U.S. Paris Olympians rise above the noise — U.S. Olympic Team Trials takeaways

The IX: Gymanstics Saturday with Lela Moore, July 6, 2024

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Well, we have an Olympic team. I don’t think it’s one anyone would have imagined at this time last week, before we lost Skye Blakeley, Shilese Jones and Kayla DiCello to injuries. 

But — and this is important — it’s an absolute stunner of a team. Simone Biles, Suni Lee, Jade Carey, Jordan Chiles, and Hezly Rivera. 

Four returning U.S. Olympians — and Biles back for her third Olympics! Just the fourth American woman to compete in three Games! — and one star in the making in Rivera. Two returning Olympic all-around champions (Biles and Lee) and one returning Olympic gold medalist on floor (Carey). Three NCAA veterans in Lee, Chiles and Carey. There is serious star power here.

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Which is why it was so shocking, not just to gymnastics fans but to the many Americans just starting to tune into the sport again in preparation for Paris, to see MyKayla Skinner — who competed with four-fifths of the Paris team in Tokyo three years ago — take to her YouTube channel during trials and manage, in a relatively short amount of time, to insult them all PLUS insult the culture changes at USA Gymnastics (which I think we can all agree are baby steps towards progress, but progress nonetheless over the previous regimes).

Don’t go looking for the video; Skinner pulled it. A few snippets live on but for the most part, it’s gone, and that’s for the best. She appears also to have pulled a halfhearted apology she recorded for Instagram once she became aware (perhaps it was the People article? The mass unfollowings?) that her words had hit wrong.

Skinner said that Lee — who won the Tokyo all-around after Biles had to pull out of competition with the twisties, and who has battled two kidney diseases that left her unable to do gymnastics for a good part of the last two years — lacked a gymnast’s body. She also criticized Lee for coming in second in the all-around with two falls, never mind that Lee’s difficulty is such that she can overcome those falls.

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Skinner wondered why Carey didn’t smile more. She said that besides Biles, the team was short on “talent and depth.” She did not know how to pronounce Rivera’s name despite recording her video alongside the broadcast of trials, where the announcers pronounced it correctly every time (something Rivera’s sister noted in a response to Skinner). 

The backlash was swift. Most notably, Kathy Johnson Clarke compared Skinner’s words to a “turd” in a post on X

Biles fired back on X. 

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So did Gina Chiles, Jordan’s mother. 

And then Rivera’s sister, with receipts

Dominique Moceanu, the 1996 Olympian who for years has spoken out about the abuse she suffered while being coached by Bela and Marta Karolyi, the latter of whom Skinner praised in her video for being “tough,” reiterated that tough coaching is not necessarily what’s best for athlete performance or health. 

Vanessa Atler, who has also spoken out about USAG corruption, called the video “petty and mean.”

All five members of the team, alternates Leanne Wong and Joscelyn Roberson, and Biles’s, Chiles’s, and Roberson’s coach Cecile Landi (who also served as the Tokyo team’s head coach) unfollowed Skinner across social media. 

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Here’s my theory on Skinner. She’s spent her whole life being told she’s “coachable.” She’s also grown up in a strict, authoritarian, patriarchal religion, and she comes off as quite sheltered. Like a lot of people with that background, she perhaps does not understand why people would stand up to authority. And instead of trying to understand, Skinner has gone on the attack. 

I’ve given Skinner a lot of oxygen here, but I think it’s important to understand an adversary when you stand up to them. I’m unspeakably proud of every athlete who heard themselves mentioned in her video and responded with far more measured words or actions. (I’m letting “turd” speak for itself, because it was Kathy Johnson Clarke who said it.)

This Olympic team has been through it. Abuse, regime change, constant turnover at USA Gymnastics. Testifying in front of the Senate, in Biles’s case, to force change. A global pandemic that disrupted their training and affected their mental health. Coaching changes, College careers, the good (Chiles and Carey) and the less good (Lee, who has said her experience at Auburn fell far short of her expectations). Turn Skinner’s words into background noise, or turn them into motivation to succeed far beyond her limited expectations. The Five Phoenixes, as this year’s Olympic team is now known, have already risen from the ashes, and they’re ready to take on the world. 

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Other gym news

Spencer Barnes liveblogged Olympic Trials on The Balance Beam Situation, and we’ve never been happier to see his snark on Day 1 and Day 2

The Gymternet’s Lauren Hopkins also liveblogged Day 1 and Day 2, and wrote a great article on the team selection to boot. 

Over at College Gym News, the focus was on Chiles, Carey and Lee as NCAA athletes on the Olympic team. 

GymCastic recapped the Trials. They also have a photo gallery from Trials and two paywalled Behind the Scenes takes on each day of trials. 

Five at The IX: Bridget Sloan and Kathy Johnson Clarke on Flipping Out

Bridget Sloan, 2008 Olympian and host of the podcast Flipping Out, has teamed up with Kathy Johnson Clarke this season to talk about the Olympics. Their recap of Olympic Trials is the one you should pay attention to (as opposed to the one I talked about in my intro). 

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Written by Lela Moore