No Cause For Alarm Just Yet
The U.S. women's gymnastics team wins its sixth straight team gold.
On Tuesday, the U.S. women’s gymnastics team won their sixth straight consecutive team gold at the world championships in Liverpool. This result is not exactly a shock as they had been the favorites coming into the competition and Russia, the defending Olympic team champions, wasn’t allowed to compete due to that country’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine. (Belarus also wasn’t allowed to send any gymnasts, but given the current status of Belarussian women’s gymnastics for the last 10-15 years, their presence wouldn’t have impacted overall results.)
The U.S. gymnasts performed beautifully across all four events, recording just one fall in a competition that was heavy with big falls across the events, particularly on the balance beam. (Apparently water had been dripping onto the beam from the roof, as several of the gymnasts discussed in the post-competition interviews. It’s hard to know exactly what role that played in all of the falls but I don’t think it helped matters.) It was especially lovely to watch Jordan Chiles hit her beam routine in the team final after falling twice in qualifications, mistakes that had dropped her out of contention for the all-around final. Her mistakes in qualifications had been reminiscent of her struggles on beam in team qualifications at the Olympics last year. Chiles herself said that her mind went back to that performance at the Games. “I feel like during qualifications I got into my head what happened at qualifications in the Olympics [when she also fell], and that kind of brought me down. Then I realized I’m more than that,” she said after the team final.
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Chiles was the one who anchored the team on floor exercises and this was the team’s reaction as the standings were made official.
But even as favorites to win in Liverpool, the Americans weren’t the overwhelming favorites they had been from 2014-2020. Gone was the absolute certainty that they would always emerge victorious regardless of how they performed or how the other teams performed.
And this is fine! Dominance wanes. Winning streaks end, as did the U.S. women’s all-around worlds gold medal streak, which stretched from 2011-2019 before ending at 2021 worlds in Kitakyushu when Russian Angelina Melnikova took the top spot. Its Olympic all-around title streak is still intact—2004-2021—but that, too, will eventually snap, because that’s what happens in sports. You can’t keep winning forever. And you can’t treat every silver medal like it’s some harbinger of doom.
I know this is fairly obvious stuff but the reason I bring it up is that when the elite gymnastics season got underway earlier this year, the U.S. women didn’t necessarily look like the odds on favorites to win the team gold in Liverpool. They had just placed second at Pan Ams behind a very experienced Brazilian team that featured 2021 Olympic gold and silver medalist Rebeca Andrade, who is presently the best gymnast in the world. (Here’s a newsletter I wrote about her.) The American team that was sent to Pan Ams was arguably less experienced and was missing its top stars. But those caveats shouldn’t really be necessary when it comes to talking about a second place finish. A very good team placed second behind a stronger team, and that’s that.
But this placement raised alarm bells for some, most notably Nancy Armour of USA Today, who has been covering the sport for well over 10 years.
I, too, have had bad tweets—whole articles, in fact—in my past. No journalist who has been doing this job for more than a month has managed to get through this career without having written things they now regret. Or finding that they had been wrong about something. This is certainly true for me.
But the issue here isn’t a bad tweet, per se, or the fact that it seemed to indicate that things might be looking dire for the U.S. women. Journalists who write about gymnastics are not supposed to be boosters of the individual athletes or teams. They should offer clear-eyed assessment of the team’s prospects. The issue for me is that this alarmist tweet about the prospects of the program didn’t appear to be based on all that much information, especially since Armour wrote off the results in Tokyo as not being applicable to the analysis. So it was based on one competition? Or was she also referring to the results from world championships at Kitakyushu where the U.S. women went 2-3 in the all-around, and also picked up an individual bronze on floor, but didn’t win any golds for the first time since 2006? (She had a similarly alarmist tweet after that competition.) If we’re writing off Tokyo—which I don’t think we should since teams losing their key players is a thing that happens across sports—then I would also write off Kitakyushu since that was certainly an unusual worlds, hosted just about 7 weeks or so after the Olympics due to the postponement of the Games. Basically the entire U.S. Olympic team was on tour with Biles or at college.
Now, the tweet in question did raise concerns about the “next generation” but it’s unclear how far into the future Armour was projecting her concerns. Was it simply to 2022 worlds? Or was she talking about the rest of this Covid abbreviated Olympic cycle? Because at Pan Ams, the U.S. junior team did win gold in a dominant fashion, which suggests that the future is not in jeopardy either. At least you can’t say so on the basis of this one competition.
By the time late summer 2022 rolled around, the U.S. women’s roster looked considerably stronger with the return of Olympic floor champion Jade Carey, team silver medalist Jordan Chiles, and 2021 world all-around silver medalist Leanne Wong, all of whom competed for a season in college before resuming elite gymnastics. Add Konnor McClain and a resurgent Shilese Jones to the mix, the program was already looking stronger than it had earlier in the year. (McClain, who won the senior national title this year and was looking like she had a good chance to medal on beam at worlds, withdrew from world team consideration due to an injury. And 2021 bronze all-around medalist Kayla DiCello headed off to start her college career at the University of Florida.)
