Five-ring Circus

Suddenly, the Women’s Gymnastics Competition Is a Toss-Up

How the Americans ended up—gasp—in second place after their qualifying meet.

The six American gymnasts stand in front of the floor apparatus and wave. Grace McCallum, Sunisa Lee, Jordan Chiles, and Simone Biles wear blue leotards. MyKayla Skinner and Jade Carey wear red as individual nonteam competitors.
Grace McCallum, Sunisa Lee, Jordan Chiles, Simone Biles, MyKayla Skinner, and Jade Carey of Team USA at Ariake Gymnastics Centre at the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo on Sunday.* Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

I have to type it out so I’ll believe it’s real: The U.S. women’s gymnastics team … might not win in Tokyo? They might not win—and it might not even be close. What’s going on? How did this happen? Where am I?

There were so few certainties leading up to this creepy, haunted Olympics: How many athletes would get infected with COVID and miss their own events? Who would fail a drug test, and for what? Would there even be an Olympics? The one thing we all took for granted—largely because everyone, including yours truly, has spent the past four (sorry, five) years telling you to take it for granted—was that the U.S. women’s artistic gymnastics team, led by the greatest gymnast the world has ever seen, was all but a lock for the team gold medal.

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Have these uncertain times taught us anything about the relentlessness of uncertainty? Apparently not, because along with every other “gymnastics person,” I expected to witness Simone Biles and the U.S. squad decimate Sunday morning’s qualifying meet, where the matchups for all the medal-winning competitions are determined but luckily the scores don’t carry over. Instead, I watched the Russian Olympic Committee have a banner day. And then I kept watching as, on event after event, the Americans—including Biles, these Games’ biggest star by a considerable measure—did not. As for our predictions, well … our bad! The U.S. finished a previously unthinkable second by more than a point to the athletes from the ROC. This is now no longer the Americans’ gold to lose.

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The U.S. started the meet on floor, one of Biles’ signature events, where she’s got two skills named after her, including the most difficult tumbling pass a woman has ever landed in competition. Most gymnasts worry about cranking around enough flips and twists to land a skill on their feet, but Biles’ problem here has always been that her phenomenal power is hard to control. And nowhere was this more apparent than when she not only went out of bounds on her third pass, but bounded straight off the apparatus entirely.

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As such, Biles took a huge hit to her normally stellar execution score. While most international elite gymnasts would be delighted with a 14.133, Biles was disappointed, and the vibe of the meet—already not great from three teammates hovering around 13.5, including Jordan Chiles, who had trouble with her third pass on floor—was set.

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Unfortunately, things did not improve much for Biles on vault—her other signature event, where again she has two skills named after her, one of which, again, is the most difficult move ever competed by a woman. She eschewed her death-defying Yurchenko double pike for a “safer” Cheng—only the third most difficult vault in the world behind the two eponymous Biles skills, i.e., the most difficult vault competed at the meet—which was uncharacteristically off alignment and which again ended in Biles stepping off the landing mat. She still finished qualifying in first place because, well, she is the GOAT.

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There’s more: This event’s mood was extra painful because of the intra-specialist showdown between MyKayla Skinner and Jade Carey for the non-Biles American spot in the vault final. Neither of their scores counted for the team total, and their scores could only propel one between them to the final, because of the rule that only allows two gymnasts per country to compete in any final competition. In the end it was Carey who landed cleaner, and that means that Skinner did not qualify for any finals as an individual. It also means that the Olympics into which Skinner clawed herself against great odds, with sheer relentless work and tenacity, are over for her. (And because she’s polarizing, that means that half the “gymternet” is mourning and the other half is awash in Schadenfreude.)

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Speaking of Schadenfreude: It was at this point that beleaguered fans of other countries’ teams started to understand what was happening. The infallible United States was, well, falling all over the place. And lo, the mood leading from the “power events,” vault and floor, to the “balance and rhythm events,” bars and beam (in which the mental game is crucial) was even more fraught than it usually is. Suni Lee had a beautiful bar set that qualified her into the final in second place behind Belgium’s legendary Nina Derwael, but Chiles got off-rhythm and tapped the floor, an uncharacteristic break that likely contributed to her full-on meltdown that occurred on the next and final event, beam, where the rising American star fell twice. Biles, meanwhile, was nothing if not consistent, again landing her dismount with too much power and again stumbling so far that she almost left the podium entirely.

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What happened was extraordinary precisely because it was what happens in normal elite gymnastics all the time: The favored team had a bad meet and didn’t end up on top—though, again, the qualifying scores don’t carry over, so Tuesday’s team competition is now anyone’s to win. And I mean anyone. The ROC? Sure, if they repeat their qualifying performance, absolutely. China? Definitely. Japan? Sure. Germany? Great Britain? Italy? Before this qualifying meet, I used to take everything for granted; now I take nothing.

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The U.S. victory no longer being a foregone conclusion has snapped me out of what I now realize was the hypnotic state I’ve been in since Rio. It’s like I just remembered that that’s not how gymnastics works. Athletes are humans, and humans—especially humans who are living through fear and grief and compound global trauma, which among other things threw their training schedule off—occasionally ass things up. Gymnastics superfans will likely be cursing USA Gymnastics’ Tom Forster for choosing the squad he did; Skinner would have helped the team on vault and floor, and Riley McCusker might have qualified for a final as a bars specialist. Everyone is big mad and will be forever. But the fact is that this is a stellar squad that had a bad meet—because shit happens.

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Yes, on paper and historically, this U.S. squad is better than all the other ones. But “better” in athletics is not a static state; even well-deserved superstardom will not keep you in bounds or on your feet. The American women’s gymnastics team can in fact lose—although, come on, are we truly so jingoistically victory-obsessed that an Olympic silver medal would count as a “loss”? For some deranged Americans, the answer may unfortunately be maybe. But they should recall how far the U.S. has come. In my own gymnastics days, we were ecstatic when Phoebe Mills got on the medal podium at all in Seoul in 1988, the first time an American woman ever truly had. (And no, the USSR-boycotted 1984 Games do not count; Mary Lou Retton would have maybe been a blip with the Soviet Union present. Today is all about hard truths.)

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But look: The U.S. team hasn’t “lost” yet. And they can absolutely still win because, as you’ve maybe heard, qualifying scores don’t carry over to the final. Sure, unlike in qualifying, only three athletes from the team will compete on each apparatus, and all three of those scores will count toward the team total—even if someone, God forbid, falls twice (shudder). However, there is still time for the Americans to summon the focus and block out the noise and return to that ghostly arena with their head game intact. It is still very much anyone’s gold medal to win, including theirs. But the fact that it is now more so someone else’s gold medal to win may be the biggest shock of the entire Games.

This piece has been updated since it was originally published.

Correction, July 26, 2021: Due to a photo provider error, the caption originally misspelled Grace McCallum’s last name.

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