Four Things To Know About The U.S. Gymnastics Team

By Kayla Francione

Five first-time Olympians will be among the six women heading to Tokyo as part of the 2021 U.S. women’s Olympic gymnastics team. Leading the charge, as expected, is reigning Olympic champion Simone Biles. She’ll be joined by newcomers Sunisa Lee, Jordan Chiles and Grace McCallum in the team competition. Jade Carey and Mykayla Skinner will round out Team USA as individual competitors. Four alternates will also travel to Japan. 

The International Gymnastics Federation cut the gymnastics team event size from five gymnasts to four gymnasts for the Tokyo Games — the 2012 Olympics in London featured teams of five, while the 2008 Games in Beijing featured six gymnasts per team — which meant this year’s U.S. trials were even more nerve-wracking than normal. But it also created opportunities. Those gymnasts who were perhaps not versatile enough to earn an all-around spot could rely on their strengths in one of the four apparatuses: balance beam, uneven bars, floor and vault. 

Biles and Lee earned automatic berths on the roster after clinching the top two highest all-around scores during the two-day competition, while the others were chosen by a selection committee. 

The U.S. will send two event specialists — Carey, who had already secured an at-large berth to the Olympics in April thanks to her performance on the World Cup circuit — and Skinner.

Here are four things to know about the U.S. team:

The GOAT wasn’t up to her usual impossible standards, but she still slayed

Simone Biles — who won five medals, four of them gold, in Rio in 2016 — locked down her automatic berth for the Tokyo Games after finishing with the top all-around score (118.098 overall) at the trials. But she didn’t do it in typical Simone Biles fashion.  

After a crowd-pleasing, if safe, performance on the first day of trials, Biles committed some uncharacteristic errors on Day 2: she fell off the beam, stepped out of bounds during her floor routine, and made a few mistakes on bars. Her miscues were enough to knock her down to second place in the all-around event for that day.  It’s the first time anyone has beaten Biles in any portion of an all-around meet since her first senior national championships in 2013. 

Although her first day score was still enough to easily land her the top overall score for the meet, Biles — the most decorated and dominant American gymnast of all time — wasn’t satisfied. “Simone Night One kicked Simone Night Two’s butt,” she told the media after the trials, referring to her performance on Friday, when she outscored the rest of the field by nearly three points. “At the end of the day, it is what it is. It wasn’t my best performance. I kind of got in my head today.”

Biles was understandably frustrated with her performance, but she didn’t chalk it up to injury and she knew that she had played it safe in terms of difficulty, at least by her standards. But she still pulled off the Cheng — a vault, named for China’s Cheng Fe, that consists of a round-off, half twist onto the horse, back layout 1 1/2 off and is considered one of the most difficult skills in the world — during the first day. 

Unbowed, Biles — who is trying to become the first woman in more than a half-century to repeat as Olympic champion — vowed after the competition to “ just go home, work harder” to prepare for her second Olympics, which start July 23.  “This is just the beginning of the journey,” she said.

Suni Lee shined in spite of her grief

Sunisa Lee, 18, is the youngest gymnast on this year’s Olympic team — but she performed like a veteran. Lee — known as “Suni” — finished second to Biles, with an all-around score of 115.832, and was first on uneven bars and beam. She also had the highest all-around score of Day 2. 

Lee, the first-ever Hmong American to qualify as an Olympic gymnast, will be a freshman at Auburn this fall. She has dealt with more than her share of adversity over the past few years. Her father, John, fell from a ladder while trimming a tree in 2019 and is now paralyzed from the chest down. Her aunt and uncle died last summer from COVID. And Lee broke her foot last June, which prevented her from training for three months.

All of that made her stunning uneven bars performance even sweeter. It was one of the main factors why Lee — who totaled 30.2 points over the two days of competition on the apparatus — snagged one of the team spots. She also showcased her strength on the beam. 

Beating Biles, her close friend, was a boost for Lee. “That gives me a lot of confidence, especially because I still haven’t done all four passes on floor and my bar routine could have been a little bit better,” Lee said after the trials. But she acknowledged that beating the world’s best gymnast in Tokyo will be a tall order.  “I know it probably won’t happen again because [of] her floor and vault, and she usually is pretty good on everything else. But I was really excited.”

Jordan Chiles benefited from the Biles buddy system

After she finished 11th in the all-around at nationals in 2018, Chiles was ready to give up gymnastics. Instead, at Biles’ urging, she moved from Vancouver, Washington, to Texas to train alongside Biles at World Champions Centre, the gym owned by Biles’ family, in 2019. Chiles hasn’t looked back since. 

The 20-year-old won the all-around, vault and floor exercise and took silver on beam at the 2021 Winter Cup. At the U.S. Championship, Chiles clinched bronze in the all-around and on vault. She also has not fallen in her last 24 events, so expect her consistency to be a strong suit in Tokyo,  as it was at the trials. Chiles — who is committed to UCLA, a program that has won seven NCAA team championships — was chosen by the selection committee after finishing in third place with a score of 114.631. She placed second on uneven bars and third on floor exercise.

And no one was more psyched than her training partner. “I’m very proud of Jordan,” said Biles. Each athlete is allowed to bring one coach to Tokyo — which means the duo that trains Biles and Chiles, Laurent and Cecil Landi, can both attend.  “I’m excited that we get to have both Cecil and Laurent because we are all a team,” said Biles. “To have the entire team go to Tokyo, it means the world.” 

Mykayla Skinner finally broke through to earn a berth

In 2012, Skinner failed to qualify for the Olympic trials. In 2016, she finished fourth in the all-around, but was not named to the five-woman Olympic team. Instead, she was chosen as one of three alternates for Rio. This time around, she had to sweat it out once again.

Skinner finished fifth in the all-around at the trials, with a score of 112.264 — which was three-tenths of a point behind Grace McCallum, who earned the final team spot for Tokyo. That left one individual berth to be decided and no guarantee that it would go to Skinner. Sunday night, the selection committee chose Skinner as the second individual competitor because of her strength on vault. She finished third in the vault competition at the trials, but the 24-year-old — who will graduate from Utah in 2022 — was the 2018 NCAA champion in the event (and runner-up in the all-around competition) as well as the silver medalist in vault in the 2021 U.S. Championship. So she has a history of success on the apparatus.

She also has added perspective. Last fall, Skinner suffered an Achilles overuse injury that required platelet-rich plasma injections. In December, she tested positive for the coronavirus and had to pause her training. In a video posted Wednesday on her YouTube channel, Skinner said that she’s at peace with qualifying for the Olympics as an individual. “I know that I really wanted to be on the four-man team, but taking an individual spot is still awesome,” Skinner said. “I am so proud of myself that I did the best that I could do — and that is really all that matters.”

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