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Simone Biles to lead U.S. Olympic gymnastics team's search for 'redemption' in Paris

Simone Biles won the U.S. Olympic Team Trials by more than five points and secured her spot on the team in Paris.
Jamie Squire
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Getty Images
Simone Biles won the U.S. Olympic Team Trials by more than five points and secured her spot on the team in Paris.

MINNEAPOLIS — For most gymnasts, a slip off the balance beam, a foot outside the line on the floor exercise and too many steps after landing a vault could be enough to spoil a chance at victory.

But this is Simone Biles we're talking about.

For Biles, at 27 already the most decorated gymnast in history, a somewhat shaky night at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials was still enough to finish ahead of her competitors by more than 5.5 points — and officially secure a place on the team that will compete at this summer's games in Paris.

And the crowd didn't mind the slip-ups. After her floor routine, her final event of the night, Biles walked off the podium to a standing ovation from the 16,000 people packed into the stands of the Target Center in downtown Minneapolis.

Olympic gold is the next capstone that awaits Biles's remarkable return to dominance after a two-year hiatus from competition. In 2021, she was forced to withdraw from several events in Tokyo after experiencing the "twisties," a psychological phenomenon in which a gymnast loses their ability to control their body in mid-air. The two-year break, she has said, was necessary to tend to her mental health.

Simone Biles was all smiles after her vault performance on Friday on the first day of the Olympic gymnastics trials in Minneapolis. She easily outqualified all of her competitors to make her third Olympic squad.
Russell Lewis / NPR
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NPR
Simone Biles was all smiles after her vault performance on Friday on the first day of the Olympic gymnastics trials in Minneapolis. She easily outqualified all of her competitors to make her third Olympic squad.

"I never pictured going to another Olympic Games after Tokyo, just because of the circumstances. I never thought I would go back in the gym again, be twisting, feel free," Biles said Sunday after the competition.

Biles will enter the Olympics in Paris as a favorite to win gold medals in the individual all-around, vault and floor exercise.

In Paris, she will be joined by the Tokyo Games all-around gold medalist Suni Lee, the St. Paul native who shone Sunday night in front of the friendly hometown crowd.

Two other Olympic veterans, Jordan Chiles and Jade Carey, will return for their second Games. Rounding out the team is newcomer Hezly Rivera, who turned 16 in June. Two alternates, Joscelyn Roberson and Leanne Wong, will also travel with the team.

The women's team had won gold in the team all-around in 2012 and 2016. But in Tokyo, they came in second place after Biles withdrew from the event.

That silver medal finish has stuck with them, the competitors said Sunday. All four of those returning to the Olympics used the word "redemption" as they talked about their goals for Paris.

"I feel like we all have more to give. Our Tokyo performances weren't the best," Biles said. "We weren't under the best circumstances, either, but I feel like we have a lot of weight on our shoulders to go out there and prove we're better athletes."

On the opening vault of the women's competition in Minneapolis on Friday, Kayla DiCello landed awkwardly. She crumpled to the mat and was carried off. She later revealed she ruptured her Achilles tendon and withdrew from competition.
Russell Lewis / NPR
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NPR
On the opening vault of the women's competition in Minneapolis on Friday, Kayla DiCello landed awkwardly. She crumpled to the mat and was carried off. She later revealed she ruptured her Achilles tendon and withdrew from competition.

Injuries had loomed over the women's trials

A spate of injuries ahead of and on the first day of competition had cast a pall over the women's trials. First came an Achilles injury to Skye Blakely during pre-competition training on Wednesday; Blakely's second-place finish at the U.S. Gymnastics Championships had lifted her stock for a possible Olympic nod.

Then, on Friday, Shilese Jones, another favorite to make the Paris squad, tweaked her knee as she warmed up on the vault. Minutes later, a third gymnast, Kayla DiCello, was forced to leave the competition in a wheelchair after hurting her Achilles on the vault.

The back-to-back injuries Friday rattled the remaining competitors. Lee, who was in line to vault immediately after DiCello, had to wipe tears before stepping onto the podium.

"I had to meet with my therapist yesterday and try to get my mind right, because it was just so devastating to see a couple of my friends get taken out of this huge competition," Lee said Sunday. "My heart is with them."

The U.S. men's gymnastics team head to Paris hoping to win first team medal since 2008

The men's team was announced Saturday night. The five competitors, led by Olympic veteran Brody Malone and newcomer (and social media star) Fred Richard, head to Paris with the goal of winning the first U.S. team medal in gymnastics since 2008.

"We shouldn't even be aiming for just a medal. We should be aiming for gold, and we're going to land on something," Richard said Saturday.

Richard, 20, scored the highest total at the U.S. team trials, while Malone, 24, finished in second place. They will be joined in Paris by Asher Hong, Paul Juda and Stephen Nedoroscik, along with alternates Shane Wiskus and Khoi Young.

A secondary goal for the team — besides a return to the team medal podium — is simply to raise the profile of men's gymnastics, a sport that has long been overshadowed by its women's counterpart.

"If we go into Paris and get a team medal like we've been training for, then it's going to set even more fuel on that fire," Hong said Saturday.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Becky Sullivan has reported and produced for NPR since 2011 with a focus on hard news and breaking stories. She has been on the ground to cover natural disasters, disease outbreaks, elections and protests, delivering stories to both broadcast and digital platforms.