Who could wow at U.S. Olympic Trials? — Dvora Meyers on Trials, gymnast ages and elephants

The IX: Gymnastics Friday with Claire Billman, June 28, 2024

Editor’s note: Happy Gymnastics Saturday — or Friday, in this case! We’re bringing this story to you a day early, as the women’s competition in the U.S. Olympic Trials begins tonight.

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I’m Claire Billman, a senior editor at College Gym News who covers the SEC. I’m pinch-hitting for the impeccable Lela Moore this week. She claims she’s visiting family, but I think she (quite reasonably) didn’t want to deal with the frenzy that is Olympic Trials! (Lela’s note: You got me, Claire!)

We’re two days away from finding out which five gymnasts will represent the United States at the Paris Olympics, and the surrounding drama has already reached a fever pitch. So grab your go-to emotional support beverage and buckle up.

On Thursday morning, USA Gymnastics confirmed what gymnastics fans had feared: 19-year-old Skye Blakely, who was considered one of the frontrunners to make the team, withdrew from the Olympic Trials after suffering a right Achilles injury during Wednesday’s podium training. The news is all the more heartbreaking because it’s the second time in her career that Blakely has been forced to withdraw from Trials due to injury.  

Along with the obvious blow to everyone’s morale, Blakely’s withdrawal changes and arguably complicates the selection process. She was expected to contribute massive scores on bars, beam and — following the competitive debut of her Cheng on vault at the U.S. championships earlier this month — vault.

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Before Wednesday, most fan and media projections looked something like this:

  • Locks: Simone Biles, Shilese Jones (if healthy)
  • Near-locks: Sunisa Lee, Skye Blakely
  • Fifth spot/alternates: Jade Carey, Jordan Chiles, Kayla DiCello, Leanne Wong
  • Unlikely but in the mix: Kaliya Lincoln, Hezly Rivera, Joscelyn Roberson, Tiana Sumanasekera 

Now, who knows? The U.S. was relatively thin on bars and beam even with Blakely. Adding another layer of uncertainty is that two of the top bars and beam athletes, Suni Lee and Shilese Jones, are managing chronic conditions that could affect their respective performances. At this point, there’s no reason to count either gymnast out, but the selection committee will want to cover its bases by having at least one more viable routine on both events. If it can also bank another vault capable of scoring in the mid-14s or higher, all the better.

Assuming three spots go to Biles, Jones and Lee, this is where I think the rest of the field stands heading into the Olympic Trials, based on clips from podium training and recent competitive results.

  • Jade Carey: Both her Amanar upgrade on vault and surprisingly solid bars scores at nationals bode well for the reigning Olympic floor champ’s prospects. If either her upgrades on floor or improved execution manifests in competition, she’s a veritable lock for the team.   
  • Jordan Chiles: The Tokyo Olympic silver medalist has consistently scored in the low to mid-14s on both vault and bars this year, and she is capable of hitting 14.000 on floor. At nationals, she fell on floor on Night 1 and beam on Night 2, but she still broke 55.000 both nights. 
  • Kayla DiCello: The Tokyo Olympic alternate has proven her mettle on vault and floor but is literally hit or miss on the other events. She took bronze in the all-around at nationals despite multiple falls on Night 2. Her overall ceiling is higher than any of the other top contenders, but she’ll need to demonstrate that she can hit all four events two days in a row. 
  • Leanne Wong:The CEO” had a phenomenal 2023 season, finishing third in the all-around at nationals and earning team gold at Worlds, but has struggled to maintain that pace in 2024. She’s capable of big scores on all four events when she hits (as evidenced by her performance on Night 1 of the U.S. championships), but — like her Florida teammate DiCello — she’s got to prove she’s a reliable utility player to make the team. 
  • Hezly Rivera: If her performance at championships is any indication, Rivera is peaking at just the right time. She finished a surprising sixth in her senior nationals debut and is capable of scoring 14s or higher on vault, bars and beam. 
  • Tiana Sumanasekera: Fan favorite Sumansekera has a solid Yurchenko double twist and brings a lot to the table on beam and floor. She also has a robust international résumé despite being just a second-year senior. 
  • Joscelyn Roberson: The future Arkansas Razorback is known for her huge difficulty scores but is still coming back from the significant ankle injury she sustained at Worlds last fall. As of nationals, her execution was still a little rough around the edges. Like Carey, she’ll have to show that the reward is worth the risk.
  • Kaliya Lincoln: Her status is somewhat up in the air after withdrawing from nationals midway through Day 1 after tweaking her foot on beam. When she’s at full strength, Lincoln is an exceptional floor worker and has scored well internationally on beam in the past.  
  • Eveylynn Lowe: Echoing USAG, don’t sleep on Evey Lowe! Her beam and floor scores are strong and, more importantly, consistent. It also doesn’t hurt that her strengths complement those of both Carey and Chiles.
  • Dulcy Caylor: Caylor has long odds due to comparatively low difficulty scores, but her 54.133 at Jesolo warrants consideration. Her execution is particularly lovely on vault and bars.
  • Zoey Molomo: The first-year senior has typically gotten low to mid-13s across the board in 2024 but notably posted a 13.650 on beam at nationals. 
  • Simone Rose: Like Molomo, Rose generally scores in the low to mid-13s on all four events but has cracked 13.500 multiple times this year (including a 13.850 at this year’s Pacific Rim championships).

