By Christy Sandmaier

What at one time seemed so far away, is here.

Tonight in Fort Worth, Simone Biles will compete for her seventh U.S. National All-Around crown. 

She’s an icon. A legend. In our lifetime, we are certain not to see another athlete of her calibre or her sheer talent, athleticism, skill level, and innate ability to hit in the perfect moment for a very long time, if ever. She owns her titles. Owns her gold medals. And owns her greatness. We are in awe each time she competes, creates a new element or performs a skill to perfection (see triple double in prelims!).We’ve become accustomed to her winning by record margins every time she steps on the floor. But we should all probably take a step back to appreciate just how truly special this era is. 

Her skills have eclipsed the pinnacle of athletic achievement not in only gymnastics but in any sport, anywhere, and are recognized around the world. Public figures within sports support, comment on social media, and are in awe of her athleticism and achievements, including the likes of tennis standout Serena Williams and basketball star LeBron James.

Her Yurchenko double pike, a skill that takes a mere 1.41 seconds from springboard to landing, sent shockwaves across the gymnastics universe at the GK U.S. Classic in May where she first performed it in competition. The feat prompted everyone from Nadia Comaneci to MaKayla Maroney to Michelle Obama to tweet about the greatness of the skill yes, but more importantly, the greatness of an athlete who has not only surpassed all limits in her sport but has found her voice on and off the floor. She’s not been afraid to speak her mind on issues such as mental health, race, and women’s empowerment. She is committed to using her platform and her voice to empower young girls and women to do the same, and she’s succeeding.

On Friday night, Biles tallied 59.550 with a balance check on beam and a super bouncy landing (or three) on floor, where she nailed the triple double. We didn’t see the Yurchenko double pike. She opted to go with the “easier” Cheng and Amanar instead. For the GOAT, Championships is still all about fine tuning her routines on the competition floor and gaining experience with new upgrades. She is here to push her self beyond her own limits, to be the best Simone she can be. And her seventh title is all but a certainty.

It’s Crowded at the Top

Just behind Biles after prelims was Sunisa Lee (57.350), who has been rehabbing an ankle injury a good part of the year. While she wasn’t at full difficulty on floor, she looked amazing and much improved from Classics held just two weeks ago. “It just felt really good to be back out there because I feel like people kind of counted me out a little bit because I was only doing bars and beam for a little bit,” Lee said. “But, I think I’ll be better by Trials. I think I’ll be back to 100 percent.” And while Lee had her best outing to date since the 2019 Worlds, competing all four events including her trademark stellar bar set which scored a 15.3, what was most special was her father, John, watching from the stands for the first time since being partially paralyzed in the summer of 2019. 

Jordan Chiles was third with a 56.900, and looking more and more like a lock for Tokyo. Her confidence has risen to new levels and she just gets better with each outing. She credits her coaches, and teammate Simone Biles, at World Champions Centre with the change in her perspective in her sport and in her life, and being able to focus on being “the best Jordan” she can be. She’s knows she’s in the hunt and closer to her dream than ever. What a story it would be for this athlete, who may have never found her new confidence and love for the sport again, had it not been for the bonus year.

Finishing out the top 10 were Jade Carey (55.450), Leanne Wong (55.300), Kara Eaker (54.550), Emma Malabuyo (54.450), Grace McCallum (54.300), Kayla DiCello (54.250) and MyKayla Skinner (54.200).

Carey did not perform the layout triple double on floor we saw from her in podium training, but continues to look strong in her quest for Tokyo, wherever it leads her (See Our Article on Jade’s Journey Here). To see her rise from essentially a two-event gymnast to the strong all-arounder she has become is truly an incredible (and rare) achievement. 

Wong had a bit of breakout night, going four for four and finally putting together the competition we’ve been waiting to see from her! Her performance quality on floor especially, can rival anyone in the world and we would love to see her in consideration for a spot in Tokyo.

McCallum, DiCello and Skinner were all in the top 5 during the course of the evening, but each ended up counting falls – McCallum on floor and bars, DiCello on bars and beam, and Skinner on beam. Without question, we expect all three will come back tonight on a mission and prove themselves to the selection committee. 

All in the Moment

For us, there was unmatched magic watching the performances of Chellsie Memmel and Riley McCusker.

Memmel started her night with a very high Yurchenko double full, the first time she’s performed it since 2006. And it was better. She had a fall on bars after hitting her Hindorff  to Pak and (after remounting with a smile on her face) came back with the full pirouette to Tkatchev and a STUCK double front dismount. On her final event, beam, she drilled her set, including the standing Arabian she missed at Classics. It was arguably the loudest cheer of the night as she hit her double pike and ran into a celebratory hug with her dad and coach, Andy. When asked to describe the emotions of that moment, she told us, ‘The emotions started after I saved my Arabian. I kind of smiled and was like, ‘Alright, I got this.’ After landing the dismount it was a sigh of relief. I felt very proud.”

It was a moment that brought many in the arena and many watching home to tears (and yes, maybe just a few of us on media row, too!) Her journey has been extraordinary and a continued inspiration for us all. Whatever happens tonight and beyond, we’ll not soon forget what she did here, if ever.

For McCusker, it was one bar routine. One moment to shine and show the world how strong she really is. And she did. With her trademark gorgeous technique she flew through a routine that included a toe full to Maloney to Tkatchev, stalder, piked Tkatchev, Ricna to Pak, and a near stick on her double front half. It’s a routine we’d love to see (and deserves to be) in Tokyo.

Limited to bars due to an ankle injury sustained on vault at the Classics, McCusker could have appeared defeated here. But she’s come too far to stop now. Instead, she embraced the opportunity for herself and for her teammates, cheering them on at every turn and seemingly still enjoying her new found love for gymnastics again. And while it has to be beyond tough for her to be so limited here, her spark was there and her smile apparent even with her mask on. After her routine, the salute and high five she shared with her coach Brian Carey was everything and what we’ll remember, even more than the routine itself. 

After a year of setbacks and facing the ultimate test – the athlete’s Olympic journey rewritten and absolutely out of their control due to a global pandemic, injuries, and uncertainty, we’ll soon know who’s going to St. Louis for Olympic Trials. And while we’re sure to see shifts in the standings as the meet goes on tonight as these women fight for their chance to compete in Tokyo, one thing is for certain, the dream is real, it’s close, and it’s truly Game On.

*Note: Laurie Hernandez has withdrawn from tonight’s competition due to injury (she hyperextended her knee in warm-ups on day one on a double pike dismount) sharing with fans on social media: “Not the way I thought this would go… but thank you for all the love and support.”

How To Watch:

The below competition schedule is subject to change. All sessions are listed in central time.

  • Sunday, June 6: Women’s gymnastics – 12:00 p.m., juniors, and 5:30 p.m., seniors

TV Broadcasts – all times ET.
June 6 – 7:00 p.m. ET – Senior Women Day 2 – NBC (Live)

Webcasts
All four senior competitions will be streamed in the U.S. on http://nbcsports.com/live. Cable login required.

All senior routines will be posted to the USA Gymnastics YouTube channel following each session.

Photos by Lloyd Smith  for Inside Gymnastics

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