Ever since the Winter Cup earlier this season, I’ve been keeping a shortlist of those I think have the most realistic chances at making the Tokyo Olympic team, adding and removing athletes based on performances, injuries, and other factors that have either increased or decreased their value to the team.
Before the U.S. Classic, I had a list of 13 I thought were the most valuable. After the U.S. Classic, I had dropped two from my list to narrow it to 11, but then after this weekend’s U.S. Championships, I was right back to 13, adding two I hadn’t seriously considered all season but who showed up in Fort Worth as legitimate threats, albeit dark horses right now.
I’m going to get the tough part out of the way. Morgan Hurd, one of my favorite gymnasts in the U.S. program this quad who I’ve enjoyed watching since I first saw her at the Nastia Liukin Cup in 2014, was one of those I heartbreakingly took off of my list after classics. It was clear that she was one of the athletes most affected by the extra year due to COVID-19, which is such a shame, because when she came back at the American Cup last year with an incredible performance after missing out on the 2019 worlds team, I was like, this is it. This is her revenge year. She absolutely, one hundred percent will be on the Olympic team.
But obviously, with the extra year and trying to train through injuries, it was clear to me at classics – Hurd’s first competition in more than 14 months – that it probably wasn’t going to work out for her. Competing only two events at a difficulty level that is not competitive in this country, she would have needed to show up at nationals with the kind of improvements that generally take far longer than just the couple of weeks she had, so while I hoped for the best, I set my expectations low and quietly removed her from my list, though obviously hoped she’d come back at nationals and blow me away.
Of course, at nationals Hurd had five falls across her two beam routines, and her while her floor was absolutely beautiful and engaging, with scores of just 12.6 for both routines – placing her 23rd in a field of 25 on this event – I mentally prepared myself for the fact that Hurd was not only not making the Olympic team, but that she also likely wouldn’t earn a spot at trials, and I wasn’t surprised to see her not named to the group of 18 selected.
Many people were surprised, though, because despite her performances at classics and nationals, her history and leadership over this entire quad should get her some benefit of the doubt, right? Even though she might not be seriously in consideration for the team, she’s the 2017 world champion and it would have been a nice gesture to give her the chance to finish out this Olympic journey with all of her teammates, especially given all she’s been through over the past year. The U.S. Olympic Trials have historically been an honor in themselves, and some athletes who know they won’t be in contention to make the team still list the trials as one of their top goals in the sport, because just being involved in that process is such a momentous achievement.
Qualifying or petitioning to trials has a standard, however, and while the selection committee is sometimes lenient with their standards for athletes who have potential but don’t quite have the scores to compete at classics or nationals, for trials, it’s generally a bit more strict and at this stage, “potential” is no longer an option. Chellsie Memmel, for example, earned a bid to compete at nationals despite getting just a 25.550 two-event score at classics, which is 1.45 points lower than the two-event score typically required. This was a special consideration for Memmel based on her petition being accepted due to the potential she showed, which is why she was allowed through despite several others matching or exceeding her two-event score did not get to move on (like Mya Witte, who had a 26.200 across her two best events).
But going from nationals to trials, both Hurd and Memmel (the latter of whom was never on my shortlist, and I think she knew she wasn’t being seriously considered for Tokyo) had their petitions denied because at this step in the qualifying process, athletes need to be hitting routines, and I do think as badly as I would have loved to see both at trials as sentimental favorites who “deserve” to be out there, this is also a sport, and I agree with the fact that neither showed readiness to compete at the level required at trials based on how they performed and ranked at nationals.
It came to my attention that many people were unaware that there are a limited number of spots open at trials, so I’ll clear that up before moving on. Generally, the number of athletes at trials is three times the number of athletes who will compete at the Olympic Games, so there were 18 invited in 2008, 15 in both 2012 and 2016, and then 18 again this year. I imagine this is a Marta Karolyi-era decision, and while I don’t know the exact reasoning behind it, I can imagine it’s related to having enough athletes to keep the field competitive while having an abundance of potential alternates, as well as accounting for potential injuries that could narrow the field.
On paper, “three times the number of Olympians” is arbitrary, but having 18 as the number this year does stem from that tradition, and it was decided on long before the 18 were named at the end of the competition on Sunday night. So how did we get to the breakdown the selection committee arrived at this year? Since only one specialist qualified, with Riley McCusker‘s petition being the only one accepted, it meant the rest of the 18 would be the top 17 all-arounders. It’s that simple.
