Olympic Trials |The Weight of the List

Olympic Trials |The Weight of the List

By Gina Pongetti Angeletti, MPT, Christy Sandmaier contributing

At the end of the night, minutes after competition is complete in St. Louis, the scripts for the next chapters for so many amazing athletes will be written. And somewhere between the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat is the other 99%. So often, spectators and gymnastics’ biggest fans get caught up in predicting the team and celebrating the winners, and lose sight of the magnitude of the accomplishment and the feat of just getting here. 

Fourth place has always been the worst place to be in sports. There’s traditionally no podium, no medal, no newspaper mention, no story. At the Olympic Trials, the women have four team spots and one additional individual spot (Jade Carey has the other) for Tokyo. Essentially, the top three places are already locked in by Simone Biles, Sunisa Lee and Jordan Chiles, leaving one team spot and one individual up for grabs, and a handful of competitors who could get it.  Similarly, the top four men look to be all but decided – Brody Malone, Sam Mikulak, Yul Moldauer and Shane Wiskus, leaving one +1 spot to be decided. 

So what happens to those who don’t make it? For those who were so close? 

For some, they carry with them the pride in years on the National team, international assignments, and other amazing accomplishments. They go on to successful college careers and even to further World Championship success. For others, they let this perceived sense of being so close to something that was within reach define them. 

Notably missing from Olympic Trials is Aleah Finnegan, 2017 World All-Around Champion Morgan Hurd, and former Olympians Chellsie Memmel and Laurie Hernandez. The journey for Memmel and Hernandez has proven to be more impactful than, perhaps, the original accomplishment itself. Memmel, mother of two and wife, returned to serious training and competing after nine years. Hernandez, after taking time to take care of herself mentally and emotionally post the Maggie Haney abuse scandal, wanted to return to gymnastics to prove she was training for herself, and no one else. 

Finnegan and Hurd, however, plowed through the last five years, each rising at their own pace and by all accounts had each been in the conversation for Tokyo, particularly Hurd, until their journeys ended in Fort Worth at U.S. Championships. Next up for them, NCAA and a chance to shine on a new stage.

Riley McCusker, a strong contender for the four-person team as well as the individual specialist fifth spot, hurt her ankle at Winter Cup with a slim amount of recovery time possible to prepare not only for Nationals, but for this weekend. 

Eddie Penev worked his way back to top form, only to miss out on Trials, injuring his knee in practice on Friday last week.  And on Thursday night, Colin Van Wicklen pulled out of Men’s Trials Day 1, injuring himself in warm-ups. 

It all comes down to timing. Yes, training cycles can help. Making sure that you are not in muscular or adrenal fatigue, making sure that your numbers are properly peaked (and valleyed for that matter), and ensuring that the mental preparation for the months-long push is on point. 

Still, things can happen. 

With an estimated five million people that do gymnastics throughout the world, there are more than 200,000 athletes registered with USA Gymnastics (per their website). Making the six (4 + 2)  person team total for women, or the five (4+1) person for men, or one of the five alternates, is beyond levels of statistically challenging. 

It’s the athlete’s success against the odds of even getting here. Each athlete who accomplishes more pushes the others. Each person who is a “surprise” up-and-comer makes others nervous.  As the younger generation rises, the older one has to stay on their toes. 

And, it is not just about competing against who’s here on the day of the meet. It’s competing against one’s self. Day in, day out. Balancing sleep and activity. Focusing every day, week, month, training cycle, year and quad. Taking care of the mental and physical game. Rehabilitating from injuries. Arriving in one piece, especially in a year filled with extra safety measures and quarantines, time out of the gym and masking, should get an award. 

The glory of sport has perpetually been in the accomplishment and not in the process. Athletes are measured by what they ultimately do, not how hard they try. Stellar efforts may help an athlete make a team, or be chosen to train at a higher level, which will vault them into a stream of possible success and resources, but the effort is only as good as your last routine.

It would be amazing to celebrate the accomplishments of everyone – the coaches, gym owners, medical providers, parents and families, support staff and more. Just as there are closing credits that roll perpetually for the end of every movie or television show, the team is and will be composed of the lead actors, the supporting roles, the chorus that backs them up and the entire production team.

For past generations, as years have passed, the wounds of not making the team begin to heal. We commend those such as Paul Ruggeri (sixth  All-Around at 2012 Olympic Trials) who serves as the Men’s athlete representative, and Kristie Phillips (who was a 1988 Olympic alternate), who has been a Brevet judge for years for giving back to the sport. On Day 1 for the women, Memmel, who many thought should have at least been given the opportunity to compete in St. Louis, posted her favorite routine from the 2008 Olympic Trials on Instagram, and wished all of the competitors good luck. 

For the younger athletes, those who didn’t quite make the cut for Championship or Trials, some are in the stands supporting their future college teammates or sharing well-wishes across social media. They will draw inspiration from their friends, their competitors and be better athletes and people because of it. 

For the bubble athletes, those who become alternates or those who just miss the cut, this will be (and historically has been) the hardest position. What they do with the result is up to them. 

MyKayla Skinner lived through the disappointment of being an alternate in 2016. After competing at Utah for three years, she made a decision to give it one more try. After a year of setbacks, including COVID and related complications, and ongoing foot and ankle injuries, she had the meet of her life on Day 1 and sits in fourth place, proving anything is possible. Whether she makes the team or not, she’s learned how to move forward and how to make the most of her time and talent in the sport. 

“I’m ready for my last Olympic Trials. This has been such a journey and I’m excited to go out there one last time,” Skinner told the media after podium training. “I’ve planned on trying to make the four-person team, that’s my goal but I know they still have that extra spot. Either way, either spot would be awesome, just to be on that Olympic team. There’s nothing like the feeling of being an alternate, it’s just super hard. But, I think whatever happens, whether I’m on the team or the individual spot or the alternate again, just to be able to be there and be a part of Team USA will be super cool. If I can be in one of those positions, I’ll be good either way.”

There were days when Emma Malabuyo never thought she’d be in St. Louis. Having overcoming injury after injury throughout her career, Malabuyo was the surprise of the competition at U.S. Championships, placing fourth in the All-Around. For her, it truly is all about the journey. “Finishing fourth gave me a lot of confidence heading into the Olympic Trials. I’m really excited to be here and just grateful to make it this far.”

For a while, it seemed Yul Moldauer had spent much of his career waiting. In 2016, he finished fifth in the U.S. Olympic Trials but was left off the squad. Perhaps too new, too unknown to the international stage and the selection committee. By 2017, he was a World bronze medalist on floor with a U.S. National All-around title and his first of three consecutive American Cup titles. After a stellar career competing for the Sooners and racking up 18 All-America honors, three consecutive team titles from 2016-2018 and being honored with the Nissen-Emery Award in 2019, as well as a successful outing to Worlds in Stuttgart, Moldauer was set to make 2020 his best year yet. When the pandemic hit, Moldauer took the opportunity to rise above the challenge and use it to his advantage, telling us, “A year more is a year to get better. That’s the way we looked at it because that was the only way to look at it.” Tonight in St. Louis, barring the extraordinary, Moldauer will finally make his Olympic dream come true.

And so, tonight and Sunday, let’s remember to cheer for everyone, one and all. Let’s make the journey count. Our program is deep enough that the chips will fall in place and the success will come. Celebrating those whose names are called is inevitable. Recognizing those who start Monday morning with fresh eyes is what we should all try to do. 

Photos by Lloyd Smith and Grace Chiu for Inside Gymnastics

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