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Other gym news

WCC boasts five of the 15 gymnasts competing at the Olympic Trials. 

Be sure to check in with Ari Chambers this weekend for all the behind-the-scenes content you want with none of the cringe.

Reigning NCAA all-around champion and 2024 Honda Award finalist Haleigh Bryant has been nominated for two ESPYs

Fan favorite therapy dog Beacon is back on the podium. 

Minneapolis is taking its duties hosting Trials very seriously.

Brazil’s Olympic team announcement.

Suni Lee was one of several gold medalists to detail the turmoil that followed Olympic success in this compelling Sports Illustrated feature by Stephanie Apstein.

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Five at The IX: Dvora Meyers

A professional headshot of Dvorak Meyers.
Dvora Meyers. (Photo credit: Carla Phillips)

Dvora Meyers is a premier gymnastics writer, the author of “The End of the Perfect 10: The Making and Breaking of Gymnastics’ Top Score — From Nadia to Now,” and a returning interviewee here at The IX. She lives in Brooklyn. This interview has been lightly condensed and edited for clarity.

The IX: Aside from the presumptive frontrunners, who will you be watching at the Olympic Trials? Are there any gymnasts you think could surprise us?

Dvora Meyers: Kaliya Lincoln. With Skye Blakely’s injury moving Jade Carey from “really good chance to make it if she shows upgrades” to virtual lock, it makes bringing another gymnast with a good bars/beam set important, especially if you want a bars backup for Shilese Jones, who has been having some shoulder issues.

Bars is Lincoln’s weakest event, but she is a standout on floor and can provide a good beam and vault. So she’s got an outside shot. While she is more likely to be named an alternate, I’d love to see her go lights out and make things really difficult for the selection committee. 

The IX: Which routines do you think will be the difference-makers?

DM: Suni on floor. I didn’t see the Chusovitina coming, did you? We’ve gotten accustomed to talking about the 2021 Olympic all-around champion as a bars/beam specialist this year due to her recovery from her kidney diseases that have hampered her training. But let’s not forget that she placed fourth in the all-around at national championships with watered-down routines.

Yes, her upgraded bars and beam are critical to the team (and to her chances of being named), but Suni showing upgraded bars isn’t exactly a surprise; we’ve all been waiting for it. Suni showing an upgrade on the floor tells me she’s not just gunning for the team but trying for an all-around berth that many have all but conceded to Shilese Jones.

The IX: There’s an influx of current, recent and future NCAA gymnasts competing at the U.S. Olympic Trials in addition to those who’ll be representing other federations at the Olympics. Aside from the obvious changes to name, image and likeness (NIL) rules, what other factors have contributed to change?

DM: The change in leadership at USA Gymnastics has certainly helped American gymnasts balance college gymnastics and their NCAA careers. I can’t imagine NCAA gymnasts being allowed to miss national team training camps during the college season during Marta [Karolyi]’s reign. It would be an either/or proposition.

This year, Jade Carey and Leanne Wong have gone straight from college gymnastics into elite without a break. And in 2022 and 2023, Wong, Carey and Jordan Chiles did the same thing. [It] worked out for all three in 2022 but not for Chiles and Carey in 2023.

