By Ashlee Buhler for Inside Gymnastics 

There are thousands of high-level gymnasts in the United States. Less than 100 will make it to the Elite level at any given time. Within that number, approximately 20 will be named to the U.S. National Team each year with the goal to represent the United States on the international stage. From there, only a small handful will compete at the Olympic Games to fulfill a lifelong dream.

For six of the United States’ best gymnasts, that dream came true under the lights of The Dome at America’s Center in St. Louis, in front of a record-breaking crowd of over 20,000 fans. 

Simone Biles, Sunisa Lee, Jordan Chiles, Grace McCallum, MyKayla Skinner, and Jade Carey are headed to Tokyo. Their journey to make the Olympic team did not come without its fair share of adversity, setbacks, and challenges. Every athlete toughed out the extra year of training resulting from the Olympic postponement and dealt with the array of emotions that came with the news. For every dream, there was a setback, a moment of uncertainty. In the end, each overcame what must have seemed like insurmountable obstacles at times to thrive in the most pressure-packed competition of their lives. And that alone, provides enough inspiration for us all!

Five-time Olympic medalist Simone Biles has been vocal about her displeasure with USA Gymnastics to say the least, ever since coming forward as a survivor of abuse by the former USAG team doctor, and discovering the organization withheld an investigation from her back in 2015. 

In speaking out, Biles also played a critical role in getting the Karolyi Ranch, the training facility where so many athletes were abused for years, shut down permanently. Her work to change the culture of the sport and demand accountability has continued along with her historic career. 

Despite her extreme frustration with a system that failed her and so many others, Biles rallied like the champion she is, going above and beyond in her drive to succeed, and continued to take the sport to new heights. In addition, she has been able to use her platform to give voice to women and youth everywhere to inspire them to be the best version of themselves.

Earlier this year, Biles left Nike and signed with Athleta. Using my voice has been very empowering for me and I am grateful to embark on this new journey with Athleta to inspire young girls and women to do the same,” said Biles. “The opportunity to encourage young girls to reach their full potential and be a force for change is incredibly powerful. I admire Athleta for their commitment to recognize and support women’s individual and collective strength and, together, I believe we can help girls to confidently and passionately take on the world in their athletic endeavors and beyond.”

Athletically, Biles remains unbeatable. Since the 2016 Rio Olympics, she debuted four new skills including a triple double on floor, a double double off beam, and a Yurchenko double pike on vault. She won three more National All-Around titles, moving her total tally to seven, and two more World All-Around titles, bringing her World Championships medal total to 25.

En route to making her second Olympic Team, Biles told the media at Olympic Trials she was more emotional this time around. 

“I just think with everything I’ve been through with USA Gymnastics and coming back into the sport and trying to find the love again, and just going out there and being Simone—it’s been a very long journey from 2016 to now.” 

For Biles’ training partner Jordan Chiles, the path to Tokyo has not been straightforward or easy. Despite joining the senior ranks in 2017 and proving herself on the national and international stage, Chiles was never selected for a World Championships team, which is often thought of as a prerequisite for making the Olympic team. 

In May, Chiles told Inside Gymnastics that being overlooked time and time again left her feeling disappointed and hurt. “I always felt ready, but I guess others felt it wasn’t the right time,” Chiles said. 

In 2018, Chiles was ready to quit the sport altogether when Biles suggested she make the move from Vancouver, Washington to Spring, Texas to chase the Olympic dream alongside her. The move was all Chiles needed, mentally and physically, to make her dream come true. After Championships, where she placed third, Chiles credited her coaches Cecile and Laurent Landi for helping her find her joy for the sport again. 

“Cecile and Laurent brought the love back into the sport for me,” Chiles said. “That’s the one thing I was lacking. I no longer wanted to do it anymore. They helped me understand who I was as a person and who I am as an athlete. I was really, really happy when that came back.”

The emotions began to flood out before Chiles’ final floor routine in St. Louis. And once she nailed her final tumbling pass, the tears couldn’t be contained. Jordan Chiles had just become an Olympian. 

“When I truly realized it was definitely after my floor routine when I started crying,” Chiles said. “I was like, ‘Oh my gosh. I really have a good chance of making this team.’”

After finishing second All-Around overall and first on Day 2 at Trials, Sunisa Lee knew her Olympic fate was sealed. Perhaps it was the perfect payback for a grueling couple of years. In 2019, the day before Lee left for the U.S. Championships, her father fell from a ladder while helping a friend trim a tree and was paralyzed. It wasn’t until the 2021 U.S. Championships that he was able to see her compete in person once again—for the first time in three years. There was also devastating loss (Lee lost an aunt and uncle to COVID-19) and setbacks (broken foot), but none of it was enough to interfere with her Olympic dream. 

“Right now, I feel really relieved and I’m obviously still very emotional,” Lee said following Day 2. “It’s so surreal to say that I’m an Olympian now. To be able to go to the Olympics—it’s something I’ve been working towards for so long, so getting that chance is actually crazy.” 

