By Ashlee Buhler with Christy Sandmaier
662 days. That’s how much time has passed from the last time the nation’s best gymnasts came together to compete in the U.S. Championships until they meet again on the floor in Fort Worth,Texas.
A lot has unfolded during that time—none of which could have been predicted when the chalk dust settled at the 2019 U.S. Championships in Kansas City. Comebacks, new skills, new champions, and a vault heard ‘round the world – all following a year no one saw coming.
2020 was supposed to be filled with Olympic magic, incredible memories and the coronation of a queen named Simone Biles. It was the year every gymnast kept in the back of their mind and was working toward. Instead, the majority of it was spent at home as the COVID-19 pandemic halted all Olympic preparations. Gyms were closed across the country for several months and every major summer elite competition was cancelled. The countdown clock to Tokyo was forced to reset.
Now, here we are nearly a year later with our top athletes more determined than ever to step out onto the competition floor to write new history. With the Tokyo Olympics just two months away, a lot will be on the line in Fort Worth. The top eight gymnasts in the All-Around will automatically punch a ticket to the Olympic Trials. The competition will also be one of the few and final opportunities to compete and show readiness for Tokyo since the start of the pandemic.
It’s well-known that making the U.S. women’s team is more difficult than competing in the Games and the field is more loaded than ever as the simultaneous marathon and sprint to the finish starts with the GOAT Simone Biles leading the way. For the men, favorites Sam Mikulak and Yul Moldauer should see their dream to go to Tokyo to fruition, barring injury. The rest of the field will be fighting for the final spots on the team and will need to make their mark starting here in Fort Worth.
For over a year, these athletes have faced the ultimate test – their Olympic story rewritten and absolutely out of their control due to a global pandemic. Through it all, they have risen to the challenge that comes with simply devoting themselves to one more year of intense training – some for the chance to compete in the Olympic Games, some to make their first senior national team and some to complete a journey they may have never taken if it hadn’t been for one more year. And for that alone, we salute them.
Following Fort Worth, the road heads to St. Louis for Olympic Trials, the final test in a dream that has been building for a lifetime. Who will make the team? We present our look at the athletes and storylines that could shape the Road to Tokyo for Team USA starting right here in Dickies Arena.
Tokyo is rising and the GOAT is ready to take the stage. The last time the U.S. Championships were held, Simone Biles notched the sixth title of her career. Barring anything out of the ordinary, she should make it seven in Fort Worth. For the GOAT, Championships will be all about fine tuning her routines on the competition floor and gaining experience with new upgrades. During the break, Biles pushed the technical boundaries of the sport sky-high and began working on a Yurchenko double pike—a skill never before competed by a female gymnast. In Indianapolis at the GK U.S. Classic, Biles sent shockwaves through the gymnastics universe by debuting the skill live in competition. When asked by the AP why she would compete a vault not given the value it deserves (a 6.6; when Biles and her coaches were hoping for a 6.8), the GOAT simply responded, “Because I can.”
Sunisa Lee has proven herself to be one of the top All-Around gymnasts, not to mention one of the very best bar workers in the world. At the U.S. Championships in 2019, she finished second to Simone Biles in the All-Around and first on uneven bars. As she gears up for Tokyo, Suni will be looking to impress with a stacked uneven bar routine (6.8 potential start value) and a solid All-Around program that is among the very best in the country. The biggest question is if Suni will be ready (she said on her Instagram prior to Classics that she has been dealing with some Achilles pain). After some uncharacteristic falls at Classics, fans are hoping to see Suni rebound in Fort Worth.
From her gold medal performance at the 2017 World Championships to bringing home the title at the 2020 American Cup—Morgan Hurd knows what it feels like to be on top. Hurd has proven to be a leader on and off the competition floor and can be one of the best gymnasts in the world when she puts it all together. Hurd has been slowly building her routines back up after two elbow surgeries earlier this year and is hoping to compete All-Around at Championships. A spot on the All-Around podium would serve as a great reminder of why she deserves to be in Tokyo.