In specialist-heavy years, like 2012, only the top 10 all-arounders made it, with four specialists plus the injured McKayla Maroney all successfully petitioning through, while in 2016, only one specialist was accepted, so the top 14 all-arounders were brought in. Had the selection committee approved the petitions for Hurd and Memmel, they would have been included within that 18, not added onto it, meaning only the top 15 all-arounders would have been selected instead of the 17 who made it. And had McCusker not been accepted, the top 18 all-arounders would have gone (though with her second-place bars finish, accepting McCusker’s petition was a no-brainer).
Why is it like this? Because it’s always been done this way! At least over the past few quads. I realize this is a “because I said so” non-answer, and that “this is just how things are” is exactly the kind of vaguely transparent mumbo jumbo the USA Gymnastics women’s program has been pretending to move away from over the past few years, but at its core, the women’s program and its leadership has not changed and still retains many Karolyi-era policies, with this being one of them.
Now, this is a sport. If the rule to get to trials is that a gymnast must have such a strong case as a specialist that she can petition through based on her scores on one or two events, or must otherwise finish above a certain ranking in the all-around field, then I don’t see the problem with not naming athletes who did not manage either. Yes, there are a few all-arounders who qualified who likely won’t factor into the team or as alternates, but these athletes all did exactly what they were supposed to and met the standards required for qualifying while others who have more “potential” to make the team did not. At some point, it has to stop being about “potential” and start being about hitting when it counts, because there are no Olympic medals for potential. The best bars gymnast in the world could fall in qualifications and miss out on the final by a tenth while a gymnast who typically scores a full point lower than her makes it in, and that’s life – there’s no, “well, she could have been the bars champion if she hit, so why can’t we put her in the final anyway over this random gymnast who has no shot at a medal?”
I hate seeing these “every random gymnast and their neighbor qualified to trials, but they can’t bring Hurd or Memmel?” comments because these so-called “random gymnasts” all had exemplary performances and earned their spots based on a qualification process that has always, for whatever reason, existed. The lowest-ranked all-arounder who qualified to trials, Zoe Miller, averaged a 13.300 across her eight events over the weekend, which is low compared to those who can average around a 14.000, but it’s still ahead of Hurd’s 11.775 average, and Memmel’s 13.070 across her five completed routines (not counting her unfinished day two bars, which would drop her six-routine average to an 11.550). Miller may not be going to the Olympics, but she earned her spot at trials fair and square based on the sheer fact that Hurd and Memmel did not earn spots.
I’m looking at this from a purely analytical standpoint, because if I took sentiment and past accomplishments into account as making athletes “deserving” of being at trials, both Hurd and Memmel would be there in a heartbeat. I do think that there is value in inviting athletes who may not be quite where they need to be, but who have done so much for the team and who have tons of fans who want them there, which is why I wasn’t opposed to Nastia Liukin benefitting from that “reigning Olympic champ” bid she got to trials despite finishing sixth on beam and 19th on bars at nationals, which should not have mathematically been enough to warrant an approved petition.
But people were mad about this special treatment for her then, and she had a much better nationals than either Hurd or Memmel had this year, so what is it? Do we want special treatment, but only for our faves? As badly as the women’s program is mucking up transparency, they are at least attempting to have measures in place for qualifying to trials even if they aren’t crystal clear to outsiders, and inviting sentimental favorites over those who outscored them would go against everything we want and need this program to be held accountable for. We can’t have it both ways, and while I personally wish we could have Hurd and Memmel in St. Louis later this month, I understand why they won’t be there, and think the reasoning for this decision is valid.
All of that said, I am vehemently opposed to how the program handled the announcement. Historically, petitions have always been accepted prior to the trials field being named at nationals, so when the 18 – including McCusker, who petitioned – were named on Sunday night, I knew these would be the 18 going to trials, with no one else added in. That’s why, when one of the reporters asked Forster on our media call about the rumor of Hurd not having her petition accepted and why that was the case, I was so confused to hear his response, which was:
“The petition process isn’t completed yet. At this point, there’s 18 people going to trials. That’s all we know so far.”
