In what may live in gymnastics infamy as its Dewey Defeats Truman moment, after the United States took silver to Brazil in July at the 2022 Pan American Games, veteran sports writer Nancy Armour tweeted that the state of the American program “should absolutely set off some five-alarm bells.” But last Tuesday, Nov. 1—as their contemporaries nursed Halloween candy hangovers back home—the American team took to the arena in Liverpool, England, and straight-up obliterated the next-closest finisher, home team Great Britain, to win the 2022 World Championships by more than 3 points. The U.S. squad—Tokyo floor champion Jade Carey, Tokyo team silver medalist Jordan Chiles, 2021 World Championships silver medalist Leanne Wong, 2022 U.S. Championships runner-up Shilese Jones, and comparative newcomer Skye Blakely—only counted one fall (Blakely on beam). And they could have won gold even if they’d had three more spills. In a Bilesless world, rumors of the American program’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. (Indeed, in the individual competitions later in the week, Jones took home silver in both all-around and bars; Carey and Chiles went 1-2 on vault and 2-3 on floor.)
This shouldn’t have been a surprise; the U.S. was heavily favored coming in. But the U.S. couldn’t have been more heavily favored going into the Tokyo Olympics, and we all remember what happened then. (That took years off my life!) Listen, we in the gymnastics world are cagey now. And for good reason: Ever since those Olympics, women’s gymnastics has become way more unpredictable. Not just as a fan and a journalist, but as a former gymnast and a gymnastics coach, I cannot remember seeing a wilder meet at any level than the women’s team final at the 2022 Worlds—and the reasons for this augur a thrilling future for the sport.
Granted, some of the reasons this meet was bananas were flukes, most prominently, what would later turn out to be a cursed balance beam. Here’s how it started: With Russia banned from sports for the foreseeable future, eight squads qualified for team finals. Barring any major errors by the gold-favored U.S. and silver-favored Britain, the true battle was supposed to be for bronze: between Brazil, Italy, Japan, and China, with France and Canada both, realistically, in the Just Happy to Be Nominated slots.
That’s not how it turned out at all. First, after qualifications, Brazil’s second-best athlete, Flávia Saraiva, injured out of competition, leaving the country struggling to make up her difficulty points. (Barring Saraiva’s absence, I stand by my original call for the team back in August! Brazil’s best, the magnificent Rebeca Andrade, just became the nation’s first-ever individual world all-around champion.) But the real chaos occurred during the meet, when one after the next, top athletes from China, Italy, and finally Japan just could not stop falling.
I watched in horror as first, China’s Tang Xijing, the Tokyo silver medalist on beam, fell three times in the same routine. (To be fair, she also hadn’t had a good meet in qualifications.) Then, Italy’s Martina Maggio fell twice on bars. And finally, on the verge of what could have been a bronze-medal finish—and after many other athletes fell off the haunted beam—Japan’s Fukasawa Kokoro finished out the meet with a bar routine so disastrous I don’t even want you to see it. It was carnage!
Later, we would discover that in the most English turn of events possible, it was raining, and the Liverpool arena had a roof leak that caused small raindrops to drop onto the balance team. (It was cursed!) Though the leak (since fixed) doesn’t appear to have actually caused any slips, it could not have helped with the athletes’ nerves. And it still didn’t explain the calamity on bars!
All the slippage meant that Canada, in the most Canadian way possible—Solidly, Consistently, Non-Flashily Good—found its way onto a Worlds podium for the first time in history. (Canada’s star, 27-year-old Ellie Black, also left Liverpool with some individual hardware, a silver on balance beam.)
All this drama (and all those falls!) may lead a casual gymnastics viewer to wonder: Did the U.S. win because everyone else (but Britain and Canada) crapped the metaphorical bed? Is the U.S. program—under decisive new leadership after five years of tumult in the aftermath of the Larry Nassar revelations (which begat the subrevelation that Márta and Béla Károlyi’s ranch was a dictatorial environment that directly enabled Nassar’s predation)—somehow still that good at gymnastics?
Well, my four-year friends, allow me to take my very best stab at these very good questions.
First: Again, the six-way, fall-addled battle that Canada won was always, realistically, for the bronze. The heavily favored U.S.’s only real competition—barring some sort of seven-fall catastrophe—was Great Britain. At Worlds, the hosts were powered by 18-year-old Jessica Gadirova’s phenomenal performance; she bested Chiles, Andrade, and reigning Olympic champion Carey for gold on floor, and she has risen meteorically in recent years. If the U.S. had experienced a rain-cursed off-night, the home team might have won it all.
But they didn’t. So why didn’t the U.S. succumb to nerves like the others did? Well, this was a single competition (albeit a punishing weeklong one that was actually seven meets), and the infrequency of elite competition means it will be at least another year before we can tell if the Americans’ new apparent consistency is really that consistent. As I’ve written before, elite gymnastics separates its meets so far apart because it is so dangerous on a bad day—and so punishing to the body even on the best one—that it’s just not physically viable for these young women to be in competition shape more than a few times a year.
And this, friends, is where my highly speculative yet grand unifying theory about the Americans’ comparative nerves of steel enters the arena.
Of the staggering number of historic facts about these Worlds, one that may get lost is that of the five-woman U.S. squad, a record three were working double duty: Chiles, Carey, and Wong all balance elite training with massively successful careers in the NCAA, tenures made possible by changes in the name, image, and likeness rules now allowing them to accept the sorts of sponsorships that keep an excruciatingly expensive elite career solvent. And while to the untrained eye, NCAA gymnasts appear to be doing the same sort of high-flying flips and tricks that elites do, the collegiate level actually operates on a completely different Code of Points—one that, while still punishing on the body, is demonstrably easier than elite.
At the same time, while these athletes are able to train slightly simpler skills (though sometimes they throw in harder ones to keep us all guessing) for their NCAA meets, they also compete all the time.
College seasons regularly have 10 meets in the span of 12 to 15 weeks, and then several postseason competitions, with requisite escalating pressure for high-ranking programs such as UCLA (Chiles), Oregon State (Carey), or Florida (Wong). Compare that with international elites, who maybe compete three or four times in a year, often training for months in between, and you have three athletes who walked into Liverpool unusually accustomed to the bright lights and wobbly apparatus of podium competition. The NCAA-Elite hybrid athletes’ main challenge—and it’s a huge one—is essentially training for two different leagues of competition at the same time, and not having an off-season at all. But elite skills can be trained in the gym—and the only cure for nerves is competition itself. Again, one meet (even this, the granddaddy of them) is too early to tell if my theory is correct. But, ahem, I’ve been right about things like this before.
Last year at this time I wondered, with no small measure of dread, what a post-Biles (for now), Russia-bereft (for awhile) sport was going to look like. Would it be less difficult? OK, a little. Would the Americans be bad? Um, thanks to events in 2021, I will never predict the winner of a meet again. But thanks to the thrilling results of this meet, I can respond to the question not unlike the organizers in Liverpool would answer, Will you hire that roof contractor again? That answer would be no, without qualification.