U.S. Olympic Gymnastics Trials: Simone Biles headlines the hardest team in the world to make

MINNEAPOLIS — They white knuckled each other’s hands. They screamed, both in encouragement and at times horror. They contorted their bodies in their seats like it might telepathically help stick a dismount out on the competition floor. They sometimes covered their eyes.

The U.S. Gymnastics Trials may have glittered and glistened on NBC Sunday night, but across the lower bowl of the Target Center, where gymnast families sat, it was a cauldron of pressure and prayer.

The U.S. Olympic Women’s Gymnastics Team has long been the hardest team in the world to make. This year it was even harder, partly due to new Federation of International Gymnastics rules and partly because a group of veterans who not only wouldn't cede their spots, but have elevated their games.

It made the strain for perfection so great for the competitors, no one was immune. Simone Biles fell off the beam. So did Suni Lee — and nearly twice at that.

They are merely the last two Olympic all-around champions. And it even hit them.

Simone Biles competes in the floor exercise at the United States Gymnastics Olympic Trials on Sunday, June 30, 2024, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Abbie Parr)
Simone Biles competes in the floor exercise at the United States Gymnastics Olympic Trials on Sunday, June 30, 2024, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Abbie Parr)

In the end there are five — superstars and survivors alike — headed to Paris to represent America, where the expectations are of gold and nothing else.

Biles, of course, is on her way to her third Olympics. One fall wasn’t going to change that; she won the trials with a commanding 117.225 points (5.55 in front of Lee) and secured a guaranteed slot. When not testing the laws of gravity, she spent much of her night trying to both calm down and fire up her potential teammates.

“I know exactly what they are going through,” Biles said afterward.

The next four were picked by a committee, analyzing not just performance here, but experience, confidence and potential for scoring in the team event.

They chose Sunisa Lee, Jade Carey, Jordan Chiles and Hezley Rivera.

The first four are Olympic veterans, 20-somethings who due to their talent and determination — and FIG’s rules that reward degree of difficulty — have made this team no longer the purview of one-and-done teenagers.

Rivera, 16, of Oradell, New Jersey, is the lone fresh face, likely on the team because she can add scoring pop on bars and perhaps beam for the team event, where the Americans look to reclaim gold after being bested by the Russians in Tokyo.

Along the way there was carnage. Three devastating injuries to top competitors on Friday ended years of dreams and upped the stakes at hand. Everyone is one moment from catastrophe. Others missed by the slightest of miscues or mental errors.

Everyone else tried to muscle through. Chiles fell off the beam. Carey stepped out on floor. So, too, did Biles. At times routines were finished with tears of relief.

On and on it went. This was more about showing the ability to shake it off and come back stronger — Biles on floor and Lee on vault, for example, post-beam mistakes.

In the parents section, meanwhile, the tension just mounted, hearts soaring and breaking with each bobble and slip.

The Olympics once allowed a country to bring seven gymnasts to compete — the famed 1996 team was dubbed the “Magnificent Seven.” For Tokyo, it was six. Now it is five.

MINNEAPOLIS, MINNESOTA - JUNE 30: (L-R) Hezly Rivera, Joscelyn Roberson, Suni Lee, Simone Biles, Jade Carey, Jordan Chiles and Leanne Wong pose after being selected for the 2024 U.S. Olympic Women's Gymnastics Team on Day Four of the 2024 U.S. Olympic Team Gymnastics Trials at Target Center on June 30, 2024 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
Hezly Rivera, Joscelyn Roberson (alternate), Suni Lee, Simone Biles, Jade Carey, Jordan Chiles and Leanne Wong (alternate) pose after being selected for the 2024 U.S. Olympic Women's Gymnastics Team. (Photo Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

The reasoning has been to cut down on the advantage of powerhouse programs — the U.S. most notably — that are capable of bringing in event specialists for the team competition. Think McKayla Maroney on vault in 2012 or Madison Kocian on bars in 2016.

All that meant around here was one less ticket in a lottery of nearly impossible odds.

In 2023, 4.76 million girls in America participated in gymnastics, per USA Gymnastics stats, but the potential number is even greater. Gymnastics is an immensely popular sport that nearly every girl in the country has tried — at some level — in her life.

Not everyone swims. Not everyone sails or skis or plays ice hockey. Just about everyone is exposed to some kind of tumbling, often at a very young age, if not in gym class. Biles, for instance, was first sent to a gymnastics hall because her constant springing off the couch was distracting her father from watching football on television.

Yet just five make the Olympic team, the only time the sport, generally speaking, captures wide-spread attention in America.

By the end of Sunday night, that meant one spot for any gymnast in America born from 2004-2008, what was once considered a generation in gymnastics. In the past they all would have made it, but this time the four top new contenders — Rivera; Tiana Sumanasekera, 16, of Pleasanton, California; Kaliya Lincoln, 18, of Frisco, Texas; Leanne Wong, 20, of Overland Park, Kansas; and Joscelyn Roberson, 18, of Texarkana, Texas — could only try to outlast each other.

Basketball, soccer and track have similarly high participation and exposure rates, but also larger rosters. There is no room for sentimental picks here. No chemistry guys or backups or veterans who might be good for leadership. That luxury doesn’t exist.

Everyone will have to be razor sharp next month.

Biles will lead the way, of course. At 27, the Spring, Texas, native is an ageless wonder, the oldest American female gymnast since the 1950s. She hasn’t lost an all-around competition in 11 years, including the 2023 World Championships. She isn’t just maintaining her greatness, but pushing the boundaries of greatness.

With her degree of difficulty, she will be the significant favorite to win a second gold medal (2016, Rio) and avenge a tumultuous 2021 trip to Tokyo that saw her drop out of numerous events while suffering from the “Twisties.” In the team event, she’ll likely be counted on to perform in all four apparatuses.

“I knew I wasn't done after my performances in Tokyo,” Biles said. “I knew I would be back.”

Joining her is a veteran group, but one that needed to battle to get here.

  • Suni Lee, 21, the native of St. Paul, Minnesota, and 2020 Olympic all-around champion. She’s fought through health issues to return from a career at Auburn to elite competition.

  • Jade Carey, 24, is also back for her second Games. In Tokyo she won gold in floor, advanced to the finals in both vault and all-around and was part of America’s silver medal-winning team.

  • Jordan Chiles, 23, was also part of the U.S. silver-winning team at the last games, pushed into extra duty when Biles had to drop out after the first rotation. She is coming off two individual NCAA championships in 2023 while competing for UCLA.

Then there is Rivera, who will likely get a chance to compete in at least one discipline in the team event and possibly qualify for Olympic finals in beam and bars. On a team that has always been famed for its youth and energy, she’ll be the one making her debut, perhaps reminding the veterans of what the Olympics are about.

That’s your five, America’s five, the only five.

In a country obsessed with gymnastics, with talent to stock a dozen Olympic teams, this team — the hardest in the world to make — is set.

And now comes the even harder part.