(photo by jb) The first big-time gymnastics event I ever attended was the 2001 U.S. National Championships in Philadelphia. One of the juniors was 13 year-old Carly Patterson (that’s a photo of her on beam I took there). Though she had recently won the US Classic, she had a disastrous day one, and while she climbed back to third overall, she only placed in the top six on one event. Not the kind of consistency that usually impresses Marta Karolyi. Standing next to three-time junior national champion Kristal Uzelac on the award stand, Patterson did not particularly look like the future of American gymnastics, and quite honestly I barely noticed her. Uzelac was triumphant, confident and seemingly on top of the world. But we all know how things turned out (Carly was eventually on a Wheaties box; Kristal had peaked too early, and had a rough road ahead that did not include the Olympics). The point I’m making is that the real future of gymnastics was in front of me, but I didn’t see it.
Here it is 2015 now, and all the gymnasts at that 2001 competition are long retired. But I got back home from P&G National Championships a few days ago, and this time, I’m pretty sure I know what I saw. To put it in a nutshell: in Indianapolis, I saw the future.
I have seen 2016, and I got a good look at 2020, too. A year from now, while you are watching the Rio Olympics, & TV is making household-name celebrities out of ordinary people who just happen to also be extraordinarily hard-working & talented athletes, in women’s artisticgymnastics you will almost certainly be hearing these names (you may want to write this down, so that when Rio comes, you will be astounded, or you will have the opportunity to point your fingers at me & laugh): Simone Biles, Gabby Douglas, Aly Reisman (those names are already known & will (barring injury) almost certainly be back), along with Maggie Nichols, Bailie Key & maybe Kyla Ross or Madison Kocian (& if Kocian isn’t on the team, there’s a chance Ashton Locklear or, more likely, Brenna Dowell will make it as a bars specialist; this US team needs help on bars). Outside chance for Christina Desiderio, if she doesn’t crash & burn like Parkettes have a habit of doing. Foreseeing 2016 isn’t really so hard. Let’s go way out there, to Tokyo, 2020: look for (you’re still writing this down, right?) Jazzy Foberg, Laurie Hernandez, Ragan Smith, Jordan Chiles, Morgan Hurd and Olivia Dunne. Bailie Key may very well be back. Maybe Sydney Johnson-Scharpf (Brandy Johnson’s daughter) or Desiderio, or Gabby Perea.
Of course, nothing is for certain, and many factors (injury chief among them) can change the trajectory of any athlete’s career, and in no sport is this more true than gymnastics. Some of those named above may falter and fade from view, or currently unheralded stars may emerge. But, by and large, I am pretty sure that the names that I have mentioned above are going to be forming the bulk of the U.S. national team from now through 2020. I have seen the future, & American exceptionalism is alive and well in the sport of gymnastics.
I think perhaps the thing I like most about this current crop of athletes that is half these girls come from smaller gyms that have never put an athlete on a U.S. National or Olympic team before. (That, and Martha Karolyi is retiring. [i]O, frabjous day! Callou! Callay! [/i]30 years of two off-kilter Romanians running the U.S. team is finally at an end…)