What we learnt from USA Gymnastics' Winter Cup competition

Top takeaways from the first elite gymnastics competition in the United States in nearly a year

By Scott Bregman
Picture by 2021 Getty Images

With the first elite U.S. gymnastics competition in nearly a year in the books, here's a look at what we learned and what it could mean in the run-up to the Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan, later this year.

Making the U.S. women's team for Tokyo 2020 is going to be very hard

After this weekend, Jordan Chiles has put herself squarely in the conversation of contenders for the U.S. women's team. With Simone Biles all but assured of one of team four berths to Games, the competition for the remaining three will be fierce to say the least. The U.S. women will also have two individual women at Tokyo 2020.

Jade Carey, the 2019 World silver medallist on vault, has already mathematically earned one of those spots. Her new teammate Riley McCusker, a member of the 2018 U.S. women's World team that won gold, looked improved in Indianapolis and could be hoping to compliment her friend and training part in those individual spots, if she isn't among the four. Her best events, the uneven bars and balance beam, perfectly compliment Carey who excels on floor and vault.

Three-time World medallist and 2019 U.S. all-around silver medallist Suni Lee made a statement Saturday (27 February) with her high-flying uneven bars routine that earned a 15.050. But the 17-year-old has been sidelined from floor and vault for months, putting a question mark on one of Team USA's strongest athletes.

But many of the biggest names in the sport didn't compete in Indy, including Biles. Also absent and among the contenders: 2019 World team members Grace McCallum, MyKayla Skinner and Kara Eaker. 2017 World all-around champion Morgan Hurd was also not at the event.

Laurie Hernandez solid in return

The most anticipated routines at Winter Cup came from 2016 Olympic gold and silver medallist Laurie Hernandez, who was making her return to competition after more than four years away.

Though she only competed on two events and opted to perform a slightly watered down version of her Hamilton-themed floor routine, Hernandez made a strong impression. Her balance beam routine was the fifth best in Saturday's senior women's session.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway for the 20-year-old was a newfound joy while competing her sport.

“I did feel genuine joy coming back out there and showing off this new routine,” said Hernandez of the exercise she choreographed and cut herself. “I just got to be myself, like how I am in practice. There was no pressure from [coach Jenny Zhang]. It was just pure joy and pure wanting me to be well today.”

U.S. men will need Mikulak at his best

The best U.S. man since the London 2012 Olympic Games, Sam Mikulak, missed the event after being out of training in late 2020 when his fiancée contracted COVID-19 and he was forced to quarantine.

2004 Olympic silver medallist Brett McClure, now the U.S. men's high performance director told Olympic Channel in February, that he hoped his team could return to the medal podium at Tokyo 2020 after finishing fifth in 2012 and 2016.

“To be on that podium is always the goal,” McClure said. “[The goal is] to represent your country and earn a medal, and that's really what our goal will continue to be for years to come regardless of the situation.”

For that goal to become reality, they'll need Mikulak back at full strength as the most experienced and scoring leader of the team. Though it's still very early in this Olympic season, the U.S. men struggled in Indianapolis with veterans like Yul Moldauer, Allan Bower and Shane Wiskus and up-and-coming contender Paul Juda all suffering major mistakes during Friday's competition.

Newcomer Cameron Bock, who won the title, along with runner-up Riley Loos made a statement that they could be in the mix later this year.

It's too early to know what any of this means

For almost all of the athletes competing at the Winter Cup, it was the first chance to compete since March 2020 at the latest. They came to Indianapolis at different levels of preparedness, different goals and each having faced different challenges during the last 12 months.

In a normal Olympic year, what happens in February might not matter come Olympic Trials in June, much less in a year after all the challenges of 2020. The most important thing for U.S. gymnasts hoping to be in Tokyo 2020? Doing now what they need to do in order to be in top form come the summer.