A new season of ‘Blind Landing’ is here — What to expect for the U.S. Olympic gymnastics team

The IX: Gymnastics Saturday with Lela Moore, June 15, 2024

Happy Gymnastics Saturday! If you’re a podcast listener, I urge you to go fire up the new season of “Blind Landing” right now. 

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You may be familiar with “Blind Landing” from columns past. I’ve discussed it in-depth at least once and interviewed the podcast’s host, Ari Saperstein, three times. The show’s first season contained a deep dive into the vault disaster during the women’s all-around competition at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney. 

The second season looked at gymnastics’ chillier cousin, figure skating. It discussed homophobia and racism in the sport. 

Saperstein has also produced episodes on gymnasts Ilia Kovtun of Ukraine and Rebeca Andrade of Brazil and how they have changed the gymnastics landscape in their respective home countries.

And now, we’re back to gymnastics, and a look at how the last decade has reshaped women’s gymnastics. If anyone is equipped to take this on, it’s Saperstein. He’s a public radio producer who has contributed to heavyweights in his field like “This American Life” and “Serial.”

I listened to “Blind Landing” while on a run this week — my preferred way to soak in the audio experience — and appreciated his focus in the first episode on the historical significance of Gabrielle Douglas, Simone Biles and Sunisa Lee all competing together at American Classic. And yes, he does note that only briefly were the three on the floor together. However, he emphasizes that the brevity does not dilute the gravity of the moment. And in a sport where brevity — both in scores and the time spent on an event — determines entire competitions and careers, it’s a strong point. 

Like me, Saperstein is a journalist who has not always focused on gymnastics, or even sports, during his career. This is largely why I am drawn to his work. There’s a sense of wonder about it. He reminds me, and listeners, that we’re proximate to key moments in a niche sport and it’s special to get to share them with others and explain just what makes gymnastics significant. Give it a listen! 

Other gym news

Every year, College Gym News rates recruitable gymnasts1 and releases their rankings in June. Each recruit is ranked on a five-star scale by various performance metrics. The ratings were published this week for the class of 2026, with updates made to the ratings for the classes of 2025 and 2024. Go find your favorites, and then check out deeper dives into the 2026 five-star recruits, big-name recruits, class of 2025 glow-ups and the major improvements in the class of 2024.  

Sam Peszek will be joining the NBC broadcast team in Paris for women’s gymnastics. She’s pretty stoked. To be honest, so am I. 

Becky Downie, MBE, made the British Olympic team. I repeat, Becky Downie, MBE, made the British Olympic team. 

In other British Olympic team news, Charlotte Booth, a former U.S. elite who switched nationalities this year to compete for Great Britain, was named one of the alternates

Oksana Chusovitina said she’ll try for the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles. 

Aly Raisman wrote a piece for PopSugar about embracing being single at 30.

Washington’s Skylar Killough-Wilhelm is in the transfer portal, following Huskies head coach Jen Llewellyn’s move to Iowa.

Five at The IX: Ari Saperstein

Ari Saperstein, podcast host, in an Instagram profile photo wearing a blue shirt.

Yep, the same one I mentioned above. Saperstein is the creator, host and editor of the Blind Landing podcast, which covers gymnastics (and other sports) with a nod to history and a focus on the stories that don’t get told. He is also a public radio producer, currently at Pineapple Street Studios. I’ve interviewed him twice — here and here — for Five at The IX, and he still tolerates my presence in his inbox. I asked him back this week to talk about “Blind Landing.” This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

LM: Tell me about the new season of “Blind Landing.”

AS: With the 2024 Paris Games just a month away, we’ve got a new season of “Blind Landing” that’s all about changes in women’s gymnastics in recent years. There’s just so much that’s shifted in the sport, especially in the U.S., so quickly, especially around age. The amount of 20-somethings competing at Nationals has almost tripled from the 2010s. The average age of the Tokyo medalists was 20, and it’s looking like it’s going to be even higher in Paris. The U.S. team is going to be named at the Olympic Trials at the end of this month, and it’s almost certain to be made up of a majority of over-20 gymnasts.

Each episode looks into a different reason why we’re seeing this dramatic shift in the sport, like the Nassar fallout, advancements in sports science, changes in leadership and coaching approaches, and the impact of NCAA.

