What a showcase!
LSU kicked off the 2023 gymnastics season in the PMAC Monday night with the annual Gymnastics 101 preview/exhibition event. This was an incredible experience that showed off the potential this team has going into the upcoming season.
Before going into the routines and all, I want to give special mention to the way LSU ran this event. Last year’s Gym 101 was nothing compared to this year’s and set a standard for how to run these events. They showed a lot of variety on each event, running at least nine people per rotation; they created a great environment for the gymnasts that was less about doing things perfectly and more about getting used to doing things well under the lights in front of a crowd; and they created a wonderful fan experience by having coaches and gymnasts show off who they are in a way they can’t during the season and by adding the wonderful insight of Kaleigh Dickson-Aboud to put the “101” in Gym 101. Also, giving Jay Clark the mic is always a good idea because he’s a natural speaker, and it feels like you’re connecting with someone you know more than this random coach (this goes for his press conferences, too).
Of course, the most important thing was seeing how this team looks entering the 2023 season. Before breaking things down by rotation, I think it’s worth noting that this team is in far better physical shape than they were at this point last year. Last season, the entire team was dealing with injuries by Gym 101. This season, that’s not as true, which is a tremendous boost. Cammy Hall is out for the season with an Achilles injury, Annie Beard is out for the year with a shoulder injury, Livvy Dunne has two torn labrums and Kai Rivers is only back on beam so far (she’s recovering from rotator cuff surgery), but that appears to be the extent of the major injuries. Also, they looked like they had something to prove and fought through each routine hard. There was a clear will to win present less than a month before the season opener. Also, I won’t highlight every routine, just ones that felt noteworthy.
For those who may not have paid too much attention in the offseason, the NCAA added lines to the vault mats for the 2023 season (vault coaches rejoiced in unison). These two lines run straight down the mat from the ends of the vault table to the end of the mat and are parallel. There’s more to talk about with this change, but that’s for another time. Vault at Gym 101 was less about sticking the landing and more about power. This year’s vault lineup is as deep as last year’s, even with the graduation of Sarah Edwards’ Yurchenko 1.5, and it has the potential to run six 10.0 vaults (though Jay mentioned in his pre-Gym 101 press conference they’d probably run five at the most). Of the nine people that vaulted, seven have trained 10.0 vaults (the exceptions being Elena Arenas and Alexis Jeffrey) and four showed them off (Alyona Shchennikova, Aleah Finnegan, Kiya Johnson and Haleigh Bryant).
Alyona’s Yurchenko 1.5 showed vast improvement over what she competed last season, only taking a small step out of bounds (and since this wasn’t about landing, that’s extremely good). Aleah showed off her Omelianchik, a 10.0 vault she competed at the Southeast Asian Games back in May that flings out like a yo-yo and has incredible scoring potential. KJ Johnson did her Yurchenko Full that she competed all last year, and though she’s trained a double that starts higher (10.0 compared to 9.95 for the YF), Jay mentioned she may continue to compete the full if it’s more consistent than her double (KJ was incredibly consistent on vault and floor last year, going 9.800+ on all 21 of her routines, something no LSU freshman competing at least nine routines had done since 2002). Lastly, Bryce Wilson made her freshman debut with a Yurchenko Full, but she did a double this past level 10 season that got three 10s (much harder to do than in the SEC). Jay mentioned it could get upgraded to a double before the end of the season.
From the first press conference of the season, Jay made it clear that bars is the team’s least deep event. LSU graduated Sami Durante’s routine from last year, but the main issue with bars is that four of the six best bars workers are all-arounders. Kiya, Aleah, Alyona and Haleigh have to stay healthy for bars to be a good event, and that’s really concerning. Ask Michigan what happens when bars workers aren’t healthy late in the season.
After everyone went through their routines, Jay had some people do their dismount separate from their routine. Livvy never did her dismount on her original run out of injury concerns, and Chase Brock only did a dismount, something she told me was a last-minute decision Jay made to get her used to a hard landing while she works on a new release move in her routine. However, he had Tori Tatum, Aleah, Haleigh, Alyona and Kamryn Ryan do their dismounts after not hitting them the first time. It was partially to build comfort on hard landings and partly to give them a second chance after a first run that they didn’t seem to like.
Kiya’s still incredible on bars with a beautiful routine that’s expected to remain in the lead spot in 2023. Tori made her PMAC debut after missing all of last season with an injury. Her routine was nice, but she wasn’t happy about how it went and she’s trained better in the practice facility (it’s tough to get used to a new environment, though, credit her for pushing through). The most impressive routine in terms of growth was Alexis’, especially compared to what I saw at an intrasquad back in November. Her dismount gets incredible height, and if that’s what she does consistently, that’s ready for January. Elena’s bars were as pretty as usual; she’s someone who has a ton of talent but seems to lack the confidence needed to be consistent sometimes. Ashley Cowan made her freshman debut with a routine that looked a little rough around the edges but showed very good signs of being in the rotation soon. Both Aleah and Haleigh killed their routines except for the landings, and Aleah has a new dismount (Fontaine) for this year. Finally, Alyona’s bars looked good until the dismount on her first run. Credit where it’s due, her second dismount was much better, but neither looked as consistent as the one she’s done her whole career (better to have slight issues in December than in March, though).