With her spot secured on Team USA, Lee also made history by becoming the first ever Hmong American Olympic gymnast. With her eyes set on helping the team win Olympic gold, Lee hopes to inspire the Hmong community. 

“Competing for the Hmong community is important to me because it’s so small and people aren’t aware of it,” Lee said. “I think a lot of people in the Hmong community are afraid to branch out and do sports… I want to be somebody who inspires them to do it.”

The final member of the four-person team is Grace McCallum. Although she was always in contention for the spot, her fate wasn’t as certain as the other members of the team. The two-time World team champion broke her hand in January, which required surgery to install a plate and seven screws. It was a difficult and potentially dream-ending blow with under six months until the start of the Olympics.

“I was kind of devastated,” McCallum said. “I thought my Olympic dreams were gone because the recovery was going to be long.” 

McCallum was wrong. She defied the odds and bounced back at the U.S. Classic earlier this year with a fourth-place All-Around finish to put herself right back in the conversation. After two strong days of competition at the Trials and another fourth-place All-Around finish, McCallum had done enough. 

“I was kind of in shock,” McCallum said of the moment her name was announced. “I had to be like, ‘Wait, did he just say my name?’ I turned to Jade and asked her because I just couldn’t believe it. They announced Suni, Simone and Jordan first, so there was one more spot and my heart was racing.”

Another racing heart belonged to MyKayla Skinner, who gave her Olympic dream one last shot after a successful college career at the University of Utah. This cycle was Skinner’s third go around. In 2012, she missed qualifying to Olympic Trials after finishing 15th in the All-Around at the U.S. Championships. In 2016, she made it to Trials with no problem, but was put in the alternate position despite her fourth-place All-Around finish. It’s a position she became used to, as she would go on to be alternate on the 2015 and 2019 World Championships team.

Skinner has been relentless in pursuit of fulfilling her Olympic dream, although the journey has not been easy. The first obstacle was overcoming the initial disappointment of the Olympic postponement. Skinner had plans to move to Utah with her husband Jonas and finish her degree at Utah, but would have to put those plans on hold if she wanted to make it to Tokyo. 

“It was so hard the first couple of weeks,” Skinner told Inside Gymnastics in May. “I was so angry. I was like, ‘I don’t want to do this,’ and it made training so much harder. But then once I had more time to think about it, I was like, ‘It’s only one more year. I can do it.’ I’ve come this far so I can’t give up now.” 

The challenges don’t stop there. Skinner has dealt with a bone spur in her heel that rubs against her Achilles and frequently causes her pain. She also missed a month of training and had to build  her endurance back up after contracting COVID-19, which ultimately turned into pneumonia and required hospitalization in January. There were days when she doubted her ability to continue but nevertheless, she persisted—and it all paid off. Skinner will travel to Tokyo as an individual and although she will not compete in the team competition, she will have the opportunity to vie for individual medals. 

“I feel like it still hasn’t hit me yet,” Skinner said a day following the team announcement. “I’m like, ‘Is this even real?’” 

Jade Carey is the sixth and final member of the U.S. Women’s Olympic gymnastics team. Early on, she and her coach (and father) Brian decided to take a different route to solidify her Olympian status. Carey joined the senior Elite ranks straight from Level 10 and quickly made a name for herself at the 2017 World Championships, winning silver on her strongest events, vault and floor. Through the FIG Apparatus World Cup spanning from 2018 to 2020, Carey tallied enough points to earn her own Olympic berth.

Like Skinner, Carey will not be a part of the team competition but will have an opportunity to earn individual medals in Tokyo. Still, her leadership and experience is bound to benefit the entire team, who will be relying on each other for support more than ever due to the absence of family and friends at the Games.

On June 15 on her Instagram, Carey said: “I’m really excited to be heading to St. Louis next week. I have every intention to accept the individual spot that I worked very hard to earn by competing in the Apparatus World Cup series spanning from 2018-2020 when officially offered to me. My focus right now is Preparing to compete at the Olympic games in Tokyo and being able to contribute to team USA in any way possible.”

Carey told the media after Olympic Trials that there were  definitely moments she questioned her decision to forgo a team spot and pursue the individual route, but ultimately, she trusted the decision would be the best option for her. Officially being called an Olympian, Carey said, is still taking time to feel real.

“It’s definitely taking a while to sink in,” Carey said. “Even knowing before Trials that I was going to be getting the individual spot, it was still just really emotional last night being up there with all the girls and having it announced. I’m really excited!”

The United States women are expected to dominate the Tokyo Olympics, but it’s the stories behind the medals that inspire the most. With each name that was announced in St. Louis, a lifelong dream came true. And it served as a reminder that hard work and perseverance really does pay off. 

Photos by Lloyd Smith for Inside Gymnastics

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