By Gina Pongetti Angeletti

She just makes sense to be on the team. Not a single person in the sport will deny this. But, the question is, how? And why?

Jade Carey, current Senior National Team member, world medalist and Tokyo Olympic contender, has a winding and potentially complicated road ahead of her. Though established as one of the best in the world on both floor exercise and vault, she didn’t get to where she is today without proficiency on all four events. She has mathematically secured a spot to Tokyo through individual event qualifying on floor and vault, but that might not be enough for Carey and her coach and father, Brian, to fulfill the dream she has for herself.

We first met Carey in 2017, where she won vault and placed second on floor at the U.S. Championships. She went on to win silver on vault and floor at the Montreal Worlds (still her favorite medals and moments in competition, she says), becoming a primetime player for team USA in the process. She’s never looked back. Savoring success on the individual World Cup route, she also won silver on vault again at Worlds in Stuttgart in 2019, placing second only to Simone Biles.  

There is a prowess and respect that are different with various achievements within the Olympic Games. As a member of a medal-winning team, there are accolades, memories with teammates, media and sponsorship opportunities that last a lifetime. Not only because of the accomplishment itself, but from the experience itself as being part of the magic. Think about the 1980s “Miracle on Ice” U.S. Hockey team, or baseball, where winning the World Series is a true team accomplishment. But, where having the fastest-measured speed in pitching, or the longest-hit ball, also comes with its own recognition.

There are props to be had, however, to say that you are the best in the world on one event in gymnastics. That you have accomplished a superhuman difficulty rating as well and performed those skills as close to performance perfection as possible. Which Carey certainly could achieve competing as an individual in Tokyo.

The feat of conquering the All-Around has a history in and of itself. It is not often that an athlete is even built to be at a world level on all four events. Power events such as floor and vault often lend themselves to different champions than beam, and bars. Gymnastics also offers an added bonus than many sports do: you can get a skill named after you if you land it in one of the approved major world competitions. 

Carey trained her triple twisting double layout on floor in Fort Worth this week at U.S. Championships, and would love to have a skill named after her in the Code of Points to further secure her standing as one of the best ever for the U.S. Team. She is slated to perform it tonight and maybe again on Sunday, as a test for July and beyond.

But first, where does she fit into the team and the run for Tokyo?

The rules for making the Olympic team this year are, as you probably know by now, quite complicated. Let’s review some of the important stipulations and opportunities that pave the way for Carey. 

The United States secured one of the 12 team spots for Tokyo while competing at the 2018 World Championships in Doha. This team can be made up of whatever athlete the National Governing Body (NGB), USA Gymnastics, chooses based on their own selection procedures. The fight for these four coveted positions, of course, started years ago, where athletes climbed the ranks within the JO program as well as showing consistency and grit during National Team Camps and international assignments as Juniors and Seniors.

For event specialists, the options expanded with a path created for those that do not train All-Around anymore, for whatever reason, and may not be able to contribute on four events to take one of the sought-after team spots. Nominative spots are available as well (meaning for the name-sake person and not to be transferred within the country should the athlete pull out or get injured, for example). Each country that has a team that has qualified can have up to two of these spots (for a total of six athletes from that country).

The process is complicated – with a tallying of points scored from the World Cup Series from 2018-2019, and still going on now in 2021. Totals are a result of their top three finishes (as long as they were in the top 12 total at the competition) in their designated events. If this athlete decides to not accept their spot, or pull out, the next in rank order from the World Cup Points total would be in line. 

The choice of who was on the 2018 World Team was a tough one. Countries had to “stack” their athletes in order to qualify for the Olympics. However, the athletes who were present, and part of a qualifying top-12 team, were then ineligible to earn both the nominative individual apparatus spot or the All-Around non-nominative spot (country-owned, not individual). This is precisely why Jade Carey was not on the 2018 team, in order to leave open her eligibility for an individual spot (which she later clinched for floor exercise). 

“My Dad and I decided to pursue the individual World Cup route in 2018. I wasn’t totally ready in the All-Around yet and it made sense for me to do the series and just continue to train All-Around. I’m happy I still trained all four events because with the individual spot, I can still compete All-Around,” Carey told us in 2020.

In Baku, Carey threw a Cheng on vault to win gold at the first of her World Cup events. She also finished first on floor exercise after slight mistakes in qualifying. She proceeded to match these two gold medals at the World Cup event in Doha. In February of 2020, before the COVID shut-down, Carey competed in the Melbourne World Cup and added a third gold on each event.

So where does Carey making her case for the team come into play?

Though having amazing execution scores (E-scores) that rise far above the world sitting above a 9.0, consistency is the key, as is needing to prove one’s self in each event in the qualifying day, including in Tokyo. Carey has shown both, year after year in both team and individual events, making a true case for her worth and contribution. 

The catch to this extra year bestowed upon the athletes due to the COVID-19 delay is that Carey is ready to show that she can do more than just floor and vault. The question remains: do they need her to be a part of the four-person primary team, which contends for a team medal, by using both her vault and floor scores (giving her the opportunity for the team medal and qualifying for individual event finals) or, do they hope and encourage her to accept the nominative spot (when time allows as noted above) in either floor or vault, and hope that she qualifies for event finals during prelims in Tokyo. Both floor and vault are possibilities for her, and will be decided after the entire World Cup Series is completed, pending other results, scores, and a tie-break system. 

There is also the political aspect of “choosing” a team. Unlike swimming or track and field, where the touch or the timing completes the story, gymnastics is the subtle art of managing the mix – or the potential outcome- for all medals, including team, AA and individual events. 

The U.S. women’s program and selection committee know Carey essentially is a great contender for an individual event medal at the Tokyo Olympic Games. The catch is if she is on the actual four-person team, she can still qualify for a chance to compete for the individual event medal as well, but has to be in the top eight in the prelims. 

The catch? Carey has until July 5 to tell the FIG whether she will officially accept the nominative spot she is presented with. This, unfortunately, will not be until after the final World Cup event that contributes to Tokyo – which will take place in Doha June 23-26 – the same weekend as the U.S. Olympic Trials. 

So the question is: who is betting in this case? The athlete selection committee has the potential of not choosing Carey the weekend of Olympic Trials June 24-27. According to the USA Gymnastics Athlete Selection Procedure manual, the Women’s Olympic Team will be announced no later than Monday, June 28. This would give Carey a week to accept her individual spot. If she has been nominated as one of the four-member team, and chooses not to accept, she may then simply submit her acceptance individually to the FIG on July 5. 

Balancing a team with one athlete’s expertise to another, and who can step in, in the case of injury or issue in the lineup, is an art that has been the subject of controversy throughout the history of the sport. You can add as much objectivity to a subjective sport as possible, but in the end, humans will make decisions, though based on established criteria, with added personal opinion. We hope that, in the end, the best team prevails- including all athletes who punch their tickets.  

Photos by Lloyd Smith and Grace Chiu for Inside Gymnastics

Video by Gina Pongetti Angeletti for Inside Gymnastics

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