ST. LOUIS — Even before the U.S. Olympic Trials begin, it’s safe to say Simone Biles is going to Tokyo.
Biles is the greatest gymnast of all time, and she all but assures the Americans of their third consecutive Olympic team title. She hasn’t lost an all-around competition in more than eight years, and she does harder skills and puts up bigger scores – in both difficulty and execution — than anyone else. So, yeah, her ticket to Tokyo is already booked.
Which means the intrigue this weekend is to see who joins her.
The Americans can send six women to Tokyo: a four-person team, plus two individual athletes. Jade Carey has already said she’s going to use the nominative spot she earned by finishing atop the standings in both floor and vault in the individual event World Cup series.
Simone Biles practices during the U.S. Olympic Team Trials in St. Louis. (Photo: Grace Hollars, USA TODAY Sports)
That leaves five spots available at trials, which begin Friday for the women and conclude Sunday night. Only the top two – and, really, that’s going to be Biles and the winner of the “non-Simone” division – are assured of spots, with a selection committee picking the other gymnasts.
Sunisa Lee and Jordan Chiles have separated themselves and, unless something unexpected happen, are good bets for the four-person team.
Lee was second to Biles at nationals three weeks ago – just as she was in 2019, the last time the national championships were held. She will be a strong contender for gold on uneven bars, and was the silver medalist on floor exercise at the 2019 world championships.
The only uncertainty surrounding Lee had been a nagging Achilles injury, and she said Wednesday that it’s much improved.
“I have been doing my normal therapy, and I think the more that I do on it, the better it's been getting because it's getting stronger every single time that I do something,” Lee said. “So, yeah, it's been feeling better for the past couple of weeks. And I think hopefully if I make the Olympic team, it'll be a lot better with it.”
Chiles, who trains with Biles at the World Champions Centre, won Winter Cup, was second at U.S. Classic and third at nationals. She has not counted a fall on any event this year – her biggest “mistake” was going out of bounds on floor the first day of nationals – and has shown she can be counted on to deliver when the stakes are highest.
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That, then, leaves one spot on the team, and the remaining individual spot. And what the selection committee does with those two spots will hinge largely on Riley McCusker.
McCusker was part of the team that won gold at the 2018 world championships. Though uneven bars is her signature event, she’s also a strong all-arounder, finishing third at nationals in 2018.
She also is as mentally tough as they come, providing evidence of verbal and emotional abuse against her former coach, Maggie Haney. Haney is now banned by USA Gymnastics for five years. McCusker switched gyms, and appears to be thriving.
But she’s still limited by an ankle injury at Classic, and is expected to do only bars and balance beam at trials. The selection committee will need to decide whether to gamble that McCusker can make enough progress in the next month to be able to contribute to the team, or put her in that individual slot so she can contend for medals on uneven bars and, maybe, balance beam.
The answer to that will have a domino effect. If McCusker makes the team, the selection committee will likely be looking for someone with a chance at an individual medal, and that could mean Kayla DiCello (floor); Kara Eaker (balance beam); Grace McCallum (balance beam); MyKayla Skinner (vault); or Leanne Wong (floor).
If McCusker gets the individual spot, look for McCallum, a member of the 2018 and 2019 world teams; and Wong to be in the running for the team. And don’t overlook Emma Malabuyo, who was a surprise fourth at nationals.
“That definitely gave me some confidence, and I'm feeling really prepared for this competition,” Malabuyo said.
In addition to the six gymnasts who will be competing in Tokyo, the Americans will also bring up to five alternates. That’s more than usual – there were three alternates for the five-person team in Rio – because, you know, COVID.
“If we have one team member who is exposed, who then exposes the rest of the team, then potentially we have to replace the entire team,” USA Gymnastics president Li Li Leung said. “So that's why there's so many replacement athletes being named for these Games.”
So many gymnasts for so few Olympic spots.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.
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