Olympic Champs Aren’t The Only Stars At This Weekend’s Gymnastics Nationals
by Chrös McDougall
Shilese Jones waited patiently for her opportunity, and it finally came at last year’s U.S. gymnastics championships.
Having come heartbreakingly close to making the previous year’s Olympic team, then grieving the loss of her father after a battle with kidney disease, Jones powered on and delivered a magnetic performance at nationals.
A runner-up finish at the meet in Tampa, Florida, earned Jones a berth to the world championships in England, and the gymnast who once thought her elite career was over instead racked up a trio of medals, including team gold and silver in the all-around.
A performance like that two years out from the 2024 Olympic Games, and the Washingtonian might as well start booking her flight to Paris. Right? Right?
How quickly things can change in American gymnastics.
In the year since Jones’ breakout performance, last year’s national champ Konnor McClain has been sidelined with injury, but a pair of Olympic all-around champions have returned to competition while a third is training for a comeback. All the while, two other gymnasts who won Olympic medals in Tokyo never stopped competing, and — as ever in gymnastics — the next generation keeps sending up talented newcomers.
As TeamUSA.com outlined in a story earlier this month, there’s a real possibility that next year’s U.S. Olympic women’s team could return an unprecedented four individual gold medalists. Yet, with unheard of depth in the U.S. program, there’s also no guarantee that the Olympians will even make next year’s team.
This weekend’s Xfinity U.S. Gymnastics Championships will be an important proving ground for the American women, who compete Friday and Sunday in San Jose, California. In the fractured landscape of elite gymnastics, nationals marks the one time everyone is not only together but really going for it, with this event also being key in the selection for the five-woman team for the world championships that start Sept. 30 in Antwerp, Belgium.
“All the gymnasts, we all stay super strong no matter who comes back,” Jones, 21, said. “My goals are still the same. Like I said, I’m a fighter. So we all just lay it out on the competition floor.”
The elephant — er, goat — in the SAP Center this weekend is Simone Biles. The four-time Olympic champ confirmed she was returning to the sport in July, then emphatically came back at the Core Hydration Classic earlier this month in the Chicago area.
The 26-year-old Biles had last been seen competing in Tokyo, where she qualified for all five individual event finals but withdrew from four of them, citing the twisties, a dangerous condition that causes gymnasts to lose their air awareness. She was able to come back for her last final, balance beam, and won a bronze medal while performing a routine stripped of its twists.
She’s since gone on tour, taken some personal time and, in May, gotten married.
Returning to a rapturous reception at the U.S. Classic, she hardly missed a beat. The 2016 Olympic all-around champ was her otherworldly self in scoring 59.100 — not only winning the competition by five points but also posting the top score in the world so far this year. Barring something unforeseen, she’s the heavy favorite to win an eighth U.S. all-around title this weekend and would then be favored to add to her collection of 25 world championships medals in Antwerp.
The U.S. Classic also marked Suni Lee’s return to the elite level. Lee won Olympic all-around gold in Tokyo, then competed collegiately at Auburn for two seasons. Though her comeback has been hampered by a kidney ailment, and she’s planning to compete just bars and beam this weekend, the 20-year-old Lee showed flashes of her potential on those events at the U.S. Classic.
This is already the first time two Olympic all-around champions will take part in a U.S. championships. Next year it could be three. Gabby Douglas, the 2012 Olympic all-around champ, indicated in a July Instagram post that she too is training for a shot at Paris, though she’s yet to announce a return to competition.
Jade Carey, the 2020 Olympic gold medalist in floor exercise and reigning world champ on vault, is set to compete in San Jose. So is Jordan Chiles, a member of the U.S. team that won a silver medal in Tokyo. Both competed in the NCAA these past two seasons — Carey, 23, at Oregon State, and Chiles, 22, at UCLA — and helped the American women win team gold at last year’s world championships.
The veterans will be tested by a host of talented gymnasts seeking to make their first Olympic team. Though Jones is yet to compete this year due to a torn labrum in her shoulder and an ankle injury, she positioned herself as a star with her high-flying bars and floor last year and is confident going into San Jose.
“The goals are super high right now,” Jones said. Among them: “I want to hopefully get that bars medal here and make national team again, and then I would love to make the (world championships) team again, hopefully (win team) gold again, and then an all-around spot for sure, and also I’m coming for No. 1 in a bars medal.”
Skye Blakely, another member of last year’s world championships team, reached the podium on all three events she competed at the U.S. Classic. Had the 18-year-old competed on floor exercise and put up even an average score, she would have taken second to Biles. Instead, Florida Gators star Leanne Wong took that runner-up spot. After competing in the last two world championships — and finishing second in the all-around in 2021 — the 19-year-old Wong is seeking her Olympic debut after traveling to Tokyo as an alternate.
No gymnast this summer has seen her star rise as much as Joscelyn Roberson. After not even making the national team last year, the 17-year-old has moved to Biles’ gym, the World Champions Centre outside Houston, and thrown herself into international competition.
It’s been a successful approach, as she bagged a handful of medals across three overseas events before putting in another strong performance at the U.S. Classic, where she took third in the all-around.
“(After) how not well last year went for me I wanted to get out there and prove myself as many times as I could, as well as staying healthy and not tiring out,” Roberson said. “So I feel like getting those extra assignments was really good for me.”
After injury struggles, 17-year-old Zoe Miller is ready to show off her all-world bars skills this weekend. The World Champions Centre gymnast — who won a $200 bet with training partner Biles at the U.S. Classic — is outside the group of top all-arounders but could make a case for the world championships on the strength of her bars.
“If I maintain where I am on bars, I do see myself on the team,” she told TeamUSA.com earlier this month.
Among the other up-and-comers to keep an eye on is Kaliya Lincoln, a 17-year-old Texan who finished second on floor at the U.S. Classic, and Tiana Sumanasekera, 15, who won the all-around title at the Pan American Championships in May.
McClain, meanwhile, will not be in San Jose, but she’s not giving up the Olympic dream. Though she hasn’t competed since last year’s nationals due to injuries, and is currently recovering from hand surgery, the 18-year-old plans to enroll at LSU this fall and then go for an Olympic spot next year.