ST. LOUIS — On her way to making her second Olympic team, Simone Biles ran into doubts. Sometime during Night 2 of U.S. Olympic gymnastics trials on Sunday, they found a way into her head.
Could she be as spectacular as everyone thought she should be? Could she perform as well as she thought she was capable of?
As the night unfolded, even in front of a crowd that adored her, Biles found it hard to maintain her confidence. She took hops backward on her vault landings and made mistakes on the uneven bars. On the 4-inch wide balance beam, she wobbled, put her hands down on it and then fell off, stomping away after completing her a stunningly difficult dismount, as her eyes filled with tears.
To end her night, she stepped out of bounds twice during her floor exercise routine, though the fans did not care. They cheered as she flew so high on her tumbling passes that she seemed to threaten to scrape the arena’s ceiling. A sea of cellphones rose in the stands to record her. Security guards and food workers rushed from the hallways to the edge of the stands to peek at her.
But Simone Biles, the most decorated gymnast in history, cared.
“Simone, Night 1, kicked Simone, Night 2’s butt,” she said, referring to her performance on Friday when she dominated the field by nearly 3 points, a chasm in a sport where competitors are often separated by less than a point.
“At the end of the day, it is what it is,” she said. “It wasn’t my best performance. I kind of got in my head today.”
Biles, 24, still finished first in the all-around at Olympic trials, ahead of Sunisa Lee, 18, of St. Paul, Minn., to continue her winning streak that began in 2013. If Biles successfully defends her all-around Olympic title, she will be the first woman to do so in more than 50 years.
Her supporting cast in the team event in Tokyo will be Lee, Jordan Chiles, 20, from Vancouver, Wash., and Grace McCallum, 18, of Isanti, Minn. They will try to win the team gold medal for the United States for the third consecutive Games.
Two other gymnasts, Jade Carey, 21, and MyKayla Skinner, 24, were named to the Olympic team as individual competitors who will serve as event specialists.
Biles and Lee earned automatic berths by finishing first and second in the all-around at the trials. Carey had already secured her spot by virtue of her strong finish in the International Gymnastics Federation’s World Cup series. A U.S.A. Gymnastics committee chose the other Olympians after meeting for about 30 minutes once the trials were over.
Chiles was an obvious pick. No one, not even Biles, has been as consistent this year.
At Biles’s invitation, Chiles moved to Texas in 2019 to train at Biles’s gym. It appears to be the best career decision Chiles has ever made.
Chiles has performed 24 consecutive routines this year without a major mistake, an amazing accomplishment in events with minuscule margins for error. Just a few years after she considered quitting the sport because of an overbearing coach and trouble rediscovering her groove, Chiles showed off her explosive and fun floor exercise to end her night. She bent over and put her hands on her knees in a mix of relief and exhilaration.
She had done more than enough to make the Olympic team, and Biles had expected that. The two are both coached by Cecile and Laurent Landi — who now are both going to the Olympics as coaches because each athlete may take one coach — and have grown as close as sisters. On Sunday night, Biles gave Chiles a necklace with the Olympic rings on it, similar to the one she wears, and Chiles immediately put it on.
The “Biles and Chiles” duo was back. That’s what they were called in 2014 when Chiles won the U.S. Classic in the junior division and Biles won the senior division.
“We understand each other,” Chiles said of Biles. “Yes, we might get annoyed at each other or something, but that’s just like our sister bond. It’s a big thing we have that bond because not a lot of people can say they know Simone Biles.”
Chiles was so happy to become an Olympian that she took a moment to lie on the stage, on a bed of red, white and blue streamers as the other Olympians celebrated in front of her. She thanked Biles “24/7” for her support.
“She will forever be my partner in crime,” Chiles said. “If I talk any more I might cry.”
While Biles, Lee and Chiles were expected to make the Olympic team — and Carey had already qualified for it — the recipient of the final spot for the team event in Tokyo was the biggest unknown going into trials. In the end, the spot went to McCallum, who is improving day by day after breaking a bone in her hand in January and getting a plate and seven pins inserted into it. She appears be on track to peak at next month at the Olympics.
McCallum, who finished in the top five in three out of the four events, received the position because she had finished fourth in the all-around at trials, and Tom Forster, U.S.A. Gymnastics’ high-performance director, said selecting her was the transparent and fair thing to do.
“It seemed appropriate to go in rank order,” he said, explaining that scores at both the national championships earlier this month and trials were taken into consideration, but the trials scores and performances were more important because the Olympics were drawing near.
That rationalization is how Skinner, who was the alternate for the 2016 Games, ended up being named as an event specialist over Riley McCusker, who looked to be a sure bet for the spot going into trials. McCusker fell on her first skill on the uneven bars, her only event, on Sunday while Skinner nailed her routines, Forster said.
Sunisa Lee, another gymnast whose performances have improved as the season has gone on, did so well on Night 2 that her single-day score (58.166 points) was even better than Biles’s (57.533). She was thrilled when her coaches told her that news, but also was realistic.
“I know it probably won’t happen again,” said Lee, who had overcome a leg injury and a probable bout with Covid-19 to make the Olympic team.
Still, Lee reveled in the moment. For the past several years, she had been focused on making the Tokyo Olympics, and on Sunday she finally did so for her father, just as she had hoped.
John Lee, her father and biggest fan, was paralyzed from the chest down in 2019 in a fall from a ladder. Sunisa Lee’s ultimate goal is to win an Olympic gold medal for him. She has a great shot at winning one on the uneven bars, Biles’s only relative weakness, and is confident that she can do it. Her uneven bars routine is the toughest and most complicated in the world.
Biles, from Spring, Texas, had much less confidence in herself on Sunday. She tried to explain how even a great gymnast like her can begin to second guess herself, coming up with a list of reasons. She gets tired. After so many years in the sport, everything hurts. She lets the emotions of the moment overwhelm her.
In the end, somehow, she steps out of bounds during the floor exercise even though she has never done so in practice.
“I feel like there’s a lot of expectations that I put on myself and that everybody puts on me as well, so it’s kind of hard to figure out,” she said. “But going in here, it just kind of sucks because I’m getting older. It’s getting a little bit scarier.”
Her scariest move, hands down, is the Yurchenko double pike vault she performed at U.S. Classic in May for the first time in competition. It requires her to flip a full two times in the air, her body folded at the hip and legs straight. A tiny miscalculation can lead to her landing on her head. No other woman has done the vault in competition, or very likely even practices it because it’s so dangerous. If Biles lands the vault at the Olympics, the move will be named after her.
Biles came into the trials wanting to perform the vault for a second time at a meet, but her coach Laurent Landi talked her out of it. He told her not to risk it on her sore ankles. They would work on the vault once they arrive in Japan in a few weeks once her ankles have healed, he said.
“I was a little disappointed,” Biles said. “I wanted to compete it one more time before heading out there.”
Once again, she cared deeply about letting herself down — and perhaps letting the fans down — but the fans hardly seemed disappointed.
After Biles finished her last event of the night, the floor exercise, the crowd cheered wildly and gave her a standing ovation to salute her.
On a night when Biles was not perfect, she was still the biggest star.