Sports

Is the U.S. Women’s Gymnastics Team OK?

It’s about more than their gold medal odds.

Simone Biles flipping upside-down during her uneven bars routine
Simone Biles competes on the bars during the 2021 GK U.S. Classic gymnastics competition in Indianapolis on Saturday. Emilee Chinn/Getty Images

Was the balance beam at the 2021 U.S. Classic cursed? Throughout both sessions of the star-studded May 22 meet—the first major elite competition since the pandemic began, at which gymnastics fans were granted their first tantalizing glimpse of the full U.S. field in more than a year—superstar after superstar mounted … and then promptly ate mat.

The two young up-and-comers, Skye Blakely and Konnor McClain? Splat. Laurie Hernandez and Chellsie Memmel, beloved veterans whose comebacks have captivated the gymternet? Biff. Sunisa Lee, widely considered the front-runner for the Olympic all-around silver (aka Winner, Non-Simone Division)? Yoinks. (Lee also pancaked on her signature event, the uneven bars, where her routine is a gold medal contender.) The GOAT herself, Simone Biles, was rock-solid on that Kafkan torture apparatus—although uncharacteristically, she counted two falls on other events. If you’re a casual gymnastics viewer and not an obsessive (ahem, points to self), you may be wondering: What is going on here? Isn’t the object of gymnastics to, like, not fall? Is the U.S. women’s team OK?

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Fear not, civilians. Very much yes. The U.S. women’s team is great. So great, still, that Biles plus just about any other three of the top 12 Americans in the field could go to Tokyo and win with multiple falls. The U.S. Classic just happens to occur in the Olympics (or World Championships) cycle before each gymnast reaches her painfully, intricately engineered “peak”—a training plan that was violently disrupted in 2020 when the Olympics were postponed. Seeing these athletes shake out the cobwebs is actually a good thing, because it means that in an unprecedented year, they are training as wisely as they can.

But we’ll get to all of that in a bit. First we must acknowledge that while the rest of this weird meet technically happened, and while its results offer a muddled glimpse into the future makeup of the four-person Tokyo squad, the whole thing was understandably overshadowed when the Greatest debuted the most difficult vault ever performed in women’s gymnastics, a truly staggering Yurchenko double pike (a vault a scant handful of men can do, worse than she can), which she absolutely obliterated with near-perfect in-air execution:

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That just might be why Biles’ concentration seemed elsewhere during floor and bars, when she fell. Even if I hadn’t used up all my best hyperbole on the last vault Biles invented, I’d still be speechless right now. It was the most unbelievable in the already unbelievable list of skills Biles has pioneered, by multiple orders of magnitude, and we are all lucky to be alive to witness it.

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And so, with a little help from its 16.1 score—unsurprisingly the highest on any apparatus this quadrennium—Biles easily won the U.S. Classic with a 58.4 all-around, despite her two falls. Thanks to her astounding level of difficulty, Biles also won floor exercise with that slip, and she won that cursed beam, too. U.S. judging is notoriously forgiving, so it’s likely that her exact vault, which Biles somehow over-rotated because she has just that much power, might have gotten something like a “mere” 15.8 at a World Championships. But still. Such a mark would have put her atop this U.S. Classic podium anyway—and literally any other one (possibly even a men’s vault final podium)—by a mile.

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So let’s be realistic about where even this relatively shaky meet would fare on the international stage. First, if Biles had walked onto the floor in Tokyo with that exact set, even with those two falls—and even figuring in my estimated 0.3 “international deduction” in scoring every event—she would still walk out with a gold medal around her neck. That performance would still soundly, and I mean soundly, trounce the top all-arounders this year at both the 2021 European (56.7) and Japanese (56.2) championships. The U.S.’s other rival, China, produced a 2021 nationals champion (Li Shijia) who netted a 57.698. That would be good enough to beat Simone’s score if each of her events scored 0.3 points lower than they did in reality—but it’s still well below what she actually did.*

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Furthermore: If the first through fourth finishers at this wonky Classic (Biles, Jordan Chiles, Kayla DiCello, and Grace McCallum) had posted their Classic scores at the 2019 World Championships, minus a full point on every event to account for international judging—the U.S. still would have won. And, given that in 2019 Worlds was the year’s capstone event, that would be an off-peak U.S. beating a full-peak international field.

