An Olympic Gymnastics Team With Four Returning Gold Medalists?
by Blythe Lawrence
As one of the many U.S. gymnasts making a comeback to elite competition with the Olympic Games Paris 2024 in her mind, Trinity Thomas is keeping the whole Olympics thing in perspective.
“It’s one of the hardest teams to make,” the University of Florida star commented days after announcing her comeback to the elite side of the sport following a dazzling collegiate career in which she tied the NCAA record for perfect 10s received.
The odds of making the five-woman 2024 U.S. Olympic Team “are not necessarily great,” Thomas acknowledged, but that isn’t stopping her — nor a raft of U.S. superstars whose performances have wowed at the world championships and Olympic Games over the past decade — from trying.
With less than a year to go before the Paris Games, the list of contenders in U.S. women’s gymnastics is longer than a line to visit the Eiffel Tower. American depth, the envy of the world for the past two decades, appears to have reached a new level of profundity: the rich have gotten so rich that fully prepared world and/or Olympic champions may struggle to make the team.
And there sure are a lot of them, beginning with 2016 and 2020 Olympic all-around champions Simone Biles and Sunisa Lee, who will be making highly anticipated returns to elite competition for the first time since the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 at this weekend’s Core Hydration Classic in Hoffman Estates, Illinois, the final qualifier to the U.S. Championships taking place at the end of the month.
Biles, whose withdrawal from most of the competition in Tokyo sparked a flurry of headlines and a larger conversation about athlete mental health, intends to show routines on all four apparatus in the Chicago suburb, sparking a firestorm of excitement around the athlete many consider to be the best gymnast ever to compete. Lee, who has been dealing with a health issue involving her kidneys for the past several months, is likely to do uneven bars, balance beam and a watered-down vault.
They aren’t the only superstars making their way back after a long absence. Gabby Douglas, the 2012 Olympic champion, recently made her own comeback official after she had been quietly training with one of the U.S.’ top coaches in Texas for the past year. Douglas’s intentions are clear: “Let’s do this #2024,” the 27-year-old wrote on Instagram in a post announcing her return last month, ending a period where she kept a low profile on social media. However, she hasn’t yet announced when she’ll return to competition.
Jade Carey, the reigning Olympic champion on floor exercise, has been combining elite training with a starring role on Oregon State University team. The seven-time world medalist won her first vault title at last year’s world championships in Liverpool, England. Oregon State recently announced that her father Brian, who coached her onto the Olympic team, would join the OSU staff as an assistant coach for the coming season.
Biles, Lee and Carey will be going against 2022 world team champions Jordan Chiles, Skye Blakely and Leanne Wong in Hoffman Estates, as well as 2021 world all-around medalist Kayla DiCello, back in the game following her freshman season at the University of Florida. Shilese Jones, the 2022 world all-around silver medalist, will sit the Classic out but is expected to compete at the U.S. Championships. Thomas hopes to attend a national team camp in November.
With a team of five heading to October’s world championships in Antwerp, Belgium, the possible combinations are mind-boggling. And that’s not counting the potential challenge from the likes of Joscelyn Roberson and Tiana Sumanasekera, both of whom have excelled at international events this spring. Hezly Rivera, a young standout who won silver on floor exercise at the junior world championships in Turkey in April, will age into the senior division next year, just in time to make her own run at the Games.
Returning after hiatus when you’re an Olympic champion comes with its own set of challenges. If you compete and don’t seem in Olympic-level shape, you risk being written off, Lee confided in a candid recent interview with Olympics.com.
“It’s like, ‘Oh, my gosh, now if I go out there and I don’t show them I’m better than I was at the last Olympics,’ (then) people are gonna be like, ‘Oh, she didn’t deserve to win,’” she said. “So, I feel like I just let that stuff get in my head too much.”
At no other time in gymnastics history have three all-around gold medalists been in direct competition with each other for anything, much less to make the same nation’s Olympic team.
“It just makes it a lot more nerve wracking. I was looking back at senior Classic before and I was like, ‘That was a really hard group to even make the last Olympics,’” Lee told Olympics.com. “I feel like it’s going to be a lot more difficult (next year) because I feel like everyone just brings something to the table.”