The biggest question surrounding McCusker is health. At Classics, she appeared to injure her left ankle on the landing of her double-twisting Yurchenko and scratched the rest of the meet. If she’s healthy, her potential to be an All-Around competitor for Team USA is alive and well. McCusker competed vault, bars and floor at the Winter Cup in February and showed the gym switch to Arizona Sunrays is suiting her well. McCusker has the technical foundation and the skills to be one of the best, she just needs to show consistency, and her trademark beautiful form, across the board to solidify herself among the top of the field. McCusker is currently listed on the roster for Championships and confirmed she will compete bars only.
We all know Jade Carey shines on vault and floor, but don’t forget about her bars and beam! Carey has come a long way on her quest to be considered an All-Arounder. She has already mathematically locked in her spot for Tokyo as an individual but has not given up her aspirations of making the four-person team. Her bars were just phenomenal at Classics – by far the best we’ve seen her perform on that event. The question will be—with the top-notch talent of Team USA—can Carey be a top four finisher?
She may not have any World Championship medals or a bunch of international experience as a senior, but Jordan Chiles does have two things: grit and talent. Chiles claimed the All-Around title at the Winter Cup earlier this year with a solid performance that proves she deserves to stay in the conversation for Tokyo. She then went lights out at Classics, placing second to Simone. With upgrades ready on three events—which if performed cleanly at Championships—Chiles will be hard to overlook!
Don’t count out Grace McCallum! With some big upgrades in the works, McCallum could make a statement at Championships with a hit performance. She has been seen training numerous upgrades including an Amanar and Cheng on vault, which will give a big boost to her start value and make her a real threat for Tokyo. Grace has been overcoming a hand injury but impressed at Classics, placing fourth, and should be even stronger in Fort Worth.
Kayla DiCello made a huge statement in Indianapolis placing third in the All-Around, winning bars and finishing third on beam. She was also a force to be reckoned with on the junior elite scene. In fact, the last time she competed at a U.S. Championships she was crowned as the junior national champion. DiCello could make another big statement at Championships with a solid competition and upgrades, and prove her consistency is worth taking to Tokyo. We can see her as a major player for the team at this point.
With silver medals on beam at the 2018 and 2019 U.S. Championships and as a two-time beam finalist at Worlds, it’s no secret Eaker shines on that event and would be perfect for the specialist spot in Tokyo. But she is also lovely on floor and could find herself in the All-Around mix with a few upgrades, including the 3.5 twist punch front combo she threw at American Classic (and was already much improved in Indianapolis). Eaker’s performance at Championships could be the biggest deciding factor on if she will be considered as an All- Arounder or specialist. Which one will it be?
Wong may be one of the biggest dark horses for Tokyo. Not having made a World Championship team yet in her career, Wong is sometimes left out of the conversation for Tokyo. But her near flawless technique and execution, and overall performance quality make her hard to overlook, especially when she brings her full difficulty to her routines. Wong may be an underdog but watch for her to vie for a spot on the All-Around podium.
You could say MyKayla Skinner has been around the block a few times competing in elite and at Utah, however, she still has a lot to prove to the selection committee if she wants to make it to Tokyo after a year of setbacks. The Rio alternate excels on vault and floor—two events where Team USA is stacked with depth, so Championships will be a great place for her to prove she can be an All-Arounder, in addition to being a medal contender on those events! Bars has historically been her weakest event, but her execution has improved significantly (check out her YouTube channel for videos). Expect Skinner not to go down without a fight!
KONNOR MCCLAIN – Update 9pm ET 6-1-21 – McClain will not compete in the U.S. Championships or Olympic Trials
Under normal circumstances, Konnor McClain would likely be stepping onto the competition floor in Fort Worth the favorite to win the national title as a first-year senior. However, with the Olympic postponement she suddenly finds herself Tokyo-eligible. Although she has said her goal remains 2024, McClain has a real shot whether it be as a member of the four-person team or as a specialist on beam. Her recent move to WOGA sets up an interesting storyline for McClain, and Championships will be a big opportunity to show she can handle the pressure and be an asset for Team USA.