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Understanding “peaking” is vital to understanding what we saw at the Classic. All elite athletes in any Olympic sport train with an intricate plan that aims to put them in peak shape during the precise weeks of their target Olympiad. But with gymnasts, the precision with which one plans a peak is even more daunting: The staggering variety of dangerous skills in elite gymnastics equates to a staggering variety of ways to injure or kill yourself.

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International elite gymnasts keep the specifics of their regimens famously secret, but most train between six and eight hours, split by a lunch break and sometimes a quick nap, five to six days each week. Most of those workouts consist of über-yogic stretching, mind-numbing amounts of drills, conditioning that would make champion CrossFitters puke, and finally a dizzying succession of single skills and partial routines.

Gymnasts only practice full routines on competition surfaces—i.e., what you see on the television—at carefully incremented, precise times in the run-up to specific big competitions. I am not exaggerating when I say that otherwise, these young women would be in too much pain to function. (They already live, train, and compete in more daily “normal” pain than most of us could imagine.)

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Take the vault, for example. Vaulting onto a hard competition surface (don’t let those bitty mats fool you) puts gymnasts’ feet, ankles, knees, hips, and backs under excruciating strain. And that’s on a good day, as Riley McCusker’s unfortunate meet-ending injury after a beautiful double-twisting Yurchenko at the Classic reminds us. (McCusker’s move was a different vault than Biles’ historic one; its round-off back-handspring approach, first competed on the older and deadlier “horse”-style vault by Soviet legend Natalia Yurchenko in 1982, is what gives it the name.) A fall on a vault can and has snapped tendons, legs, spinal cords, everything. As a result, gymnasts train vault into a foam pit and then onto soft crash mats, often over-rotating on purpose into a rolled-out “timer landing” to minimize injury even more.

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Essentially, the goal is to drill every single skill and connection with safety measures such as pads and spotters in place, and to do this so insufferably that it all becomes muscle memory; to condition exhaustively with less dangerous skills; and then, finally, to run full routines literally as few times as possible to dial them in, lest one too many run-throughs annihilate a limb.

This is where the pandemic wrought the most havoc on gymnastics. Multiple times during NBC Sports’ broadcast of the Classic, 2008 Olympic gold medalist Nastia Liukin spoke with palpable emotion about how every gymnast present had to take the training plan they’d been working with since they were 12 and rip it up. The Olympics were postponed last year just at the time the gymnasts would have been starting to ramp up to full routines—and then, suddenly, there they were, temporarily unable to set foot in the gym at all, then relegated back only to drills.

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Granted, for some, the pandemic year gave them a chance they didn’t have before; McClain and Blakely both aged into eligibility thanks to the postponement, and Biles’ teammate Jordan Chiles has used the past 12 months to rocket from outlier qualifier to Tokyo to serious contender for the all-around silver. But for too many others, the extra year was 12 more months to get hurt—and that is precisely what happened to McCallum, McCusker (before our very eyes!), and 2017 world champion (and perennial hero of our hearts) Morgan Hurd—all of whom were once seen as jockeying for the Tokyo squad, and all of whom now have to work back from injuries they sustained after the Olympics were supposed to be over.

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And that’s why, though the Classic offered little in the way of an Olympic preview—other than “the team will be Simone and three question marks who are heavily favored to win team gold regardless of who makes it”—it did give gym fans a bit of relief within the chaos. These athletes’ painfully reconstructed training plans seem cautious right now—if, in Biles’ case, one can be cautious doing a Yurchenko double pike—with nobody close to peaking yet.

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That’s a good thing. In a year where time has warped, looped, and imploded, a questionable Olympics taking place in less than two months seems like it might be “soon.” But in gymnastics, that’s long enough to mark the difference between getting into gold medal shape—and getting too injured to function, let alone compete.

*Correction, May 26, 2021: This article originally misstated that China keeps its domestic scores secret, and that the 2021 Chinese nationals champion scored a 56.79. 

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