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Biles and U.S. Women's Gymnastics Team Stumble in Qualifiers

It was a challenging start to the Olympics for the heavily-favored American squad, who finished second to Russia in qualifying on Sunday.

TOKYO — Like so many other fans, the U.S. men’s gymnastics team tuned into the women’s qualifiers on Sunday expecting to watch the Americans dominate. Instead they saw the worst performance by a U.S. women’s team in more than a decade: For the first time since the 2010 world championships, the Americans did not finish first in qualifiers. They took second to Russia, 171.629 to 170.562.

The women had shown up for Saturday’s men’s qualifying round, which left the Americans in fourth, so the men strode into the Ariake Gymnastics Center draped in U.S. gear and carrying two American flags. At first, they shouted and cheered and generally made more noise than anyone else in the building. But the mistakes began on the very first pass of the day, as Grace McCallum went out of bounds to start her floor routine. By the time Simone Biles took three steps on her balance beam dismount, the men were staring glumly at their phones.

“I think they’ve got a lot to improve on,” said Sam Mikulak afterward. “But they’re gonna turn it on when they need to.”

“It’s good they didn’t peak now,” added Shane Wiskus.

“Not concerned,” Mikulak said. “Never lose faith in the girls.”

They’re right: This isn’t a catastrophe. But it won’t be a coronation.

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The team has won every world championships and Olympics since 2011, and it could still do so again next week. Biles still leads the all-around standings, which will be reset when the team finals begin on Tuesday, and Sunisa Lee is in second place. Biles qualified for event finals on the floor, the vault and the beam, and can still win a record five gold medals. Lee will compete in finals in the all-around and on the beam and the uneven bars. Jade Carey, who is competing as an individual and whose scores will therefore not count toward the team, will advance to finals on the vault and the floor. This is still probably the best team in the world. But it’s clearly closer than everyone thought.

The gymnasts and their coaches declined to speak to the media afterward, but USA Gymnastics national team coordinator Tom Forster said, “The errors we made, I think, are mental.”

They were uncharacteristically abundant. Biles went out of bounds during her floor routine and again on her first vault. Jordan Chiles dragged her feet on the mat during her bar routine, then fell off the balance beam twice. Lee landed short on her floor routine and her vault. McCallum struggled on the floor and on the beam.

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Forster faced questions about the decision-making process that landed McCallum on the team rather than MyKayla Skinner, whose scores had been better and who was instead chosen as an individual. When he named the team in June, he said, “Even though the computer tells us MyKayla on the team would be a couple of tenths higher, we’re so, so fortunate that our athletes are so strong that I don’t think it’s going to come down to tenths of a point in Tokyo. We didn’t feel like it was worth changing the integrity of the process simply for a couple of tenths.”

On Sunday, he said, somewhat confusingly, “I just want to re-emphasize, if anybody out there complained [that] USA Gymnastics only thought about medals, that was not the point. So, we did not make decisions over a couple of tenths for another medal. We went on rank order because we thought it was a good order, and I still feel good about it. … All the athletes want to win medals. Nobody comes here and doesn’t want to win.”

Forster answered a few more questions, then stormed off, saying, “I’m going to go. I’m done.” But there wasn’t much more he could say. He knows that in the end, the tenths of a point that will matter will probably not be the ones gained from substituting one lower-ranked gymnast for another. It will be the tenths of a point that come from star gymnasts performing to their ability. The U.S. will probably still do that. It will just be closer than they expected. 

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