The return of Simone Biles and Sunisa Lee is a boon for US gymnastics. It’s created a logjam, too
SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) — Joscelyn Roberson’s always had her eye on the 2024 Olympics. The math just sort of worked.
The Texan is going to be 18 next summer, an age long considered an athletic sweet spot for elite female gymnasts, at least in the United States.
Each of the six American women to become the Olympic all-around champion — from Mary Lou Retton in 1984 to Simone Biles in 2016 to Sunisa Lee in Tokyo in 2021 — were teenagers when gold medals were placed around their necks.
So yeah, Roberson watched the end of the pandemic-delayed 2020 games and let her mind wander to what may loom for her in Paris. She knew she’d be old enough to compete. She figured a significant portion of the 2020 women’s team would move on to the next phase of their lives, ceding the spotlight to the next wave of elites.
For quadrennium after quadrennium, that’s typically how things worked. Not in 2023.
When Roberson walks onto the floor at the SAP Center on Friday night in the opening round of the U.S. Gymnastics Championships, she will see six of the 10 American women who were in Tokyo — Biles, Lee, Jordan Chiles, Jade Carey and alternates Leanne Wong and Kayla DiCello — standing alongside her.
All of them will be eyeing their own spot on the five-woman team that will be in Paris next summer.
Suddenly, the vision in Roberson’s head got crowded. A lot more crowded. And while she calls competing against Biles and Lee “surreal,” she’s also well aware it means making it to France or this fall’s world championships in Belgium has become far more difficult.
“I definitely thought, like, it’s going to be harder than I originally thought just because of all of them coming back,” Roberson said. “But I’m definitely excited. The Olympics are going to be fun. Trials are going to be fun.”
The shorter three-year window between games, the easing of athlete compensation rules by the NCAA and a more athlete-friendly approach to training has created a logjam of sorts.
Before 2021, an Olympic medal-winning gymnast essentially had two options. They could turn professional to cash in on the sponsorship opportunities their newfound fame provided them, or they could retain their amateur status and head to college, where they could get their education paid for while competing less taxing routines before fading into retirement.
Times are changing. Rapidly.
Lee, Chiles and Carey have led the charge of gymnasts who now can compete collegiately while making a little (or more than a little) money on the side. It’s worked out beautifully for all involved. Interest in NCAA women’s gymnastics is soaring and Chiles and Carey’s performance at last year’s world championships — where they won a combined six medals — offered tangible proof that the college experience can enhance some of their elite skills rather than erode them.
Chiles is 22. Carey is 23. Biles is 26 and will become the oldest woman to win a national title if she can back up her dazzling return at the U.S. Classic earlier this month.
Their presence has eradicated a uniquely American problem. While it’s long been common for gymnasts in other countries to compete well into their 20s, 30s — or in Oksana Chusovitina’s case, beyond — for decades the perception was that by the time a top American gymnast celebrated her 20th birthday, it was over.
“You’re not expected to like, shrivel up and go to college now at 18,” said Alicia Sacramone Quinn, the strategic lead for the U.S. women’s national team.
It’s not unusual for a select number of top American gymnasts to bid for multiple Olympics. Quinn, part of the U.S. team that won silver in 2008, was 24 when she nearly made the 2012 team despite rupturing her Achilles tendon in the fall of 2011. Annia Hatch was 26 and Mohini Bhardwaj 25 when they made the 2004 U.S. Olympic team.
What is unusual is the number of athletes extending their elite careers, a trend Quinn doesn’t see slowing down.
“I do think it will probably track more on the older side, probably for the foreseeable future, because athletes are taking better care of their bodies,” Quinn said. “They’re training smarter, they’re cross-training. So I think the longevity of an athlete has definitely gotten longer with how we’ve progressed.”
Gone are the days of 2016, when Aly Raisman’s teammates dubbed her “grandma” as they prepared for the games in Rio de Janeiro. The six-time Olympic medalist was 22 at the time.
All of that progress, however, has potentially altered the career arcs of gymnasts like Roberson who either weren’t old enough to make the Tokyo team or just missed out on making the team.
While nothing is guaranteed — particularly in a sport where the injury rate is 100% and Lee is still dealing with a kidney issue that has limited her training — the two Olympic champions figure to be heavy favorites to earn a trip to Paris if they are healthy.
That potentially leaves a sea of gymnasts vying for three spots, most of whom have major international medals stashed away somewhere back home.
For years, Roberson told her family she’d aim for one Olympics and then turn her focus to enrolling and competing at Arkansas. She’s no longer so sure. She is still just 17. When the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles roll around, she will be only 22.
Roberson knows how difficult making the 2024 team will be, particularly considering her three best events — balance beam, vault and floor exercise — also happen to overlap with the three best events of Biles, her idol-turned-teammate at World Champions Centre.
Training alongside the gymnast Roberson calls “the greatest in the world” has been equal parts thrilling and daunting. Biles has been where Roberson wants to go. Multiple times in fact. If Roberson navigates what could be the most talented group of American women ever to reach Paris, great.
If not, Los Angeles isn’t as far away as it seems. Not these days.
“My dream has always been one,” she said. “And I always tell my parents like, ‘No, I don’t want to come back. I don’t want to go back if I make it. If I make ‘24, then I don’t want to come back.’ Seeing (Biles) come back and still be happy doing it, I think I think it’s changed my perspective a lot, especially for like more than one.” ___
AP Olympics: https://apnews.com/hub/2024-paris-olympic-games