Skye Blakely is a bonus name in the conversation for Tokyo thanks to the Olympic postponement. She did herself a solid by winning the All- Around title at the American Classic in addition to taking home a silver on beam. (In Fort Worth, watch for Blakely to contend for a medal in the same areas.) After letting the pressure get to her a little in Indy, Blakely told us her focus is still to make it to Tokyo and “being the best athlete I can be.”
Fans have been looking forward to Chellsie Memmel’s return to competition since she announced her comeback in August 2020. Memmel has been documenting her journey on her YouTube channel and has shown an impressive variety of skills, both new and old. The 32 year-old mother of two last competed at a U.S. Championships in 2011 and seeing her comeback debut at Classics on vault and beam was pure joy in every way possible. Whatever the outcome in Fort Worth, Chellsie continues to inspire each one of us. Her self-described “bonus round” has already been worth every minute and everything else is just extra. And maybe, just maybe, about to hit the next level.
Tokyo is the end goal for most gymnasts, but for Laurie Hernandez, making it to the U.S. Championships and having a strong All-Around performance would be a huge victory. The Rio Olympic gold and silver medalist made her long-anticipated return to competition at the Winter Cup where she competed beam and floor, and competed beam and vault at Classics, but has said that this comeback is about competing for herself and no matter the outcome—she has so much to be proud of!
Aleah Finnegan impressed in Indy with a fifth place finish in the All-Around—beating some of the top contenders for Tokyo (including her own teammates) and proving she deserves to remain in the conversation. Finnegan doesn’t have the most difficulty among the field, but she has unique skills and a nice quality of movement that help her to stand out.
Shilese is a quiet but legitimate contender for Tokyo, especially in the eyes of Tom Forster, who noted Shilese as a standout performer to the press after Classics. Jones finished second All-Around at the Winter Cup earlier this year and had one of the highest execution scores on vault at Classics (9.45 execution, final score 14.850). With a few upgrades and some consistency across Championships and Trials, Jones could be more in contention than people realize.
Don’t count her out. Emily Lee has had a phenomenal year and she’s not done just yet! At the 2021 Winter Cup, Lee finished third All-Around and second on floor. Then, at the GK Classic she finished just off the podium (4th) on floor. She also has an impressive beam routine (6.3 start value) featuring a triple series (bhs+loso+loso) and a back handspring layout to two feet series. Championships will be an important meet for Lee to build up her consistency and show she has the confidence to hang with the best!
Sam Mikulak has been the undisputed and dominant leader on the men’s side for Team USA and will look to notch his seventh title in Fort Worth. Mikulak has not competed since the 2020 American Cup when he took home the trophy, so all eyes will be on the two-time Olympian as steels himself for the Road to Tokyo with eyes focused on the podium at his final Games.
Moldauer is looking good on his quest to make his very first Olympic team. Moldauer could use the U.S. Championships to make a big statement and perhaps improve upon that second-place All-Around spot we have grown accustomed to seeing him in the last few years. He competed earlier this year at Winter Cup where he took home the gold medal on parallel bars and a bronze in the All-Around and on floor exercise.
Shane Wiskus has left a lasting impression. He not only won the national title on vault, but he won bronze on parallel bars and finished fourth in the All-Around. In fact, fourth seems to be his lucky number. He helped Team USA to a fourth-place finish at the 2019 World Championships, finished fourth All-Around at the 2020 American Cup, and fourth All-Around at the 2021 Winter Cup. In Fort Worth, the goal will be a podium finish. Wiskus is coming off an emotional year as standout performer for the University of Minnesota, who competed their last meet as a program at NCAAs, and we’re certain he’ll use that fuel to make a stellar showing leading up to Trials in his run for the team.
Brody Malone could be peaking at just the right time. He dominated at the 2021 NCAA Championships helping Stanford claim the team title as well as defending his individual titles in the All-Around and high bar from 2019. And don’t forget—in 2020 he placed third All-Around at the Winter Cup. Malone certainly has what it takes to be among the best in the nation!
