The U.S. women’s gymnastics team qualified for Tuesday’s team final at the Tokyo Olympics in second place by more than a point behind the Russian Olympic Committee team. The good news: If they fix the steps out of bounds and uncharacteristic form breaks on bars and falls from the beam, they have the routines to win.
The real drama during Sunday’s qualification, though, was the competition taking place within the U.S. team. Because of what is known as the “two per” rule, a maximum of two gymnasts from each country may qualify into the all-around and event finals held later in the Games. Only 24 gymnasts make the all-around final, and the top eight on each apparatus make the event finals.
To underline the drama: If a U.S. gymnast finishes third-best in the world during qualifying — but also third-best in the U.S. — she misses out. (Who can forget reigning world all-around champion Jordyn Wieber missing the 2012 Olympic all-around final after finishing fourth in the world during qualification behind teammates Aly Raisman and Gabby Douglas?)
Simone Biles’ teammates knew heading into Sunday’s meet that she likely would lock up one of the two U.S. spots in the all-around and all four event finals. She did that. The only one in doubt was the uneven bars, which it initially looked like she missed.
Because of the two per country rule, although the Russian Olympic Committee qualified its top two finishers for the finals, its athletes who finished fifth and sixth in uneven bars cannot compete. That ensured that Biles, who finished 10th overall but second among U.S. athletes, has a place in the finals.
So, who secured the remaining individual spots for the U.S.?
Heading into the Games, it appeared Suni Lee and Jordan Chiles would battle for the second spot behind Biles, just as they have all season. But Chiles, a rock at U.S. nationals and trials, suffered a major form break on bars, fell from the beam and finished sixth of the six American gymnasts. Lee backed up her trials performance and will compete for the Olympic title alongside Biles, who will attempt to become the first gymnast to repeat as Olympic all-around champ since Věra Čáslavská in 1968.
The U.S. women are stacked on floor exercise, and the second spot was anyone’s to grab. But it was individual qualifier Jade Carey who made it into the floor final and left fans knowing more is yet to come. Carey submitted a new skill that she plans to debut in Tokyo, a triple-twisting double layout, but saved it Sunday night. If she competes the skill, it will bear her name and earn the highest difficulty score in men’s and women’s artistic gymnastics.
When MyKayla Skinner, a vault specialist, was selected in the plus-one spot for the U.S., the biggest question on everyone’s mind was whether she would be able to outperform Carey, another vault powerhouse who competes the same two vaults as Skinner, for a shot at a medal. Carey finished three-tenths of a point ahead of Skinner and only .017 behind Biles, who did not perform her much-hyped Yurchenko double pike, opting to save it for the team final or all-around. As for Skinner, because she is not a member of the four-woman U.S. team and did not qualify for an individual event, her Olympic competition ended Sunday night.
Suni Lee’s uneven bars routine might be the only thing talked about as much as Biles’ groundbreaking vault. And it lived up to the hype Sunday night. Lee was the only athlete to crack a score in the 15s and took the top U.S. spot into next Sunday’s final; Biles joins her because of the two-per rule.
For the second time Sunday night, Lee was the top U.S. athlete, finishing .0134 ahead of Biles, who took three steps out of her full-in dismount.
In all, three U.S. athletes — Biles, Lee and Carey — qualified to compete for individual medals.