This season also features a number of journalists doing great coverage about the sport, from outlets like The Washington Post and ESPNThere’s a lot of great reporting that’s been happening on gymnastics lately and I wanted to make “Blind Landing” a platform to showcase the great work that so many of my peers are doing. 

LM: In your opinion, what’s the most surprising change you’ve seen among all those topics you’re looking at this season?

AS: Maybe it’s recency bias, but it has been truly shocking to see some new seniors, i.e., 16- and 17-year-olds, who are eligible for 2024 talking about how they’re looking to 2028. There’s this understanding from the next generation of top gymnasts that a) the current cohort of returning Olympic and world champions is so good, and that b) if that group is all at the top of their game in their 20s, then this newer crop probably will be, too. It’s a 180-degree shift from the narrative just a few years ago that female gymnasts would have one shot, as a teen, to try and make the Olympics.

It is just wild how blasé and unbothered the new seniors are about waiting another four years for a sport — one of them even talked about looking to 2032! It’s a whole new world.

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LM: How do you think journalists (including you) shining a light on gymnastics has made the biggest difference?

AS: Of course, there are the investigative teams at a number of outlets like IndyStar, the Orange County Register and The Wall Street Journal that have shone such an important light on abuse in the sport in recent years. And that reporting has been so impactful beyond just gymnastics, but in terms of regulation for sport and youth.

But I also think it’s just as important that there are journalists who focus on telling personal, nuanced stories of athletes and other aspects of the culture, because it leads to a greater understanding of the sport — folks like Emily Giambalvo from The Washington Post, who’s doing really great work with data journalism; or Alyssa Roenigk from ESPN, who’s great at profiles and capturing personal stories; or Dvora Meyers, who writes for a lot of publications, often with a historical lens. They also all happen to be on this season of “Blind Landing”!

LM: Like you said, there are so many returning Olympians and world champions in their 20s who are the frontrunners for the U.S. women’s gymnastics team. Who’s a younger gymnast to keep our eye on for the next quad?

AS: Kaliya Lincoln is really incredible on floor. It’s easy to imagine her playing a sort of Jade Carey role next quad. Hezly Rivera is someone I could see becoming a 2025 world champion if some of the top seniors decide to skip it next year (as often happens after an Olympics). Those are also two of the newer seniors who maybe still have a shot at 2024.

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And then there are some gymnasts who train with Simone Biles at her gym in Texas who I really think could break out in the next year or two, like Reese Esponda, Dulcy Caylor and Tiana Sumanasekera.

LM: What’s the lay of the land right now for the U.S. women’s team heading into Trials? What storylines are you most interested to see play out?

AS: I think this is one of the most up-in-the-air Olympic Trials for women’s gymnastics we’ve seen in a long time. Simone Biles and Shilese Jones are the only two true “locks” right now — though Jones is nursing a shoulder injury, so we don’t know yet if or how that will affect her. Suni Lee is looking pretty close to an assured pick, too. She’s taken kind of a slow-and-steady approach, also coming back from some health issues, so we still haven’t seen her at full strength. But even at just 70% strength right now, she’s still at the top of the pack.

It’s interesting just how quickly Skye Blakely has made an undeniable case for herself with her Cheng vault. If she hits it both days of Trials, that feels like it will be her ticket to Paris. At the same time, Carey is trying to make a case for vault and floor, though the latter has been hard for her to make.

Carey is definitely also in contention for the big, glaring fifth spot that’s totally up in the air. I think if Biles, Jones, Lee and Blakely do what they need to do, then it will all just come down to whoever finishes highest next in the all-around. Will Jordan Chiles repeat her last Trials performance? And will Kayla DiCello have another perfect competition, like Day 1 of Nationals? Will adding difficulty help Carey move up in the ranking? It’s all possible and will be very exciting to watch.

One last thing from Ari: We’ll have new episodes all summer long and want to know — what topics do you want to hear us cover? Are there any reporters or experts you want to hear us chat with? Feel free to chime in below or shoot us a note at blindlandingpodcast@gmail.com.

  1. By “recruitable,” I mean those entering their junior and senior years of high school and freshman year of college, per the NCAA rules. ↩︎

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Written by Lela Moore