Now, Chiles and Florida’s Kayla DiCello decided to take off the 2024 college season to focus solely on their elite training, but that was a choice they got to make for themselves. I don’t think this would’ve been an option in past generations.

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The IX: Over the last two quads, we’ve seen a shift in the median age range of top female gymnasts away from early and mid-teens to late teens or older. Do you think this is a blip or an enduring trend?  

DM: The thing about trends is that they’ve often been underway for quite some time before the general public becomes aware of them. This was true about the decline in ages. It received a lot of attention in the early to mid-1970s with the arrival of Olga Korbut and Nadia Comaneci, but the ages of gymnasts had been going down since around the mid-1960s.

I think this has also been true in reverse — the ages have been increasing for some time. I wrote my first piece about this phenomenon for The Atlantic back in 2012. Back then, the U.S. team was unusually young, but that wasn’t the case for teams like Russia, which featured at least one veteran from 2008, and Romania, which had Sandra Izbasa and Catalina Ponor.

The 1996 U.S. team was half veterans from 1992, though still quite young because those “veterans” had been 14 and 15 [years old] in Barcelona. The 2000 team had two athletes in their 20s from 1996. 2004 also had two 20-somethings in Mohini Bhardwaj and Annia Hatch.

2008 and 2012 were young teams, but the bigger point is that the age has been creeping up for several cycles now, and that has been true even longer for gymnasts from countries with less gymnastics depth. Of course, as you noted in your question, we’re talking about the top athletes, who often come out of the most competitive programs with teams that are very difficult to make.

What was unusual about gymnastics is that our superstars rarely stuck around for more than one Olympics, and when they did, it was treated as an aberration. The narrative around Hatch and Bhardwaj emphasized that the reason they were so “old” was because they missed making the Olympics when they were younger, which was then seen as the “right” time to go to the Games. So their ages didn’t normalize the idea that female gymnasts can compete well into their 20s and win medals. (Hatch won the silver in the 2004 vault final.)

The difference now is the idea of competing into your 20s and going for more than one Games has been normalized and not treated as some sort of redemption arc. Most of the 2021 team, save for Grace McCallum and MyKayla Skinner, is trying for Paris, and these gymnasts weren’t 16-year-olds in their first (or in Biles’ case, second) go-round.

As a writer, I have a tendency to overstate the importance of narrative, but I actually think the shift in how we talk about age is important. It’s become accepted that some athletes take longer to develop into strong competitors and that development can continue well into one’s senior career. (See: Jones’ glow up.)

If you go back to the 1996 Olympics, NBC was talking about 19-year-old Shannon Miller like she was minutes away from cashing Social Security checks, but now we’re no longer talking about athletes in their 20s like they’re geriatrics ready for their walkers. We used to always talk about the ideal time to turn 16 — whether it should be during the Olympic year or the one before so that athlete could go to worlds first for experience — but I see less and less of that because there is no “perfect” age to go to the Olympics and you don’t have just one shot at it.

While the trend may have been in evidence for a while, the narrative and expectations have finally caught up. I think the narrative creates momentum for the trend. It’s a positive feedback loop.  

The IX: You’re a self-described superfan of the New York Liberty mascot Ellie the Elephant, who’s gone viral thanks to her halftime performances as Beyonce, Lil’ Kim, etc. What gymnast — past or present — would you like to see her pay homage to? 

DM: Yes, I’m a middle-aged woman who is obsessed with a dancing pachyderm, but I defy anyone to go to [Liberty home] games and not fall in love with her. It’s simply impossible! And it’s not just the halftime shows that have gone viral. Ellie performs throughout the whole game — she’s in the stands, dancing with fans, and twerking behind the basket when the visiting team players are shooting free throws. She’s always ON.

Since Ellie is the GOAT of mascots — this is not up for debate — it’s only fitting that she should pay homage to the gymnastics GOAT, Simone Biles. But stylistically speaking, I think Big Ellie (not the lil’ one!) would do a great job with Jordan Chiles’ routines. Like Ellie, Jordan did her own homage to Beyonce with her national championships leotards. In fact, I think Jordan and Big Ellie should perform together!

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