Kara Eaker performs on balance beam at the FIG Artistic Gymnastics World Championships on Oct. 8, 2019 in Stuttgart, Germany.
It’s a classic U.S. women’s gymnastics scenario: only four spots on this summer’s Olympic team, and at least a dozen athletes vying for them.
As ever, Simone Biles seems a lock to lead the team. But with no world championships from 2020 to use as a reference point and just one domestic competition in the past 18 months, the rest of the Olympic team picture is hazy at best.
The fog should begin to lift a little at Saturday’s U.S. Classic, the first of a trio of events that will culminate when the Olympic team is named in St. Louis at the end of June. And in a twist this year, in addition to vying for spots on the four-person team, one gymnast will be selected to compete in Tokyo as an individual.
With 42 gymnasts in the senior division for this weekend’s competition in Indianapolis, the field is especially deep, and surprising storylines abound.
Here are the big things to look out for in round one:
Simone’s Return, Potentially With New Skills In Tow
Simone Biles hasn’t competed since the 2019 world championships, but don’t expect the gymnast widely accepted as the sport’s GOAT (Greatest of All Time) to hold back. Biles has shown up at the beginning of the season with something new in her bag of tricks, sending fans (and quite possibly judges) into raptures of delight.
This year’s novelty may be the extraordinary Yurchenko double pike vault the 24-year-old has teased in training footage, a jaw-dropping skill that no woman has yet tried in competition. And why not? In a recent interview with the Associated Press, her coach Laurent Landi commented that Biles is “very close to her full potential.”
That said, the Classic has not always been her meet. A rough performance in 2013 led to the first and only round of questions about Biles’ staying power, and Riley McCusker came as close as anyone to ending Biles’ now legendary undefeated streak at this competition in 2018. Still, anything but a trademark Biles blowout of her competition would come as a shock.
Returning Olympians Showing They’re Not Done
For months, 2008 Olympic team silver medalist Chellsie Memmel shied away from the term “comeback,” preferring to call her ever-more serious training sessions an “adult gymnastics journey.” Yet the 32-year-old mom of two has eschewed a burgeoning career as a judge to get back out on the competition floor, committing to doing beam and vault in her first competition in nine years.
Memmel’s chances of making the Olympic team are slim, but the 2005 world all-around champion has always been clear that another Games is not her goal. Her elite career came to a premature end when she was denied the opportunity to compete at the 2012 U.S. Championships, and getting to devote herself to what she loves again has been a victory in and of itself, she said. A convincing performance on beam could get her closer to a world cup assignment or even October’s world championships, giving her the opportunity to get her signature Arabian pike salto named for her.
Joining Memmel in the Olympic comeback club is 2016 team gold and beam silver medalist Laurie Hernandez, who returned to competition for the first time since the Rio Games at February’s Winter Cup, where she finished fourth on beam and showed off a new floor routine set in part to music from “Hamilton.”
Hernandez, who moved from New Jersey to California to work with new coaches in 2018, is part of a new wave of gymnasts keen to prove that you can excel in the sport while still enjoying your life. “It’s all just a big mindset change,” she said.
Morgan Hurd Making Her Move
After missing out on the 2019 world championships team, Morgan Hurd, the 2017 world all-around champ, came back with a vengeance early in 2020, taking her second American Cup title in the early stages of a determined push to make her Olympic dreams come true. A year on, little has changed gymnastically besides her floor routine, which is brand new for the Olympic year.
The major evolution has taken place outside the gym, where Hurd has grown into an outspoken advocate for social justice. The 19-year-old recently took the mic at a rally against Asian-American hate in New York City, denouncing racism in a speech where every bit as impassioned and expressive as one of her routines.
The Young Generation Catching Fire
Initially not age-eligible to compete at the Tokyo Games, the potential Olympic timelines of Konnor McClain and Skye Blakely were moved up dramatically when it was announced that gymnasts born in 2005 would be able to compete at the rescheduled Games this year.
Both took tentative steps toward senior stardom at Winter Cup, with Blakely delivering the highest score on beam and McClain impressing on beam and vault. McClain at least is determined to take things as they come, insisting that her goal is making it to the Olympic trials and then seeing how things develop from there. Strong showings on multiple events could advance the cases of both.
A Diverse And Talented Chasing Pack
Jockeying for position alongside all of those is a peloton of hopefuls with impressive credentials. Jade Carey, Kara Eaker, Sunisa Lee, Grace McCallum, McCusker, and MyKayla Skinner have all been part of at least one golden world championships team. Leanne Wong helped the U.S. take gold at the 2019 Pan American Games, and Kayla DiCello was second behind Hurd at the 2020 American Cup. Jordan Chiles’ difficulty-packed routines made her the standout at February’s Winter Cup. Any one of them could be the breakout star of this one.