Gymnastics and experiences -- capped with team bronze -- light up Junior Worlds
posted on 06/28/2019

By Blythe Lawrence

They are among the best and bounciest of their generation, and at the first-ever Junior World Gymnastics Championships in Gyor, Hungary, this week, they entered into the history book in their sport.

If that all sounds like a lot to process, it’s perhaps no surprise that Sydney Barros, Skye Blakely and Kayla DiCello preferred to stick to the familiar. Through four events in Friday’s team final, which also served to decide the individual all-around podium and line-ups for Saturday’s and Sunday’s apparatus finals, the U.S. women focused on one step, one skill, and ultimately one routine at a time.

“I prepared for this meet like I would for any other thing, calm and cool,” said Di Cello, 15. “I came into this meet trying just to hit four really clean routines.”

That said, all three were well aware of the magnitude of being part of such a historic event. For years, gymnastics has contemplated a World Championships for gymnasts too young to compete at the senior level, giving them their own platform to perform their routines on a really big stage, complete with flashy introductions and a big deal ambiance. For the first time this year, it has become a reality.

“Just being able to be here knowing that this was the first Junior Worlds was super exciting for all of us,” Blakely, 14, said.

“It hasn’t really sunk in for me,” confessed Barros, also 14 and on her first national team international assignment.

It’s a step toward a future on the senior level, where more World Championships -- and maybe even an Olympic Games -- could be in store. Mounting the podium to receive the team bronze medal, behind powerhouses Russia and China, served as a reminder of the possibilities.

The format – three gymnasts competing on each apparatus and the best two scores counting toward the team total – was unusual. Together, Di Cello, Barros and Blakely accumulated 109.380 points, including the highest total score of the day on vault, second highest on uneven bars and third best among the 29-team field on beam and floor.

There was no catching Russia, led by 14-year-old Viktoriia Listunova, who took the all-around crown ahead of teammate Vladislava Urazova, with rising Chinese star Ou Yushan claiming bronze. Di Cello, the early leader in the all-around, just missed the medal podium in fourth, with Barros in sixth. Blakely had the seventh highest score, but did not place in the all-around due to the maximum of two athletes per country.

All three Americans will return to the competition floor this weekend for multiple event finals. DiCello has advanced to all four individual event finals, while Barros qualified to the vault final in first place and Blakely will join Di Cello in the medal rounds on uneven bars and floor exercise.

“We had a great time out there,” Blakely said. “My goal coming into this meet was just to do my best and support my team and be clean in the all-around. I feel pretty good about how it went.”

In Thursday’s men’s competition, the U.S. faced a tough challenge in an extremely competitive men’s field. Garrett Braunton, Isaiah Drake and Matt Cromier alternately strove to hit every exercise and basked in the feeling of taking part in their first global event as they achieved a seventh-place finish.

“Honestly, I’ve just been loving it,” said Braunton, 17. “This was my first international assignment so I’ve just been trying to take it all in and enjoy it. We knew the competition was going to be hard, and we knew there were going to be really great gymnasts. We wanted to go out and do what we knew what we could do. It wasn’t quite up to the standards we would have liked, but we fought for it.”

Each team member earned a place in the eight-man event finals. Cromier, who turned 17 earlier this month, tied for fifth in the floor exercise, while Braunton and Drake advanced on still rings in sixth and eighth places, respectively.

That was all fine with Cromier, who is thrilled just to be in Hungary. “I personally did not anticipate even being selected for this competition. I wasn’t even aware that it was a meet for awhile,” he said. “It’s amazing to see that we are starting off a generation of junior gymnastics. At the same time, I didn’t want to blow it out of proportion. I tried to think of it just as another meet.”

The Japanese trio of Shinnosuke Oka, Ryosuki Doi and 2018 Youth Olympic Games champion Takeru Kitazono dominated the competition in Gyor, sweeping to team gold. Oka and Doi occupied the top two spots in the all-around. Ukraine claimed silver, bolstered by performances from all-around bronze-medalist Illia Kovtun. A strong Italian squad surprised many in taking the bronze, its men’s team’s best result on a world stage in 106 years.

The American men enjoyed watching the Japanese in the gym, and also took advantage of being in the same hotel to make friends and play a few games of Nintendo, specifically Super Smash Bros. and Mario Kart.

In that, representatives from the two nations found themselves quite evenly matched.

“It was pretty even between who won -- they won a couple, we won a couple. It was all a lot of fun,” Drake said.

Of the competition, he mused thoughtfully, “It didn’t really feel real. It’s just crazy. You kind of look around and take it all in and to realize that you’re there is incredible.”