This is where the loss of Annie Beard for this season stings. She’s a natural beam worker and would’ve been a nice addition to the lineup. LSU graduated two routines from this event: legendary lead Christina Desiderio and Bridget Dean. The past two seasons have ended with LSU succumbing to a balance beam situation in the postseason, and the most stressful event in sports is a test of mental focus more than raw talent. Luckily, this team showed off that talent and perseverance Monday night.
Kai is back and showed off a gorgeous routine set to Michael Buble’s cover of “Feeling Good,” and the song feels like the heart of the performance that makes it a masterpiece. She’s been named the lead performer on beam and no place seems more fitting for someone who fights for every tenth on this four-inch plank. Bryce showed off another routine that was vastly improved from November, she clearly put in a ton of work and found her spot to make it work. Alyona’s beam looked decent, but the landing was outstanding. Haleigh Bryant is pure talent, there is no debate to be had. That proof came when she did a standing jump on the beam that got a couple feet in the air before landing perfectly and then did her new dismount which is unbelievably difficult. Most people need a running start before executing her dismount, Haleigh doesn’t because she can generate enough power herself. Speaking of pure beam talent, Aleah has a new dismount. Instead of running off the beam, she jumps off the side. She stuck the landing, but her chest was piked, an issue that looks so close to getting fixed. That is all that’s keeping her from her beam 10, something that’s a matter of when, not if. KJ exhibitioned a beam routine back in February, but nobody paid much attention to it then. Ten months later, it looks incredible. Her mount is called a reverse planche and it looks like the work of Mr. Scoliosis. The rest of it looked close to ready for January, though it was the seventh routine shown, so perhaps it’ll be an alternate. Finally, Sierra showed off her routine, something new (for most people) that looked promising if she can nail her 180s.
Floor has always been the event that’s made LSU famous, and last year was no different. The team set a new school record for a floor rotation with a 49.775 against Auburn. However, a lot of last year’s greatness came from lead Christina Desiderio, who blossomed into a floor goddess in her final season. LSU also graduated Sarah Edwards’ routine, which was vital in the later part of last season. LSU showed all three passes from every routine*, skipping the first pass on the first run through before having everyone do it one after another at the end (it’s common for teams to skip the first pass on the first runs at these exhibitions, but it’s not common for them to show them afterward).
Speaking of that run through of first passes, something happened there (and earlier on bars) that showed the kind of coach Jay is. Sierra Ballard’s first pass, a double layout, went way out of bounds. Jay joked it off saying “it’s not supposed to do that” and had her go again after everyone else, and she nailed it that second time. Earlier on bars, Kam missed her Tkatchev release on her first attempt. They talked it through, and he had her stop so she could go again after everyone else. Sadly, she missed it again, and he decided not to keep pushing it and move on. That comes from knowing them really well as people and as athletes, and it’s a great trait in any coach.
Speaking of Sierra’s floor routine, it was very good. The music was top notch, the energy was just as expected from the hype queen of this team and the passes were very good. Sierra’s proven that she can kill it on floor in the past (9.9+ potential), perhaps this team can slot in one DLO for another. Alyona’s floor looked really good, the last pass floats so beautifully, it just looked like it has some minor kinks that are getting worked on before January. KJ’s floor music wasn’t nearly as iconic as last year’s, but the routine itself got better. It hasn’t changed too much, but the new additions, especially the ending, keep the feeling of a must-watch moment. Aleah dropped her routine, though, and that was perhaps the best thing ever. First, the new music is a vast improvement over last year’s mess of terrible transitions and incoherence (this is one of the best things to come out of gym Twitter in a long time). Second, it’s three passes now and the middle pass is breathtaking. Her first and third passes are the same from last year, and considering she can stick the third pass now, it feels like a matter of when, not if, she gets a 10. Haleigh is back to a three-pass routine after it was lowered to two to help with her plantar fascia last season. Again, pure talent on display with the best front tumbling in the country. That asterisk earlier is because of Kiya’s floor. She never did her first pass, nor did she do her third pass on the first run. Considering she told me back in August that the plan at the time was to have her do all-around at the first meet at Utah as opposed to holding her off floor the first few meets like last year to preserve her Achilles, it seems likely that this was done to make sure that plan gets executed. Finally, Chase’s floor was surprisingly good. She did not have a good routine at the early November intrasquad, but this was awesome. She killed her passes and looked very confident, something I noticed from the entire floor team. This was a routine that looked lineup ready if it’s consistent.
There is a lot to look forward to with this 2023 squad. Bryce Wilson showed flashes of being another LSU freshman star, the beam and floor rotations showed the true fire deep inside everyone as they fought through the routines and the talent LSU is known for showed up as this group begins their mission to prove that last season was a fluke. There is still reason to be concerned with bars depth, but that’s not in anybody’s control at the moment. Last year, the problem was inconsistency in every regard, from injury to mindset to meets getting shuffled, the last thing they were was Here & Now (seriously, that was an awful slogan). Now, 2022 is there and then as LSU begins the climb for 2023.