CAMERON BOCK *Named to the U.S. Men’s Pan Am Team – Will not compete in Fort Worth
He may still be considered the new kid on the block, but Cameron Bock is making a strong impression. Bock has had quite a bit of competitive experience this year between elite and college which may be an advantage. He surprised—and impressed—at the 2021 Winter Cup where he brought home the All-Around title as well as a bronze on pommel horse and still rings. Bock was also a key part of the Michigan Wolverines’ success this season and is ready to bring that energy and momentum to Team USA.
PAUL JUDA *Named to the U.S. Men’s Pan Am Team – Will not compete in Fort Worth
Paul Juda doesn’t have a bunch of experience competing at the senior elite level but watch out—he is a force to reckon with. Juda competed at the Winter Cup earlier this year where his best finish was fourth on parallel bars. Additionally, he was stellar this season for the Michigan Wolverines and was the No. 1 ranked gymnast in the All-Around for the majority of the 2021 season. Looks for Juda to be right there factoring in for the team to Tokyo.
Allan Bower is on a quest to prove his worth as an All-Around competitor. Placing fifth All-Around at the 2021 Winter Cup should bode well for his confidence heading into the U.S. Championships. His highest finish at Championships was third place in 2018; Bower could use another finish like that to help secure his spot on the team for Tokyo.
Pommel horse is where Stephen Nedoroscik shines and that could come in handy in his quest for Tokyo. He is coming off a second-place finish on the event at the 2021 Winter Cup and also won silver at the 2019 U.S. Championships and NCAA Championships. Nedoroscik will be striving for gold in Fort Worth to put himself in contention for that specialist spot in Tokyo.
A fifth-place All-Around finish and a silver medal on rings at the 2019 U.S. Championships helped Howard secure a spot on his first-ever World Championship team. With so much talent in the country, Howard needs a solid performance at Championships to help make his case for Tokyo.
Eddie Penev brings a lot to the table, particularly on vault and floor, and has racked up numerous accolades over the years. At the U.S. Championships in 2017, he took home the national title on those two events and could use another stellar performance in Fort Worth to prove his routines can be competitive among the best in the nation.
It’s been over a year since Akash Modi last competed, but don’t forget about him! At the last U.S. Championships Modi brought home a silver on high bar and bronze in the All-Around. How will he bounce back in 2021?
DONNELL WHITTENBURG *Named as alternate to the U.S. Men’s Pan Am Team – Will not compete in Fort Worth
Shear strength and power is what makes Donnell Whittenburg so great, especially when it comes to vault, floor, and rings. When it comes to the Tokyo Olympics, the biggest question is where Whittenburg fits the bill. Will he be needed on the four-person team or could his talents be used as a specialist in Tokyo?
RILEY LOOS *Named to the U.S. Men’s Pan Am Team – Will not compete in Fort Worth
Riley has made strong strides in the sport over the last four years and has proven himself as a true All-Arounder. Loos finished second All-Around at the Winter Cup earlier this year and has two junior national titles under his belt from 2018 (pommel horse) and 2017 (vault). Championships will be a big opportunity for Loos to make a statement!
COLIN VAN WICKLEN Update 9pm ET 6-1-21 Van Wicklen will not compete at U.S. Championships and will petition to Trials.
It has been a while since we have seen Colin Van Wicklen compete in a major competition, but if his instagram updates are any indication, don’t count him out! Van Wicklen is strong on high bar and vault, but can put up a competitive score in the All-Around as well. We can’t wait to see what he brings to the competition floor in Fort Worth!
WHO WE WON’T SEE IN FORT WORTH…
In retirement news, Marvin Kimble, a gold medalist on pommel horse from the 2015 Pan American Games, and Kanji Oyama, a bronze medalist on floor exercise at the 2018 U.S. Championships both announced they are retiring from the sport and will not be vying for a spot on the Tokyo Olympic team. We wish them the best in their future endeavors!