The last time a U.S. women’s gymnastics team competed on the highest level without a single Simone Biles routine, it was near the start of the program’s decade of dominance at the 2012 London Games.
There is no Biles on the entry list for the world championships that start with qualifying Saturday in Liverpool, England. There is no Suni Lee, who succeeded Biles as Olympic all-around champion in Tokyo. Both are on indefinite, possibly permanent, breaks from elite gymnastics.
There is also no Konnor McClain, who won the U.S. all-around title in August, then withdrew from world championships team consideration with a back injury.
Yet the U.S. is still favored to win a sixth consecutive world team title dating to 2011, which would break its tie with Romania for the longest streak in history, for a combination of reasons.
Russia, which relegated the U.S. to silver at the Olympics, is banned due to the war in Ukraine. The American team of five is reliable, stocked with veterans.
“The beauty of this women’s team is that they might not have a Simone that is in a different stratosphere from the world, but they’ve got a high floor,” said NBC Sports’ John Roethlisberger, a three-time Olympian.
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The U.S., set for the team final on Tuesday, still boasts one of the top two gymnasts of the entire field in Liverpool: Shilese Jones, who considered quitting elite gymnastics after placing 10th in the all-around at last year’s Olympic Trials.
An American woman won every Olympic or world all-around title from 2011 through the Tokyo Games, with Biles gobbling six of those 10 crowns. Angelina Melnikova, who snapped that streak at last October’s worlds, is absent this year due to the Russia ban.
Still, an American victory in the all-around is more in doubt than in the team event. That’s because of Brazilian Rebeca Andrade, who took a close silver to Lee in Tokyo and passed on doing the all-around at last year’s worlds.
Andrade and fellow veteran Flavia Saraiva lead a Brazilian group that could win the nation’s first team medal at an Olympics or worlds. At the last worlds with a team event in 2019, Brazil placed 14th, failing to qualify for the Tokyo Games.
Now, Brazil is right up with podium regular China to challenge the Americans, should they make mistakes. At the peak of the Biles-led era, the U.S. won a team competition by more than eight points. That margin meant U.S. gymnasts could have fallen on half of their routines and still prevailed.
That is not the case anymore, evidenced by Russia’s victory at the Tokyo Olympics, where Biles withdrew with the twisties after her opening vault.
“Certainly they don’t have this aura of invincibility,” Roethlisberger said. “But I think they maybe have a little bit of a, I don’t want to say chip on their shoulder, because I don’t know if they think about it that in-depth. But, ‘Hey, we’re still the best, and we’re going to show you.'”
Given the absences of Biles, Lee and McClain, the U.S. might not be favored if not for the recent proliferation of gymnasts balancing elite gymnastics with NCAA gymnastics, which have different scoring systems and, usually, different routines.
Tokyo medalists Jade Carey and Jordan Chiles, plus 2021 World all-around silver medalist Leanne Wong, make up three-fifths of the U.S. team. All are coming off their freshman years and are expected to return to college competition this winter and early spring. No U.S. woman has competed at an Olympics, then competed in college and then made it back for another Olympics since NCAA women’s gymnastics began in the early 1980s.
Like the women, the U.S. men compete in a major team event for the first time since their stalwart (the retired Sam Mikulak) stepped away from competition.
They, too, will benefit from the absence of Olympic champion Russia, which likely opens up a place on the podium below Japan and China. The U.S. last earned a men’s team medal in 2014.
Brody Malone, who supplanted Mikulak as the top U.S. male gymnast last year, leads a team that’s a mix of youth and experience with a major strength on vault and a concern on high bar. Keys in the three-up, three-count team final on Wednesday will be limiting mistakes on those first two high bar routines before Malone and from the leadoff man on pommel horse.
“If those three routines can somehow get a 13 or above,” Roethlisberger said, “I think they’re going to win a medal.”
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