[december games with gold]Simone Biles to lead U.S. gymnastics team’s quest for gold at Tokyo Olympics
Members of the U.S. Olympic women’s gymnastics team (from left): Simone Biles, Sunisa Lee, Jordan Chiles, and Grace McCallum plus individual members MyKayla Skinner and Jade Carey acknowledge the crowd at the U.S. Olympic trials on Sunday. (Jeff Roberson / Associated Press)
They draped themselves in red, white and blue streamers and danced happily, freely, the worst of the pressure behind them.
The six women newly nominated to Team USA for the Tokyo Olympics and the four alternates joined their male counterparts as well as the newly minted rhythmic and trampoline and tumbling Olympic nominees to mug for the cameras, flex their muscles and twirl madly, relief replacing fatigue after two days of tense competition at the U.S. Olympic trials. “Hey Mom,” MyKayla Skinner said in the middle of the chaos, “I made it.”
Skinner’s individual spot was hardly sure, not when she returned to elite gymnastics after enjoying a college career at Utah and certainly not when she had COVID-19 and pneumonia last December and returned to competition as the oldest hopeful, at 24. Hers is one of many remarkable comeback stories that bond the women who will be favored to bring home a team gold medal among their medal haul from the COVID-delayed Summer Games.
The one sure thing about the trials played out as expected, though with a few uncharacteristic wobbles and a fall off the balance beam: Simone Biles, the 2016 Olympic all-around gold medalist, will go to Tokyo as the U.S. Olympic trials all-around champion.
“It wasn’t my best performance today. I got in my head and doubted myself and you could see that today,” she said. “I feel like there’s a lot of expectations that everybody puts on me and I put on myself and it’s hard to keep that out.
“I think, ‘I haven’t fallen all week,’ and of course I do that. You get a little bit tired, so the doubts start creeping in.”
The world’s greatest gymnast has doubts? It’s completely understandable considering she has been through a physically and emotionally exhausting path that included acknowledging that she had been sexually abused by former national team doctor Lawrence Nassar.
“It’s been a really long journey from 2016 to now,” Biles said.
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Biles said she wasn’t aware that she’d get an automatic nomination because of her first-place finish, with 118.098 points. Sunisa Lee of St. Paul, Minn., whose second-day total of 58.166 was higher than Biles’ 57.333, also got an automatic berth for compiling a runner-up total of 115.832. “Simone Day 1 kicked the butt of Simone Day 2,” Biles said of her performance on the first day of the two-part competition.
Lee, 18, said outscoring Biles on Sunday “gives me a lot of confidence going into the Olympics. I know it probably won’t happen again,” she said, adding that she expects Biles to upgrade to tougher vaults at the Games and compile a higher score.
A selection committee chose third-place finisher and incoming UCLA freshman Jordan Chiles, 20, who trains alongside Biles in Spring, Texas, for the third spot and decided on Grace McCallum, 18, for the fourth team spot. Skinner, who dropped from fourth after the first day to fifth, got the individual spot, perhaps helped by uneven bars specialist Riley McCusker’s fall in that event.
“It seemed appropriate to go in ranked order, and that’s what we did,” said Tom Forster, the high performance team coordinator for USA Gymnastics. “The better thing to do is to let the athletes select themselves on the field of play.”
Jade Carey of Phoenix, 21, also will go to Tokyo because she earned an individual spot based on her performances in floor exercise and vault in the International Gymnastics Federation’s Apparatus World Cup series. However, she has had a lingering leg injury and could be replaced. The alternates are Emma Malabuyo, also an incoming UCLA freshman and the ninth-place trials finisher, Kayla DiCello, Kara Eaker and Leanne Wong.
“I feel the four-person team, we have a lot of depth on all the events,” Biles said. “We’ll get set once we get over there and we should be fine.”
Biles brushed off whether pain from an injury could have explained her slightly flawed efforts Sunday. “I’m just old. I’m always in pain. Something always hurts,” the 24-year-old said.
Biles’ fall off the balance beam drew gasps from the crowd of about 20,000 at the Dome at America’s Center. She had so much power on her floor exercise tumbling passes that she went out of bounds twice, though the crowd didn’t care and gave a standing ovation in tribute to the defending Olympic all-around gold medalist. She was touched by the ovation and responded with a bright smile and a wave.
“I’m very relieved that trials is over,” Biles said. “There’s a lot of work to put in once we get over there but I’m super excited.”
Chiles said she wasn’t sure where she stood while the selection committee debated how to fill out the roster. She finished second to Lee on the bars, fourth on beam and third in floor exercise. “Deep down I was hoping my spot was locked down by my performances,” she said. “I’m just very excited.”
That was evident as she and her new teammates danced and twirled toward Tokyo. When the music stopped, the next step of their journey began.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.