The longest road toward an Olympics ended on a blue mat in St. Louis on Sunday night. Thirty minutes after the final rotation at the U.S. gymnastics trials and five years since the Rio Games, the women who will represent Team USA in Tokyo walked silently through the darkness inside The Dome at America's Center.
As the houselights lifted and fireworks illuminated the arena in red, white and blue sparkles and smoke, seven-time Olympic medalist Shannon Miller read the names of the top four finishers over two days of competition: Simone Biles, Sunisa Lee, Jordan Chiles and Grace McCallum. Those women represent the smallest U.S. team in history -- Olympic team sizes dropped from five in Rio to four in Tokyo -- and in many ways, its least controversial. The selection committee chose the team strictly by rank order at trials.
"It's been a really long journey from 2016 to now," Biles said shortly after the team was announced. "Everything I've been through with USA Gymnastics and coming back into the sport and trying to find the love again and trying to find Simone. I had more emotions this time."
After the most fraught period in the sport's history, fans have a new Olympic team to wrap their support around -- even if, like Biles, they're not ready to embrace the organization for which the women compete. The one-two punch of Biles and Lee, who could combine to medal in every event in Tokyo, will provide the foundation upon which the team final -- still a three-up, three-count format -- is built. And at the risk of repeating a sentence written nearly every quadrennium: This is arguably the best U.S. Olympic gymnastics team in history.
"We have a lot of depth on a lot of the events," Biles said. "Once we get over there, we'll be set."
In addition to the four-woman team, MyKayla Skinner, a 2016 alternate who finished fifth over the two days, was named in the additional individual spot and Jade Carey, who secured an individual spot through her performances in the apparatus World Cup Series, is on her way to Tokyo. The U.S. also will travel four alternates to Japan, a larger-than-normal safety net in the instance a gymnast tests positive for COVID-19 or enters contract tracing protocols, which could mean replacing the entire team.
From the outset Friday night, much of the meet's outcome appeared to be predetermined. Biles has won every all-around competition she's entered since 2013, including seven national titles, five world titles and the Rio Olympics. Her spot on this team seemed inevitable -- to everyone, that is, but Biles, who has been emotional since arriving in St. Louis.
She said she teared up Friday night as she walked into the arena to take her first steps toward the end of a physically and mentally exhausting journey. Throughout the weekend, she admitted she was more prepared but also more emotional about competing for a spot on her second Olympic team and a chance to become the first woman in more than 60 years to repeat as Olympic all-around champ.
"I'll try to live in the moment just a little bit this time," Biles said. "2016 was such a blur. Everything happened so quick and this time we get to relax a bit and enjoy the process."
Friday night, Biles was magnificent. She finished the night three points ahead of the competition and nailed one of the best floor routines of her career. "I was more emotional during floor [Friday] because I stayed in bounds," Biles said. "That's what I have been training. At home, I never go out of bounds and in competition, I can't stay in the floor."
Sunday was a different story. She took hops on vault, broke form on bars, fell off beam and bounced out of bounds twice on floor. But because of her difficulty level, combined with her Day 1 score, she still won the meet by more than two points over Lee.
"Simone Night 1 kicked Simone Night 2's butt," Biles said. "I got into my head and started doubting myself and you could see that in my gymnastics."
Make no mistake. The 24-year-old knows she is the best gymnast in the world and at this point in her career, competes only against herself. She also knows that in a sport of inches, nothing is guaranteed. And when you adorn your leotard -- or your sandals, as she did here in St. Louis -- with a bedazzled GOAT, a nod to your status as the greatest of all time, much is expected of you.
Biles is a perfectionist, but she is not perfect. Although she is conditioned to make the most difficult skills in the world look effortless, only she, her coaches and those with access to her training sessions know the excruciating amount of work she has put into becoming comfortable enough to compete those skills -- so dangerous she once performed them only into a foam pit "for fun". Only she truly understands what it took, mentally and emotionally, to return to the gym for an additional year after the Olympics was postponed last spring.
"I feel like there is a lot of expectations I put on myself and everybody puts on me as well," Biles said. "It sucks I'm getting older and it's getting scarier. You get tired, so the doubts start creeping in."
Biles' performances over these two days provided a reminder that she is both susceptible to the same doubts as any athlete, and is getting better every meet.
So too, is the entire U.S. team. Chiles hit every routine. McCallum performed the best she has since returning from hand surgery in January. And Lee posted the highest all-around score of the meet Sunday night, besting Biles by more than half a point. Since this was a two-day competition, though, Biles maintains her undefeated-since-2013 status in the all-around. But Lee's unflappable consistency is noteworthy less than 100 days out from Olympic competition.
"I still haven't done all four passes on floor and my bars could have been better," Lee said. "That gives me confidence going into the Olympics."
Like Biles, Lee struggled in 2020 when she learned the Games would be postponed. Last year, she looked like such a lock to make the Olympic team that her parents purchased plane tickets for her entire family and planned a post-Tokyo trip to visit Thailand and Laos, the country in which they were born.
An extra year seemed daunting, especially after weeks away from the gym, a COVID scare of her own and the death of her aunt (her mother's sister) and uncle to the virus. But once she returned to the gym, Lee, 18, was determined to return to 2019 form and recover the routines that won her a bronze on bars and a silver on floor at world championships. Her bar score on the first day would have won the 2019 world title and Lee is a favorite for gold on the event in Tokyo.
"The last couple months have been crazy," Lee said. "It's been a long journey. I told myself to take deep breaths and do what I normally do. No turning back. I had to let everything go. It's so surreal to say I am an Olympian."