When I saw how well Carey, Wong, and Chiles performed so soon after finishing their NCAA seasons, I definitely had the thought, “Thank God they returned from college.” While there have been many gymnasts who have managed to balance NCAA and elite competition, it’s been relatively rare for U.S. gymnasts to do so. MyKayla Skinner, when she decided to pursue elite gymnastics again and make a run at the 2020 Olympics, took a leave from Utah where she had been a standout. Mohini Bhardwaj made the 2004 Olympic team after finishing four years at UCLA. Also, it’s unusual to have so many gymnasts doing elite and college gym at the same time; half of the U.S. team in Liverpool is performing this delicate balancing act. This is a positive development for U.S. women’s gymnastics, due, in part to the change in NIL (name, image, likeness) rules that allowed last year’s Olympic medalists to earn money while maintaining their NCAA eligibility. Also, the new leadership of the U.S. women’s program seems open to ensuring that the gymnasts can participate in both, which is a welcome change.
The fact that their return not only felt so welcome but crucial to the team’s success did have a tinge of anxiety underneath—that there are depth issues in the U.S. program. While that may well be true, this is certainly not the first time that there has been depth trouble in the middle of the Olympic cycle for the U.S. Anyone remember 2014 nationals with the abrupt retirement of Elizabeth Price and so few gymnasts participating in senior nationals? There weren’t a ton of gymnasts in contention that year for worlds either though it was hard to get too nervous when you had Simone on your side.
But these tweets really point out that some of this concern about needing these returning athletes is a little silly. All of the top teams rely on their veterans:
Where would Great Britain, which just won the silver, be without the Gadirova twins? Or Brazil without Rebeca Andrade? Or Canada without Ellie Black? Where would Russia have been last year without Melnikova?
The key to longterm success—and “success” doesn’t always mean first place—is having a healthy mix of veterans and newcomers. In 2013, you had the most important rookie of all time, Biles, but you also had returning veterans Kyla Ross and McKayla Maroney, both gold medalists from the 2012 Olympic team. There was also Brenna Dowell, who had competed at the 2012 Olympic Trials as a first year senior. And there was Price, the 2013 non-traveling alternate, who, the year before, had been one of the Olympic alternates. (Katelyn Ohashi, whose first year as a senior had been long anticipated after a stellar junior career only ended up competing once as an elite in 2013 before injuries made it impossible for her to continue.) The following year, with Price retired and Maroney out, the balance tilted more towards the younger generation. (Ross was still in the mix though.) And then in 2015, the 2012 Olympic gold medalists—Aly Raisman and Gabby Douglas—returned to form and competition and Laurie Hernandez rose from the junior ranks to senior success. The 2016 Olympic team was a blend of veteran and new talent. The popular NBC talking point around the 2016 team selection was that the U.S. could send two medal-winning teams to the Olympics. This was more than a little hyperbolic, but if there was any truth to that assertion, it only would’ve been true for only that year and that year alone. The 2012 and 2016 generations will go down as the most talented generations in American gymnastics history.
Like I said, this year the bench felt a bit thin but that has happened before. But we still have promising young talent in the mix. Skye Blakely is a 2020-2024 generation gymnast and was only able to compete at Olympic Trials last year because of the postponement. Had McClain, another 2024 athlete, not been injured, she would’ve surely been on the team in Liverpool. And Jones, while certainly not a newcomer to the senior ranks, is new to this level of international competition. After struggling with consistency earlier in her career, she has blossomed as a competitor this year. (That Jones pulled this off in the year after her father passed away is truly remarkable.)
So yes, we needed Chiles, Carey, and Wong to return in order for the U.S. to win. We needed Jones to come into her own. Perhaps that does point to depth problems in the short or even long term. But these are also the kinds of issues that all of the other top programs are facing or have faced in the past. What we might be witnessing here is the end of U.S. women’s gymnastics exceptionalism.
The dominance that the U.S. women’s program experienced over the past decade was never going to be sustainable. We all knew that it was going to come to an end. I think it will take awhile to shake off that feeling that the U.S. should always win and that we, as fans, should never be made to feel any anxiety about the results.
I think as more time passes, especially if Biles doesn’t decide to make a run for Paris, we’ll start to understand that those years of absolute dominance were an anomaly, largely attributable to a singular, once in ten generations talent. She competed alongside other brilliant American gymnasts but it was usually Biles whose presence seemed to guarantee the outcome and assuage fans’ and journalists’ anxieties. We have forgotten what it’s like to watch a meet without knowing the outcome ahead of time. I don’t think we’re comfortable yet living in that uncertainty.
I’m sure there are problems in the U.S. program. How could there not be after the last six years of upheaval? And arguably, the problems were even more extreme before the revelations and resultant upheaval; it’s just that many of us didn’t know (or didn’t want to know) about all of the terrible things that were happening behind the scenes.
A few second place finishes in an unusual couple years of competition (due to Covid) aren’t necessarily cause for alarm, just like winning a team gold isn’t proof that the program is running smoothly either. We can only extrapolate so much from a couple of meets. As the athletes themselves always say, it’s important for us to be focused on the process—training, camps, selection, strategy—rather than just the results if we want to truly appreciate the health of the program.
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