Opinion: Competition tightens up for last spots on U.S. gymnastics team for Tokyo Olympics

ST. LOUIS — Hard a job as the selection committee has, the U.S. women are making it even harder.

The top contenders for the five available spots – and, let’s be honest, it’s really only four because, you know, Simone Biles – played a game of, “Can you top this?” on Friday night in the first day of competition at the U.S. Olympic trials. Only the top two after Sunday’s meet get automatic spots – and, again, one of those is going to be Biles – on the Tokyo team, with the selection committee picking the remaining two, as well as one gymnast for an individual spot.

Sunisa Lee and Jordan Chiles, who separated themselves from the rest of the pack at the national championships three weeks ago, did nothing to weaken their front-runner status. Quite the opposite, in fact.

They were second and third, respectively, behind Biles, just as they were at the national championships three weeks ago. Lee was even leading Biles midway through the meet, thanks to a monster uneven bars routine that could win her a gold medal in Tokyo.

Bright lights. Big stage. SUNI LEE. 🙌 @sunisalee_ x #GymTrials21pic.twitter.com/eA03GKJ64X

Lee appears to float from one skill right into another and, easy as she makes connecting those elements look, it’s incredibly difficult. And explains why her score, a 15.3, is so high.

Lee also had the second-best score on beam, while Chiles was fourth on that event, uneven bars and vault. When you are trying to build a team that will ensure you three big scores on each event in the team finals, that kind of consistent excellence is critical.

But the real intrigue is who will get that fourth spot on the team. And it’s still very much up for grabs, with just .300 points separating the athletes in fourth through sixth places. 

MyKayla Skinner, who wants nothing more than to shed her title of perennial alternate, made a case for herself by finishing fourth overall. Skinner missed a significant amount of training early in the year after having COVID, and even a few weeks ago was still trying to regain her form, but she is clearly peaking at the right time.

MyKayla Skinner smiles after competing on the uneven bars during the women's U.S. Olympic Gymnastics Trials Friday. (Photo: Jeff Roberson, AP)

She was fourth on floor exercise, sticking her landings on with such precise force it was as if she was jabbing her finger at selection committee members, telling them, “Pick. Me.” She had quite possibly the best beam routine of her career, and was already yelling and pumping her fists before her score of 14.133, fifth-best of the night, was posted.

Skinner also was third on vault behind Biles and Jade Carey, who already has a nominative spot in Tokyo thanks to being the top finisher on both vault and floor in the individual apparatus World Cup series.

Grace McCallum, a member of the 2017 and 2018 world teams, was steady throughout the night. Her performance on floor was a highlight, her tumbling passes high and landed with confidence.

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After a rough nationals, where she fell off balance beam both days and uneven bars once, Kayla DiCello rebounded in impressive fashion with a sixth-place finish. She had minor errors on bars and balance beam, but her floor was delightful and done with sass.

Emma Malabuyo and Leanne Wong probably took themselves out of contention with falls on balance beam that left them ninth and 10th, respectively. While the committee doesn't have to go by placements, the competition is so fierce that a mistake or two is likely to be enough to keep a gymnast home. 

"Whatever happened is in the past, so I can’t really change that," Wong said. "All I can do is change what I do the next day."

As for the individual spot, it would seem to be Riley McCusker’s to lose.

McCusker is still recovering from an ankle injury she suffered on vault at the U.S. Classic last month, and only did uneven bars. But she made the routine worth the while. She flits between the bars like a hummingbird, and she was already smiling by the time she landed her dismount.

Her routine doesn’t have quite the difficulty of Lee’s, but her execution is comparable and would make her a threat for a medal, too.

Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour. 

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