According to both Hurd and Memmel, though, they were told prior to the team announcement that their petitions hadn’t been approved. Forster, who participated in this media call at least a half hour after the field was named, straight-up lied to the press, gaslighting the gymnasts who were already telling friends and family that they would not be going to trials. He made a decision, which I’m sure wasn’t an easy one, and he had valid reasons behind it. As the face of the women’s program, he needs to be able to take ownership of decisions like these, or at the very least, give us a “no comment.” It’s simply inexcusable and disrespectful to the athletes that he misrepresented the process.
While I do think the reasoning for not bringing either athlete to trials makes sense, I’m especially devastated for Hurd after all she’s done this quad, but on a happier note, this weekend at nationals really boosted the stock of two athletes I didn’t expect to be serious contenders. Emma Malabuyo, who finished fourth all-around after two solid days of competition, and Shilese Jones, who was 12th and consistently had the top Yurchenko double in addition to a fifth-place finish on bars, were still question marks for me coming into this meet.
Malabuyo has spent most of the quad dealing with injuries, but she finally seems to be hitting her stride. If the selection committee ends up going with the top four all-arounders at trials – like they’ve done for every major team this quad – a repeat of her performance here would be all she needs to reach Tokyo, though I do think if the committee puts a little more thought into the team puzzle, she’d be at a risk as an athlete who lacks the top-level experience and who won’t be ranking quite as high once everyone else is hitting. Her beam is outstanding, and is the biggest edge she has in terms of making this team, but she’s only hit a strong routine twice out of five routines so far this year, so that could come into play regardless of how she finishes in the all-around.
I’ve long said Jones is like this quad’s Elizabeth Price or Brenna Dowell with her excellence on vault and bars. She’s so clean and consistent, and could bring immense value on both, but with her beam and floor a bit behind both in terms of difficulty and consistency, and with the top three team contenders all outscoring her on those events and on bars as well, she’d really only be usable on vault in a team final. I added both Malabuyo and Jones to my shortlist after nationals based on the fact that they can legitimately contribute at a high level, but I also think both still have a lot to prove at trials.
That leaves the 11 I’d consider the strongest contenders, a group that includes Jade Carey, because despite her mathematically locking down a world cup spot as an individual, Forster confirmed on the media call at nationals that if she finishes in the top two as an all-arounder at trials, whether she accepts her world cup spot or joins the team will be her decision.
The obvious are of course Simone Biles, Sunisa Lee, and Jordan Chiles, who were not only the all-around podium finishers at nationals, but who were miles ahead of the rest of the field. Of course Biles was going to get there, so no surprises there, but with Lee and Chiles, it was partly thanks to a higher level of difficulty and overall skill on every apparatus, but also because the two were such solid, confident competitors, and the rest of the field needs to look at them as an example of how they need to compete at trials.
What impressed me most with these two is that even when they struggled, they were able to overcome without any major mistakes. Lee, for example, was having issues when warming up her full-difficulty bars set on Sunday, so for the competition, she switched to her ‘easy’ 6.4 set to hit nearly flawlessly and become the champion on this event. I had low expectations for her return on vault and floor due to her ankle injury, but she was about a million times better than I could have possibly imagined, and there’s still room for improvement.
Chiles, meanwhile, had major wobbles on beam that she saved, and I was also impressed that while she doesn’t have top standout scores on any event, she finished fourth on bars, beam, and floor, and she’s also planning vault upgrades for trials, so she’s really proving just how balanced she is, without a single weak event, which is so important in general, but especially with the four person team this year.
Biles is obviously Biles, though despite her strong eight-for-eight performances in Fort Worth as well as an all-around score that surpassed a 60, she still wasn’t fully satisfied with everything and has lots of areas she wants to work on going into Tokyo. I love that she’s never quite happy with herself, but it’s true that she could fix her landings on floor, where she’s scoring pretty low – for her – due to big rebounds and tons of penalties. My favorite moment of hers was after watching her struggle with her toe full on bars in multiple training sessions and at the U.S. Classic, she actually looked really tight on this skill on the second day of nationals, so it was nice to see her hard work there pay off. I said at classics that it’s wild Biles can nail a Yurchenko double pike, the hardest vault ever competed by a woman in history, but then have a toe full be her downfall one routine later! I love that she’s the best, but still making an effort to be even better.
