Confidence boost pays off for junior at P&G Gymnastics Championships

This summer, Bobby Baker did what countless other kids his age do at this time of year -- he went off to college.

It's a rite of passage that presents many new tasks and responsibilities for anybody, but Blake found something much more important there.

Upon arriving at the University of Illinois, he got the chance to train with a new set of teammates and a group of coaches led by 2008 Olympic bronze medal-winner Justin Spring. As Baker put it, it gave him a confidence boost, one he felt he needed in order to get over the hump and make the junior national team after years of coming up short.

Friday at Consol Energy Center, that change was very much in evidence.

After the first of two days of competition at the P&G Gymnastics Championships, Baker leads the 17-18-year-old group of junior men.

His combined score of 84.45 -- one that included the competition's top marks on the rings and high bar -- gives him a 1.05-point advantage over second-place Hunter Justus. It's a lead that gives Baker some cushion and comfort heading into today, but his routine and mindset will remain the same as it was heading into Friday.

"Just keep there, keep it in first," Baker said. "I need to do the same thing I did [Friday]. It's a job, so just go do my job one more time."

Baker's ascent to first was the product of an impressive, well-rounded performance. It also was made possible, however, because of a showing from defending all-around champion Dmitri Belanovski that was equal parts underwhelming and unexpected.

Belanovski, who also finished first in the all-around at the Junior Olympic National Championships in May, was unable to grasp the high bar after a flip, an early mistake that set him back considerably after his first event. By the end of the sixth and final event, he was in seventh place among 11 participants.

"[It] wasn't good at all," Belanovski said.

"I just didn't feel like myself out there."

On the 15-16-year-old side, Marty Strech had the best combined score (83.95), a mark he accomplished by posting the top score in four of six events (floor exercise, pommel horse, rings and high bar) held Friday.

Though Strech, the runner-up in the 2013 P&G Championships, holds the lead, it's a narrow one. Anthony McCallum trails Strech by 0.05, a difference that could easily be lost in a single event.

Strech admittedly is uncomfortable with being in first halfway through the competition -- it's something he said makes you feel extra internal pressure -- but he is hoping to maintain his form in what would be an enviable position for many others.

"I know he's right behind me and that one little mistake can change the whole game," Strech said. "It's all about just trying to keep your focus."

New Hall of Famers

Headlined by 2008 Olympic all-around gold medalist Nastia Liukin, the USA Gymnastics Hall of Fame inducted six new members. Liukin, also a four-time gold medalist at the world championships, was only the third American woman to claim the all-around gold at the Olympics. She retired from the sport in 2012.

Other inductees included Courtney Kupets, the 2002 uneven bars world champion and two-time Olympic gold medalist; longtime Illinois men's gymnastics coach Yoshi Hayasaki; Lisa Wang, a three-time U.S. rhythmic gymnastics all-around champion; Blaine Wilson, a 2004 Olympics silver medalist; and judge and administrator Jola Jones.

Craig Meyer: and Twitter @CraigMeyerPG. First Published August 23, 2014 10:14 AM

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