The greatest gymnast in history will compete for perhaps the final time on U.S. soil this weekend. But Simone Biles isn't the only reason the U.S. Olympic gymnastics trials (June 24-27) is the must-watch event of qualifying season.
It's been five years since the last Olympic trials, and the pandemic caused quite a shuffle at the top of the sport. Morgan Hurd, the only world champion since 2013 not named Biles, didn't make the 18-woman trials roster, and only Biles returns from the Final Five team that won at the Rio Olympics.
With the team size reduced from five to four in Tokyo, the competition is as fierce as ever. Biles, by all measures, is a shoo-in for a spot, but several questions still loom ahead of the four-day meet. We take a swing at the biggest ones.
Wait. Are we sending four women or six to Tokyo?
Good question. Team size for the Tokyo Games was dropped from five to four, but countries were also able to qualify in individual spots. The women will send a four-person team, as well as two individual athletes who are eligible to compete in all four events, but will not participate in the team competition.
The men will send a four-person team, plus one individual. At trials, the top two women and top man receive automatic berths onto the team. The remaining spots will be filled by the selection committees.
Why has Jade Carey already qualified for Tokyo?
This is both the easiest question to answer and the toughest to explain. Carey mathematically clinched an Olympic spot for herself through the apparatus World Cup series but hasn't formally accepted it yet. This is the first Olympic cycle where qualifying outside of Olympic trials was an option, and the 21-year-old made a decision to take her Olympic future into her own hands rather than leave her fate to a selection committee.
Because she earned the spot for herself, if Carey finishes in the top two at trials and takes an automatic bid onto the team, the U.S. will forfeit her individual spot. Carey recently said she won't allow that to happen. "I have every intention to accept the individual spot that I worked very hard to earn," Carey wrote on Instagram last week. "My focus right now is preparing to compete at the Olympic Games in Tokyo and being able to contribute to Team USA in any way possible."
As an individual in Tokyo, Carey is not eligible to compete in the team competition, but she is able to compete in all four events and qualify for the individual all-around and event finals. Because of a two-per-country rule, Carey must qualify in the top two in the U.S. on any apparatus -- or in the all-around -- to compete in finals and have a shot at a medal. And yes, her medal counts toward the overall U.S. medal count.
Who will grab the four team spots?
Biles, of course, is the greatest all-arounder in history. Jordan Chiles, who trains with Biles at World Champions Centre in Houston, and Sunisa Lee, who performs one of the most difficult bar routines in the world, have emerged as the next two best all-arounders in the nation. Since the top two women in the all-around will receive an automatic berth onto the team, and it's likely Biles will nab the top spot, the Chiles-Lee meet-within-a-meet should be fun to follow.
If Biles, Chiles and Lee are considered near-locks for three spots, who will get the fourth?
National team coordinator Tom Forster has indicated he hopes to name the top four all-around finishers to the team, so strong all-arounders like Emma Malabuyo, who finished just off the podium at nationals, Grace McCallum, who finished tied for seventh but has two world championship teams under her belt, or Leanne Wong, who finished fifth in Fort Worth, appear to be top contenders. Riley McCusker, who was injured at Classics in May, is expected to return to the all-around and could make a case as well. (Update: As of Friday morning, McCusker is only on the start list for bars and beam on Friday.)
While an argument could also be made for a specialist such as MyKayla Skinner to be named to the team, this could be a riskier strategy. All four team gymnasts will compete on every apparatus during prelims and three of the four will compete each rotation in finals. That means if any team member is lost to injury before finals, the others must carry her events in finals. While the U.S. is the hands-down favorite for team gold in almost every situation, the selection committee might look past a specialist who is weak on a couple of events in favor of a gymnast equally strong on all four.
What happens to the second individual spot?
In addition to the Olympic spot Carey secured for herself, the U.S. earned an additional spot for an individual who will be named at trials. So, who grabs that spot?
If the goal, as Forster has said, is to maximize individual medals, then it likely will be an athlete who complements Carey, a gymnast who is powerful on vault (the event on which she secured her Olympic spot) and floor.
McCusker is a stellar bars swinger, would complement Lee in the event and has a legitimate shot at an Olympic medal. Kara Eaker is a strong beam performer who, with a clean performance at trials, could make a case for penciling her name into that sixth spot. McCallum, Wong or Malabuyo could also take that second individual spot if they aren't named to the four-person team, as all three are strong on multiple events.
Can Brody Malone back up his win at nationals?
At U.S. championships earlier this month, Sam Mikulak went into the competition hoping to win his seventh national title. But his weekend did not go as planned.
Competing for the first time in 15 months, the two-time Olympian fell on parallel bars, made major errors on floor and pommel horse and finished the first day of competition in seventh place in the all-around.
Then, on Day 2, Mikulak posted the highest total of the session, ultimately finishing third overall and reminding fans why he will likely make his third Olympic team this summer.
But the star of nationals on the men's side was Malone, the two-time reigning NCAA all-around champion and former rodeo competitor who led out of the gate and finished in the top spot overall. A performance anything like that which he turned in in Fort Worth will send the gymnast Mikulak called "the future" to Tokyo.
How many Biles skills will Biles perform?
And will she compete the incredible Yurchenko double pike vault again? All signs point to yes on this bonus question. Biles has indicated she'd like to perform the vault again in St. Louis.
Now is a good time to mention that Biles currently has four skills named after her: two tumbling passes on floor, one vault and a dismount off beam. (Once she competes the Yurchenko double pike vault in international competition at the Tokyo Games, it too will bear her name.)
At trials, it is likely we'll see her compete two of the four already named Biles. Both of her eponymous floor skills -- a double layout with a half twist and a triple twisting double tuck -- are included in her floor routine. We may never see her compete the double-double beam dismount again. Because of the low difficulty score FIG awarded the skill, Biles has said the risk outweighs the reward.
Update: On Wednesday, Biles proved us wrong and did a double-double dismount off beam in podium training. All bets are off!