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ST. LOUIS – A sea of cellphones rose in the stands at the Dome at America’s Center, focused on the eye-catching gymnast below, Simone Biles. Ushers and other event staff flocked from the hall to the edge of the stands to take a look at them.
They wanted to see her, film her, pay tribute to her in some way on the day when she was expected to take first place in the Olympic women’s gymnastics tests in the USA and, as expected, to bring her to her second Olympic team. In Tokyo she will defend her Olympic all-around title from the 2016 Games. If she wins gold again, Biles will be the first woman to do this in more than 50 years.
And if she is successful, her marathon winning streak will be even longer.
The 24-year-old Biles has not lost an all-around competition since 2013, when she was only 16 years old and not yet a four-time Olympic champion. That was long before she became the most decorated gymnast in history with 25 World Championship medals, long before she got so good that other gymnasts could only hope for second place in the all-around competition.
Due to their recent achievements, especially in the exams, a gymnast team was selected as a supporting actor in Tokyo on Sunday. Sunisa Lee, Jordan Chiles and Grace McCallum have been named to the squad that will compete alongside Biles in the team event that the US will win for the third year in a row. Two other gymnasts, Jade Carey and MyKayla Skinner, were called up as lone fighters on the Olympic team.
Biles and Lee earned automatic berths for the team by finishing first and second in the all-around competition. Carey had already secured her place with her strong placement in the World Cup series of the International Gymnastics Federation. It took a US gymnastics committee about 30 minutes to select the other Olympians.
While Biles, Lee and Chiles were the favorites to make up the team, the last place winner for the team event in Tokyo was the biggest stranger to go into the exams. In the end, McCallum, 18, of Isanti, Minnesota, got the spot because her top marks gave the US team the best chance of winning the gold medal. She finished fourth in the all-around competition, with strong placements in all disciplines.
Sunisa Lee, 18, of St. Paul, Minnesota, had focused for years on doing the Tokyo Olympics, and on Sunday night she did it for her father, just as she’d envisioned.
John Lee, her father, watched the arena from his wheelchair, amazed at Sunisa’s maturity and ability. It was only Sunisa’s second competition he’d watched live since falling from a ladder in 2019 and suffering a spine injury. At this month’s Nationals, John Lee, who is paralyzed from the chest down, said he couldn’t be more proud of Sunisa and how she has excelled in her sport since his accident.
Sunisa Lee’s ultimate goal is to win an Olympic gold medal for her father, and she might do it, but he can’t travel to Tokyo to see that. Since no international spectators are allowed at the games, John Lee has to marvel at his daughter from a distance. She has a good chance of winning a gold medal on the uneven bars, the only event that is Biles’ weakness.
On Sunday evening, Biles wasn’t just perfect on the uneven bars. She wobbled and wobbled on the four-inch-wide balance beam before grabbing it in her hands and then jumping off. She had hops on the landings of her two vaults. During the floor exercise, in which she flew so high with her tumbling passes that she threatened to scratch the roof, she kicked twice.
Her teammate Chiles, 20, from Vancouver, Washington, stepped in to ensure consistency. Since the beginning of this year, Chile has completed 24 out of 24 exercises without major errors, an amazing achievement in a sport with such a low error rate. When she finished her floor exercise to end her night, she leaned over and put her hands on her knees in a mixture of relief and joy. She had done everything possible to show the selection committee that she deserved a trip to Tokyo. And it turned out to be more than enough.
At Biles’ invitation, Chiles moved to Texas in 2019 to train with Biles to get out of their gymnastics trot. It now seems like the best decision she has ever made. She and Biles grew up as close as family both inside and outside the gym, and Chile’s sister Jazmin even applied the duo’s makeup and did her hair for trials.
The fans who filled the arena took photos and videos of Biles in that makeup and hairstyle. And after Biles finished their last event of the evening, the floor exercise, the crowd rose to a standing ovation to greet them.
On a night when Biles wasn’t perfect, she was still the biggest star.