Simone Biles competes on balance beam at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 on July 25, 2021 in Tokyo.
TOKYO — The good news for the U.S. women’s gymnastics team is that scores reset after today. The other good news is that, even on an off day, they’re still pretty dang good.
For a program used to not just winning but dominating over the past decade, however, the U.S. team’s second-place finish in the qualifying round at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 on Sunday was not how anyone envisioned this competition starting.
Through a combination of U.S. mistakes and a strong performance by the Russian Olympic Committee, the U.S. easily qualified for Tuesday’s team finals with 170.562 points, but for the first time since the 2010 world championships the Americans aren’t in first place, as ROC scored 171.629.
Saturday’s five sessions of qualifying competition also determined the 24 finalists for Thursday’s all-around competition, as well as the eight who move on to each of the four apparatus finals on Aug. 1-3.
Even with some areas to clean up, Simone Biles (57.731) and Suni Lee (57.166) qualified first and third in the all-around. Biles also qualified for all four apparatus finals, and she’ll be joined by Lee on bars and beam, and Jade Carey on floor exercise and vault. Only two gymnasts per country can advance to each individual final, a rule kept Americans out of two event finals but also helped them on another.
Jordan Chiles and Grace McCallum joined Biles and Lee on the four-person team, while Carey and MyKayla Skinner competed as individuals.
“We had great performances today, and some not so great ones,” national team coordinator Tom Forster said. “But the errors that we made, I think, are mental, because the girls have been training incredibly well. So it’s things that we have some time to work on before finals, and we’ll do it.”
For much of the team portion of qualifying, it was less about egregious errors, per se, and more a series of uncharacteristic mistakes that added up to a performance below the standard that has come to be expected from the U.S. team.
Though outside fans aren’t allowed into the venues at the Tokyo Games as a precaution against COVID-19, a slight murmur filled the otherwise empty Ariake Gymnastics Centre thanks to the presence of several dozen officials and gymnasts who weren’t active in this this subdivision.
Those attendees let out a collective gasp when Biles nailed her signature triple-twisting, double somersault to open her floor exercise routine, giving the distinct impression that many had come specifically to see the four-time Olympic champion and five-time world all-around champ who many believe to be the sport’s best ever.
Quickly, though, it became clear that Biles would be testing the axiom that she can win even when not at her best. On her third tumbling pass in that first rotation, the 24-year-old from Spring, Texas, bounced so far out of bounds that she stepped off the actual floor apparatus and onto the podium.
It was a sign of things to come, both for Biles and the team.
Biles has competed in five world championships and the Olympic Games Rio 2016. She won the floor exercise gold medal each time. Though the 24-year-old still easily advanced to the event final again here, the mistake left her in the the unfamiliar position of second place with 14.133 points — .033 behind Vanessa Ferrari of Italy.
Biles also had a mistake in the next rotation, on vault, the other event she’s a heavy favorite to win. Though she floated effortlessly through the air on her ultra-difficult Cheng, a missed block sent her on a crooked path and she landed with both feet out of bounds, then took a big step off the side of the mat.
She was cleaner on her second vault, the still-super-hard Amanar, and her averaged score of 15.183 left her in first place.
Her lone routine without a mistake, uneven bars, put Biles in 10th place with a score of 14.566. However, with four ROC athletes ahead of her, Biles moved up to eighth to secure the last spot in the one event final she missed four years ago in Rio.
Biles ended with an unflinching performance on beam, though in the theme for the day she struggled coming off it, taking several steps on her dismount. Her score of 14.066 was enough to earn qualification in that event too.
Along with the other U.S. gymnasts, Biles declined to speak to the assembled media following the competition.
Joining Biles in the all-around final is Lee, a native of St. Paul, Minnesota, and the first Hmong American to make the U.S. Olympic Team. After actually outscoring Biles on the second night of competition at last month’s U.S. Trials, Lee confirmed her status as an all-around medal contender with a score that trailed only her generational teammate and Brazil’s Rebeca Andrade.
The 18-year-old Lee was at her best on her signature events. Despite doing her “easy” uneven bars routine, Lee gracefully connected her elements to score 15.200. One of only two to score 15 in the event, she qualified for finals in second place. Lee also qualified for the balance beam finals with her score of 14.200, which put her third.
McCallum, of Isanti, Minnesota, was selected for the team as the safety valve, an all-arounder who could bail the team out if anyone makes a mistake.
Though McCallum, like her teammates, wasn’t immune to some issues, including going out of bounds on her first pass on floor, the 18-year-old filled her role in delivering across all four events. Only she and Biles provided scores on each apparatus.
(The lowest score on each event is dropped in the qualification round, but in the team final three gymnasts compete on each event with all three scores counting).
One reason McCallum was called into action was that Chiles, who had been Team USA’s most consistent gymnast all year, finally made a few mistakes. First she touched the mat with her foot during a transition on bars, then in her final rotation the 20-year-old from Vancouver, Washington, fell off the balance beam and then fell again on her dismount.
The cumulative performance left the U.S. looking up at another team for the first time in a decade at a major event. Since finishing second at those 2010 world championships, the Americans have won at every Olympics or world championships — and usually it’s not close.
The brightest spot for Team USA on Sunday was Carey — though competing as an individual, her scores didn’t count toward the team.
A Phoenix native, Carey burst onto the elite scene in 2017 as an event specialist, then took advantage of a one-time Olympic qualifying pathway through the apparatus world cup series. She earned her spot for Tokyo after winning her two key events, floor and vault, in that series (she only needed to win one). But something funny happened along the way: Carey emerged as a competitive all-arounder, so much so that there was a question whether she might forego her individual spot in Tokyo and put herself back in the mix for a spot on the four-person team.
Carey ultimately elected to keep her solo spot (if she gave it up, it would have gone to a gymnast from another country), but she delivered what she came to do on Sunday.
Scoring 14.100 on floor and 15.166 on vault, she emphatically moves on to both event finals with top-three scores in both. In fact, after two rotations she was leading the all-around for this session, ahead of even Biles, and going into the final rotation she actually had an opportunity to do the unthinkable and knock Biles or Lee out of the all-around finals.
Just .699 points separated three, meaning that the three-per-country rule could have easily produced a stunner had, say, Biles flubbed her routine while the others nailed theirs. In the end, all three hit and it was Carey who was three-per-country’d out, with her total score of 56.265 good for ninth, but third among Americans.
In fact, five of the six U.S. gymnasts finished with all-around scores among the top 13.
The harshest victim of the two-per-country rule, though, was Skinner.
The 24-year-old, also from Arizona, performed the same Cheng and Amanar vaults as Biles and Carey, and like them she put up big points. Alas, her averaged score of 14.866 was fourth on the event, but behind her teammates, so she’ll only compete in vault finals if Biles or Carey withdraws.
Skinner was also the 11th best all-arounder, though again fourth among U.S. athletes. She also finished 14th on her other best event, floor exercise.
Seeming to understand her fate — that today was the start and end of her Olympics experience — the 2016 Olympic team alternate nonetheless closed out the final two events with grace, then waved to the mostly empty wooden seats after her final routine as if it they were filled with the raucous fans who used to cheer her on at the University of Utah.
Want to follow Team USA athletes during the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020? Visit TeamUSA.org/Tokyo2020 to view the medal table, results and competition schedule.