Outside of these three, all of whom I think will make the team barring any disasters in St. Louis, I have one core group of gymnasts who I feel are most competitive for the fourth and final team spot, and that group includes Grace McCallum, Kayla DiCello, Leanne Wong, and MyKayla Skinner. All four have something to offer, and all four medaled in apparatus finals at nationals, with Skinner taking the silver on vault, McCallum getting the bronze on beam, and DiCello and Wong winning silver and bronze on floor, respectively. But I also have my reservations about all four, so I’ll get into all of these now.
I’ll start with McCallum, who I think is most likely to get the fourth spot as a top potential all-arounder with beam now a standout event for her. While I think some of her E scores here have been a little high, I have absolutely loved McCallum on beam this season, as I think she’s starting to show a lot more style in addition to her strong technique and consistent performances. Though McCallum has been inconsistent overall at the past couple of meets, with several falls across classics and nationals, her work on beam has been pretty remarkable. She also has a strong and reliable Yurchenko double, and when she hits, she has good enough scores on bars and floor to serve in a team final even if she’s not the first choice, making her an incredibly attractive option for the team.
Do I trust McCallum to hit at the Olympics, though? She had a fall and a major bars flub at worlds in 2019, which account for a third of her routines in Stuttgart, and she has struggled in both meets so far this summer, which could be related to her rush back to compete following an injury, but it’s still something to consider. I also don’t trust that some of the execution scores she’s been getting at home will match up with what she’d get internationally.
But despite her struggles so far, McCallum finished fourth at classics and seventh at nationals, showing that she’s capable of being the top all-arounder outside of Biles, Lee, and Chiles with hit days – and she could maybe even upset Lee or Chiles. I also think McCallum is exactly the kind of athlete who will have gotten the mistakes out of her system early on so that her trials meet will go off without a hitch, which is why I have her as my top-rated pick for the fourth spot.
Then there’s Wong. Finishing fifth at nationals with a couple of weak routines – an extra swing on bars on day one, and a shaky beam and rough floor landings on day two – she’s another one who has the potential to increase her all-around scoring potential with a fully hit day. It’s just the fact that we haven’t seen it yet that scares me.
I think Wong and McCallum are fairly similar athletes in the fact that like Chiles, they’re both pretty balanced as all-arounders, but unlike Chiles, they haven’t been as solid as they need to be and therefore still have a lot to prove. I’d be nervous about taking either at this point, but at the same time I think both McCallum and Wong at one hundred percent would be invaluable assets to the team. I have McCallum ranked a little higher, thanks to her worlds experience and I also think she just looks a bit more confident out there than Wong does, but Wong has put up some gorgeous routines this year and has tremendous potential for excellence on all four events. We just need to see it all come together at trials.
After the second day of nationals, someone put score combinations together and found that based on the day two scores, Skinner actually added more to the team than anyone else in that fourth spot, and I’m not surprised. Her Cheng and Amanar have never looked better, with both surpassing 15s on day two of nationals, and the more she competes floor, the better she looks, with her day two routine bringing in the fourth-best floor score of the night behind Biles, Chiles, and DiCello.
I used to think of the team as having a bars and beam hole, as Biles is the token all-arounder, Lee is a bars and beam standout, and Chiles is strongest on vault and floor…but now that Chiles is so balanced and scoring just as well on bars and beam as she does on the events she’s more known for, there actually is room for more of a vault and floor gymnast on the team, and the best gymnast on hand to fill that gap is Skinner, especially if she keeps up the improvements going into trials…which, if it’s anything like we saw between nationals and trials in 2016, could seal the deal for her. There’s also the fact that she beat Carey (who is not at full strength right now) on vault at nationals, and could also very well beat her in Tokyo qualifications to make the vault final and win a medal, which is important, because among these core four, I think she’s the only one capable of medaling individually on top of helping the team.
I also love Skinner as an option because she is a born leader and an incredible teammate, with her hype-man attitude one of the reasons why the gymnasts named her Sportsperson of the Year. She fully brought NCAA vibes to elite with her comeback in 2019 – and she brought an NCAA salute to her bars routine on day two at nationals this year! – and that energy is something I’d love to see out on an Olympic floor.
