The biggest question after Olympic hype wears off is always who’s next? Coming off the excitement of the splashy medal-a-thon that was the 2012 Olympics, American gymnastics fans basking in the golden light emitted by the Fierce Five are wondering who they should start following now to have the fast-track on prospective 2016 Olympic champions.
And the answer for the past 10 months or so has been: We don’t know. It’s way, way too early to tell. Let’s hark back:
In July of 2009, Gabby Douglas was an unknown elite competing for Excalibur in Virginia, a face in a very talented crowd of very young Olympic hopefuls. She was 16th at the 2008 Junior Nationals, and while it’s auspicious to be at Junior Nationals at all when you’re 12, it just goes to show that even future Olympic gold medalists aren’t necessarily on top from their first cartwheel on.
In July of 2009, Kyla Ross had one elite competition under her belt and was prepping for the 2009 Junior Nationals, which would be her second. Ross would go on to win that meet, which made her stand out as a genuine Olympic hopeful. The pressure would ramp up even more when she repeated her title in 2010.
In July of 2009, nobody — but nobody — had heard of McKayla Maroney, who at the time was training with Ross and coaches Howie Liang and Jenny Zhang at Gym-Max in California. (She jumped to Artur Akopyan and All Olympic Gymnastics Center in 2010). Maroney did reveal her Amanar at the 2009 Junior Nationals, and while it was astounding to see a 13-year-old do an Amanar so well (even then it was good — watch it here), Maroney finished very low in the standings due to weak tumbling on floor. (One of her passes at the time was a full twist. I remember wondering if she was injured.)
In July of 2009, Aly Raisman was getting ready to her Junior National debut. She would finish third in the all-around at the U.S. Junior Championships and get some attention as a mini-me of Alicia Sacramone. Before that, she was known as a sharp tumbler principally for this routine from the 2007 Parkette Invitational and was interviewed by emcee John Macready at the 2008 U.S. Championships.
No, of the five, in July of 2009 only reigning U.S. Junior champion Jordyn Wieber stood out as a real potential Olympic contender. At 13, Wieber had already won a national all-around title and an American Cup, something most elites never accomplish at all. That generates Olympic buzz, and with good reason.
That just covers those who did make it to the Olympics. There were so many who might have been there instead. But in July 2009, they too were unknowns, had finished below the top seven at the U.S. Olympic Trials, or were doing other things.
Fortunately, next weekend’s U.S. Classic in Hoffman Estates, Ill., will begin answering the question everyone is posing about the future right now. The Fierce Five were all present in 2009, and it’s likely that the next crop of Olympians are too. But who are they? We still don’t know.
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