This weekend in Indianapolis, a field of U.S. Olympic contenders finally gets the chance to compete again — many for the first time in a year — at the Winter Cup.
“We’re all going to be pretty nervous,” said Sunisa Lee, 17, who helped the U.S. women win the team gold at the 2019 world championships in Stuttgart, Germany, where she claimed silver on the floor and bronze on the uneven bars.
The 2019 world championships doubled as Lee’s global coming-out party and her most recent competition, followed by 16 months during which she and her coach reconciled themselves to the fact that things simply weren’t going to unfold the way they wanted. While Lee kept working in the gym, not competing has been difficult.
“I personally lost a lot of confidence in myself, and it took a really long time to get back,” she said. “There is so much that goes into competing and scoring. There is a lot that goes on mentally that other people can’t see.”
The three-day Winter Cup, scheduled to get underway Friday with the men’s senior competition, followed by the women Saturday, won’t have a direct bearing on the makeup of the 2021 Olympic team. The men’s and women’s squads, restricted to four gymnasts each with a potential additional spot for a single-event specialist, will be announced after the U.S. Olympic trials June 24-27 in St. Louis.
But as the first competition of the USA Gymnastics season, the Winter Cup will be a crucial opportunity for gymnasts to shake off rust, gauge their progress and serve as a bellwether for who is on track to shine at the U.S. championships June 3-6 in Fort Worth and at the trials three weeks later.
Simone Biles, the sport’s biggest name, is not competing this weekend. The timing doesn’t mesh with her carefully plotted schedule, explained Biles’s coach Cecile Landi, who is targeting May 4 for her first international competition. Competing in Indianapolis, Landi said, would mean too many weeks in a row working on routines on hard surfaces, which is a risk to Biles’s health that the soon-to-be 24-year-old and her coaches aren’t willing to take.
Nonetheless, there’s no question that Biles, who won individual gold medals in the all-around, vault and floor at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics while leading the United States to the team gold, will anchor the Tokyo-bound squad.
In addition to Lee, other 2021 Olympic contenders competing Saturday include Riley McCusker and Jade Carey, who has essentially clinched the additional Olympic team spot as an event specialist. Laurie Hernandez, a 2016 Olympic champion, is competing, too. The men’s field is led by former world bronze medalists Yul Moldauer, Donnell Whittenburg and Brandon Wynn.
No fans will be admitted under the event’s pandemic protocols. The gymnasts are limited to bringing two parents or one parent and a spouse.
While the one-year postponement of the Tokyo Games has thrown off the carefully plotted preparation of athletes in all summer sports, the impact has been especially significant in gymnastics, in which the peak competitive window is brief, particularly for women.
For the 24-year-old Moldauer, who is attempting to qualify for his first Olympics, the delay has given him an opportunity to upgrade his skills. It also has given his body a chance to recover from the chronic injuries and punishment of the near-constant pounding of a sport he has done since he was 7.
“I feel healthier than I have in years,” Moldauer said Thursday. “I might be 24, but I feel like I’m 18.”
For Konnor McClain, 16, the delay has been life-changing. She is among the female gymnasts newly eligible for the Tokyo Games because she now meets the minimum age requirement (turning 16 during the Olympic year).
“It’s crazy to think about how my whole life pretty much changed after that news [of the postponement] came out,” McClain said.
Still, to manage the pressure, she’s trying to push notions of qualifying for Tokyo from her mind and focus instead on simply qualifying for the trials. A more realistic goal, she and her coach realize, is making the Olympic team in 2024, when she will be 19.
Nonetheless, McClain has plenty to be nervous about when she makes her competitive debut as a senior-level gymnast Saturday. Her most recent competition of any sort was a junior event in Canada in March, so this marks the longest stretch she has gone without competing since she was 4. It’s also her first competition on national television.
Several of the men’s gymnasts, such as Michigan’s Paul Juda, are on college teams, so they have had a chance to compete in recent months, though NCAA scoring differs from international scoring.
Moldauer, the 2017 U.S. all-around champion whose career at Oklahoma is behind him, had to figure out for himself how to simulate the pressure of competition amid months of training. It boils down to a massive mental challenge, he explained.
“You can train routines all day long,” he said, “but it’s up to you to put yourself in that situation to make it feel like a meet.”
As he does in learning any new skill, Moldauer broke it into discrete steps and focused on details. Each time he decided his training session would be a “competition,” with imaginary judges scoring him, he began by closing his eyes.
“You have to try and mentally … imagine exactly what the arena would look like, the color of the mats, the lighting, the clothes that the judges are wearing,” Moldauer said. “[You have to] really put yourself in that situation and tell yourself: ‘This counts. I’m at Winter Cup, or I’m at trials, or I’m at U.S. championships.’ ”
On Friday in Indianapolis, after months of waiting, Moldauer will open his eyes and be there.