As Simone Biles eyes farewell, Olympic gymnastics picture jumbles

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When Simone Biles decided to come back for a second Olympic run, she could not have envisioned this kind of history: Biles, if she makes the Tokyo Olympic team, will become the second U.S. female gymnast in the last 50 years to span eight years competing at the highest international level.

Biles, who won her first world all-around title in 2013, would join Dominique Dawes, an Olympian in 1992, 1996 and 2000.

“Mentally, going another year, I think that’s what going to take a toll,” Biles, expected to retire after Tokyo, said on TODAY two weeks ago.

Had the Olympics been held this summer, Biles, 23, would have still bid to become the oldest U.S. Olympic female gymnast since 2004, and the oldest U.S. Olympic female gymnast to ever win a gold medal. Those feats, if accomplished in 2021, will have been even harder earned given the current circumstances.

“You’re working against time, your body, your mind, a growing phase, so many different things,” NBC Olympics analyst Nastia Liukin said. “So it’s definitely scary, I think, for a lot of those that were vying for a spot on the team to rethink and wonder, where am I going to be in a year?”

One month ago, before sports were halted indefinitely, the U.S. Olympic team situation was this: Biles an overwhelming favorite to clinch one of the four team-event spots at June’s Olympic Trials. Another 10 or so women in the mix for the other three spots.

After Biles, the next name mentioned has to be Sunisa Lee. The 17-year-old from Minnesota was runner-up to Biles in her senior nationals debut last August. She then joined Biles in the world championships all-around in October, placing eighth, though she would have earned a medal if not for an uncharacteristic fall off her best apparatus, the uneven bars.

“If [Lee] has a year coming up like she had last year, then she’s going to be hard-pressed to not make that Olympic team,” NBC Olympics analyst Tim Daggett said.

Decisions in the last week altered the picture. The International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) ruled that the most recent international Olympic qualifying competition in March, which was halted between qualifying and finals, will have those qualifying scores count as final results.

If nothing else changes, that means that Jade Carey became the first American gymnast to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics — in individual events, but not as part of the four-woman team-event roster. One more American woman can be named to the Olympics in individual events only apart from the four-woman team.

Also, the federation made a ruling on age minimums that led the gymnastics community to believe that current 15-year-olds, who would be too young for a 2020 Olympics, were made eligible for 2021.

At least one gymnast who turned 16 or younger in the Olympic year made the last 10 U.S. Olympic women’s teams. Konnor McClain and Skye Blakely, second and fourth at last year’s junior nationals, just entered the already crowded picture for Olympic team spots.

Older gymnasts in contention include: Morgan Hurd, who won the world all-around title during Biles’ one-year break in 2017. Hurd did not make the six-woman world championships team last year but rebounded to win the American Cup last month.

MyKayla Skinner, a Rio Olympic alternate looking to become the first U.S. female gymnast with NCAA experience to make an Olympic team since Brown’s Alicia Sacramone in 2008.

Kayla DiCello, last year’s junior national champion who impressed enough there and at national team camps to be named, along with Hurd, to the American Cup.

And Kara Eaker and Grace McCallum, the two women other than Biles to compete for the U.S. at each of the last two world championships.

“There are going to be four athletes [who don’t make the team], at least, that anywhere else in the world will win an Olympic medal,” Daggett said.

A variable brought by the coronavirus pandemic: Some athletes still have gym time. Biles tweeted Thursday that she has not been training. Others around the world have home set-ups, equipment included.

“That’s the biggest piece of concern for a lot of people,” Liukin said. “I don’t think I ever took more than a long weekend off. That’s scary. It’s scary to think that you could possibly be going months without doing gymnastics on the equipment, and then wondering how long is it going to take for me to get back to where I was before all this happened.”

Many of the top U.S. men often work out at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, but that was shut down last month. How will it affect Sam Mikulak, bidding to become the fist U.S. male gymnast to span nine or more years among Olympic appearances since 1948? Or Yul Moldauer, the 2017 U.S. all-around champion who battled injuries the last two years (and recently started training on a pommel horse in a garage).

The biggest name in men’s gymnastics is Kohei Uchimura, the eight-time Olympic or world all-around champion from Japan. Uchimura fought injuries every year of this Olympic cycle to hang on for 2020. His finish line just extended another year.

“For guys that are older and have been sidelined for a longer period of time, coming back from injuries, I think it’s going to be harder for them,” Daggett said. “[Uchimura] may come out of this better, but I would say that the odds are against that. He had a long period of time to figure out what his plan was. They had already taken the time off that they needed to address some of those physical issues. Now, it’s a very long road again.”

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