named to compete in the Olympic year Cup were the U.S.’s most talented and most reliable: 2011 World champion Jordyn Wieber and team gold medalist Aly Raisman. Together the  constituted the best 1-2 punch in gymnastics. Days before the meet, Karolyi popped a surprise: she had Gabby Douglas inserted into the lineup as a last-minute exhibition athlete, meaning that Douglas would perform at the top of every lineup and she’d be scored like any other competitor. Those scores just wouldn’t count.

Douglas went on to unofficially “win” the meet, posting a four-event total better than both Wieber and Raisman. She may not have carried off the cup, but she certainly carried the day; the gymnastics media talked of nothing else for weeks.

Strategically, it was a brilliant move: the young and historically skittish Douglas was ushered into the spotlight and allowed to display what she could do without putting quite as much pressure on her as rested on the more seasoned shoulders of Wieber and Raisman. Wieber and Raisman, of course, would have the pleasure of actually winning and placing second at the cup, effectively illustrating that they too were top Olympic contenders.

When I think about the American Cup, I think about that strange and glorious 2012 edition. I remember the glitz of that competition day, the Olympic year zest buzzing through that historic venue, the three Americans, all among the best U.S. gymnasts ever, blowing the rest of the field out of the water. Of the applause that boomed through the venue when Douglas and Raisman landed their new Amanar vaults. Of Douglas in her shimmery periwinkle leotard performing to Yolanda Be Cool and DCUP’s “We Don’t Speak No Americano,” which was just the thing for that multicultural city, for that year, for that gymnast so young but so much older than she had been at her debut world championships that past fall, looking for all the world like the Olympic champion she would be five months later.

I think of all that too, but mostly I think of the first minutes of podium training. How the U.S. women came into Madison Square Garden that morning and went to beam. How Douglas went first. She got up on the beam and launched into the most gorgeous switch leap, and in that moment, she was no longer the wide-eyed kid who had seemed overawed by it all at the Tokyo Worlds four months before. This Douglas was a fiery, long-lined contender, a butterfly just emerged from her cocoon. What a difference four months can make.

The reporters in the media gallery were looking at each other wide-eyed, mouths in Os after that beam set. Seen today, with the rose-colored glasses of hindsight, Douglas flashed an unstoppable momentum -- in that moment, on that day, and in all the days that came afterward.