Finally, DiCello. At classics, where she finished third with a 56.100 with a fall on beam, I thought she looked like the best option in a sea of great options – especially since her bars score of 14.600 was the highest in the meet, and because she’s been incredibly clean and consistent with her quiet difficulty in that routine for years (at a 6.0 when everything’s hit, she has one of the top bars D scores among those in contention for a team spot).
Unfortunately, that consistency seemed to disappear at nationals, where she struggled on bars in both performances, and she also struggled with falls on beam, including on her back dive mount on day two. She still has one of the strongest floor routines, as well as a solid Yurchenko double on vault, so she fits into that vault-floor gap in the same way Skinner does…but while she’s capable of a few more tenths on floor, Skinner wins the overall battle with her vaults now a solid half point ahead. DiCello, who was 11th at nationals, has the all-around potential that both McCallum and Wong do, but seeing her miss skills that have never troubled her before this late in the game has me concerned about how the pressure will affect her in Tokyo.
The other two who have been among the stronger all-arounders, and who remain in solid contention even though I’m not as seriously considering them for the team, are Skye Blakely and Kara Eaker, who finished seventh and 10th at nationals, respectively. Blakely is great on beam, but inconsistent, and her difficulty on bars and floor is too low for her to add big scores to the team even with hit routines. She has one of my favorite beam sets in the country when she hits, but at this stage she has more cons than pros, and unless she can really blow us away in St. Louis, I don’t see it happening. I’m not counting her out, but I think she might have a little too much to prove right now, so I’m thinking alternate at best.
I think I can say the exact same thing for Eaker…her day two beam set was awesome, and she really has the potential to pull out some great work when she’s on, but we all know what happened with her ring shapes in 2019. It’s too much of a risk to put her up in a final or to expect that she could potentially medal there when it’s never worked out before, and her floor also poses a danger. At top difficulty, she has one of the hardest sets in the country, but with a 3½, triple full, and 2½, all she needs is one of the higher-valued passes downgraded, and then the skill she does next won’t get credit at all for being repeated. I wish her routine construction wasn’t so reliant on skills and connections that have been so difficult to get credit for this quad. Maybe she’s someone who can still be considered for the individual spot if she puts up great routines at trials, but at this point it’s hard to see her as a top contender for the team with the inherently problematic construction of two of her four sets.
Speaking of specialists, I’ve talked a little about Carey securing an individual nominative berth but also still technically being in contention for the team if she finishes in the top two as an all-arounder at trials. I don’t think that’s something she’ll pull off, even on her best day, because of how strong the field is, but I’m keeping her on the shortlist just in case that does happen. And her now club teammate McCusker, who only competed bars at nationals due to a minor foot injury sustained at classics, is in a similar position where she could be a team contender if she decides to compete all four events at trials, but even if she doesn’t, I still think she proved that her bars – which were fabulous on both days of competition, but especially when she finally hit her full-difficulty set on day two – are more than worth taking her for the second individual spot alongside Carey.
They’re both in this “maybe team, certainly individual” limbo for me right now, but I’m leaning much more towards the individual side for both.
The others who qualified to trials are Emily Lee, Amari Drayton, Ava Siegfeldt, Addison Fatta, and Zoe Miller, all incredible athletes with standout skills and routines, but with their “good day” max potential all somewhere in the 53-54 range, it’s hard to see any of them contending with those who have 56+ AA or top-three apparatus potential, which is nearly everyone else going. Still, they all earned their spots to compete here, and with most of them on the younger side – Drayton, Siegfeldt, and Fatta are all 2004-born while Miller is only 15, born in November 2005 – there is a lot of future potential, and this experience could be hugely motivating as they are pretty much all likely to continue their elite careers even after Tokyo, with the exception of Lee, who will head to UCLA this year.
After classics, I was in a bit of a whirlwind trying to figure out where everyone stood, but the U.S. Championships really cleared up a lot of my thoughts and positions on most of the athletes in contention for Tokyo, and I know who I’d pick for a team right this second if I was forced to.
But at the same time, I think we can still expect a couple of surprises at trials, and as sure as I feel in this moment, I’m keeping myself open to the possibility that I will be completely thrown off my game. Whether a leading contender falls apart, or a dark horse rises to the occasion, the depth this year leaves us open to the potential for a number of ‘unlikely scenarios’ and I’m ready and excited for all of them.
Article by Lauren Hopkins