Olympic Trials | Individual vs. Team – Where Is the Reward?

Olympic Trials | Individual vs. Team – Where Is the Reward?

By Gina Pongetti Angeletti

The value of the win. The team. The medals. The reward. It’s all part of the journey to and through the Olympic Games.

Ask anyone who is on a swimming or track relay team about individual or team glory. There’s pressure as a team and there’s pressure as an individual to perform for that team. Though being a top individual sprinter is an accomplishment for certain, four people coming together as one, increasing the amount of things that can go wrong, and placing the probability of everyone having to be near perfect on the same day at the same time, is a feat in and of itself. It’s what makes sports exciting after all!

We all recognize the names Usain Bolt and Florence Griffith Joyner (better known as Flo-Jo) and super fans can recite their individual and relay team accomplishments. We are in awe of the superhuman speed of Sha’Carri Richardson and her 100m qualifying performance. Michael Phelps is the most decorated swimmer of all time, but what stands out to you, his individual records and medals, or superb relay contributions? Which impresses you more? Essentially, it’s a question of what you love more, what you love to watch and which accomplishments stirred an emotion or provided inspiration.

This week in St. Louis, the U.S. Olympic Team in men’s and women’s gymnastics will be announced. Each will have a four-person team who competes for the team medal in Tokyo. In addition, the women have two individual spots. Jade Carey has one, with the other to be named at the conclusion of the event. The men have one additional spot, also to be designated following the competition. All will be named as part of a collective Team USA.

How the decision is made is complicated but in no way diminishes the journeys and accomplishments of each athlete, regardless of what role they fill.

We all know gymnastics involves superhuman strength, power, speed, agility, flexibility and ideally, a level of artistry as well. Similar to this on the track, is the decathlon (100m dash in contrast to the 1,500 meter run, throwing and jumping events). The human body has slow and fast twitch muscle fibers, and being able to use both, at their highest capacity, is, well, almost impossible. 

The times and numbers for those who participate in 10 events are not nearly as impressive as, let’s say, sprint specialists or long-distance runners. But no less of a superb athlete feat. Most of us know the accomplishments of Olympian Caitlyn Jenner, formerly known as Bruce Jenner, who mastered the decathlon as an art in 1976. Do you remember the individual numbers or the gold medal performance? 

In gymnastics, it’s rare to be so well-versed in all events that one also carries with them Olympic event titles. In 2016, Simone Biles won the All-Around gold, and was also first on vault and floor. But then again, she is Simone. Often, those that excel at one event well above others have difficulty maintaining the dichotomy of endurance and power, flexibility and explosiveness, over all events. Which is why, again, Simone is the GOAT and we’ll likely not see another gymnast of her calibre for some time, if ever.

In this Olympic cycle, the conversation surrounding team versus individual and who is best for those spots and the value they bring, was one of the most heated debates of the quad. After all, to be a member of a team, especially a team of only four members on the Olympic gymnastics stage, is of great significance alone. The difference between being on the four-person women’s or men’s team, or being an event specialist is also a big deal to some. To others, it is an honor either way to represent the USA. 

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. 

Recently, Carey announced she will accept the individual spot that she will be offered when the World Cup Series comes to a close next week, having mathematically clinched it in April 2020. In first place on both floor exercise and vault in the apparatus World Cup series, Carey secured a nominative (non transferable) spot that goes to the top eligible gymnast in each event. 

Factoring in the postponement of the Games, and Carey’s resulting significant improvement on bars and beam, speculation was rampant whether or not she was vying for a team spot or stick to the individual route. Ultimately, if she would have shifted to the team spot, she would have released an entire additional medal opportunity for the United States. 

Women’s Team Coordinator Tom Forster even stated that the choice was hers to make, telling the press after Championships in Fort Worth, “We live in a world of athlete-centeredness, and the athletes have the choice. So it will be up to her (to choose) if she’s in that position.”

In short, Carey controlled her own destiny and ultimately, in doing so, plays a huge role in the medal possibilities for the U.S. program in Tokyo. She could have been a very valuable member for the four-person team and significantly contributed to the team total and all but certain team gold medal. Instead, she will be a very valuable individual competitor for Team USA at the Games with the potential to bring home individual medals.

The debate on what’s more valuable can be fueled by pride, accomplishment, notoriety and in some aspects of being human. You want more of what, often, others want. To accomplish the greatest feat, to earn the most respect. There are countries that definitely value a team accomplishment well above and beyond an individual’s. Yet, many athletes are more motivated by placing worth and significance on individual accomplishment, pushing themselves to their own limits, and controlling, per se, their own destiny. Would you rather be on multiple World Series teams or have the most home-runs in a season? Would you rather have the Heisman or a collegiate National Championship? And,  which accomplishment ultimately carries more?

Representing your country at the Olympic Games comes with eternal levels of pride no matter the role. Being a part of a team is a feat where the odds are stacked to have hit routines and perfection line up. They’re a prestigious group of people that can be champions for sport, not only gymnastics, but for all. The Mag 7, the Fierce Five, the Final Five, the 1984 Men’s Team – most avid fans can name all members, but some just recall the “art” of the group accomplishment. 

The U.S. women’s program has been dominant in artistic gymnastics for years with the team event seemingly the focus of the program. There is a history, a respect, built not only to continue to grow in accomplishments, but to fuel the next generation to carry the torch. In addition, the after-Olympic glory in the United States is often filled with talk-show appearances, parades, tours, photo sessions and more. Individually, many athletes take advantage of the post-Olympic hype with local gigs, sponsorships and other opportunities. However, the bond that lasts forever is one of team accomplishment. 

At the same time, being the master of the beam, or the king of rings, is an undeniable achievement. In six to eight seconds, your name can be forever etched for your vault prowess. 

Which is more important or impressive is a fun debate and one with no real answer. At the end of the day, these are all incredible athletes accomplishing feats that have taken a lifetime to build.

And for the likes of Carey, Riley McCusker, Alec Yoder, Stephen Nedoroscik, Donnell Whittenburg and Gage Dyer to name a few, the plight for the individual spot means a seat on a plane to Japan. For these individuals, they do not have eight or 12 events over two days, respectively, to allow for slight errors. They have one final free-throw. One final field goal. For a medal that looks (and weighs) the same. No matter how they got there. 

Photos by Lloyd Smith and Grace Chiu for Inside Gymnastics

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