At U.S. Olympic gymnastics trials, rash of injuries hovers over a major moment (2024)

Follow our Olympics coveragein the lead-up to the Paris Games.

MINNEAPOLIS — Her left leg, the one with the torn Achilles tendon, wrapped in a hard cast and an ace bandage, Skye Blakely leaned on her crutches as she alternately wiped tears from her eyes and waved to the crowd. Not far from her, on the same floor of the Target Center, Shilese Jones tried to coax her injured left knee into performing well enough to simply participate in the meet, and somewhere in the bowels of the arena, a medical team tended to Kayla DiCello, who had to be carted off the floor via a wheelchair.

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Meanwhile, 13 other women tried to act like nothing had happened. The U.S. Olympic trials need no incentivizing when it comes to creating pressure. The sheer math of the endeavor packs plenty of punch on its own. Only five women will make it to Paris, and while the discretionary selection process offers gymnastics a trials relief not enjoyed in the win-or-go-home world of swimming and track, the enormity of what’s at stake at this meet still weighs plenty heavy.

“No matter what meet I’ve done in my life, this is still the most stressful one I’ll do in my whole career because you find out if you make it or not,” says Jordan Chiles, who has already survived and advanced to one Olympic Games. Asked if was easier the second time around, Chiles laughed, shook her head emphatically and said sharply, “No. Not at all.”

On Friday night here, that anxiety got an unnecessary and unwelcome boost, the worry about making the team doubling down to join the fear of surviving the meet in one piece. Jones, considered a shoo-in for the Olympic team, landed awkwardly on a warmup vault and competed only in the uneven bars before scratching for the evening. Not 15 minutes later DiCello, an alternate in Tokyo, flashed a smile and sprinted down the vault runway as the first competitor for the evening. She never landed, instead crashing to the mat in a heap before medical staff lifted her up under each leg, delicately placed her in a wheelchair and wheeled her off. By night’s end, USA Gymnastics announced that DiCello, too, had injured her Achilles and was out of the competition. Jones was ruled out on Saturday. Blakely withdrew before trials began due to an injury suffered at podium training Wednesday.

Gymnastics done well is awe-inspiring. Simone Biles’ double-pike vault on Friday night earned not just a 15.975 from the judges; it warranted an extended standing ovation from the dumbfounded crowd. A body simply should not be able to do what Biles does seemingly with ease.

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Except that’s the root of it. There is nothing easy about it, or what any of these women do. Nothing really normal about gymnastics in general. Maybe it’s the sparkles, the bows in their hair and the smiles on their faces that make it seem effortless, but the cuteness also masks the reality: It is incredibly dangerous.

Gymnasts project themselves off springboards and mats designed to boost them into the sky where they flip and twist blindly. They land on an unforgiving beam as wide as the length of an iPhone or fly around uneven bars, catching and releasing in the hopes that they aren’t a fingernail off from re-grasping, all while landing on joints meant to withstand the blow time and time again.

At U.S. Olympic gymnastics trials, rash of injuries hovers over a major moment (1)

Shilese Jones competes in the 2023 U.S. Championships last August. She was considered a favorite for the Olympic team before her injury Thursday at trials. (Kyle Terada / USA Today)

It is what led Biles, inarguably the greatest gymnast of all time, to walk away from the Olympics in 2021. Overcome by the twisties, a sort of gymnastics vertigo, she withdrew to protect herself from what otherwise could have been a catastrophic injury. Her decision brought about a much-needed discussion about mental health and the fine line between pushing on and endangering oneself. It did not, however, make what she and her peers do any less dangerous. Danger is factored into success, as each routine is given a starting value based on its degree of difficulty.

Injuries are common, just as in any sport. They are the deal with the devil an athlete makes every time he or she attempts to do something ordinary folks wouldn’t dare try. But it is one thing to accept that exchange and another to run headlong into that sobering reality at the meet where you’re trying to realize your lifelong dream.

Biles’ coach, Laurent Landi, knew instinctively that the other women on the floor felt all of that after spying Blakely on crutches, watching Jones try to gut through and seeing DiCello wheeled off. He has five of the 16 gymnasts on the national team, all part of the powerhouse Houston-based World Champions Centre gym started by Biles’ mother, Nellie. He did not shy away from the elephant in the room.

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“This is what stress gives — anxiety, you know?” he said. “You see somebody else get hurt, you think, ‘What the heck? Am I next? What’s going to happen to me?’ But stuff will happen. Mistakes will happen. It’s part of gymnastics. Trying to make the Olympic team, it’s already super, super stressful, you just have to be in a bubble.”

But it is one thing to say it as a coach; it is altogether another to perform. Chiles, who never met a situation she couldn’t spin into positivity, admits even she sensed the heaviness in the air.

“There’s fear in any athlete when you see someone get hurt,” she said. “You don’t want that to be you, right?”

After DiCello’s injury, Sunisa Lee stepped up to vault next. The reigning all-around Olympic gold medalist, Lee has battled two kidney diseases all year that robbed her not just of her stamina, but her confidence. Some days she didn’t want to get back in the gym, most days she questioned if she’d be good enough to make it to the Olympics. At one point she hoped to nail a move on uneven bars and have it named after her; now she wants to compete well enough to make the team. Throw in that Lee is from St. Paul and is a hometown hero — a vendor at an outside mall sold T-shirts that read, “It’s always Suni in Minnesota” — and she already had plenty of pressure as she began competition.

With DiCello only just off the floor via wheelchair, Lee closed her eyes, placed her hand on her stomach and took a deep breath before launching into her sprint. When she landed safely, she smiled in clear relief.

Minutes later, Biles began her uneven bars routine. Biles clearly has found joy. Her social media feeds are stuffed with pictures of her enjoying the normalcy mere mortals take for granted — hanging with her friends, cheering on her husband at his NFL games. At meets she smiles easily with competitors and seems to have embraced the role of using her experience to help others through their own challenges. At U.S. Championships last month, when Lee stumbled on her vault approach, it was Biles who rushed to the tunnel to give her a pep talk and here, as Jones collected herself with the medical staff, Biles left her own bar warmups to check on Jones.

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Simone Biles competes Thursday during U.S. Olympic trials. After withdrawing from the Tokyo Games due to the “twisties,” Biles is once again a top contender for Paris. (Elsa / Getty Images)

But there is no being “cured” of what troubled her in Tokyo. Her physical strength and ability remain at peak performance, and she has tools to help cope with any mental anguish that might sneak up on her. Yet she is, despite extraordinary performances to the contrary, human. She nailed her bar routine but on beam had to save her mount, and looked downright miffed throughout the routine. When she dismounted, Biles was caught dropping an F-bomb in frustration on the big screen.

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Landi found his star immediately after.

“Her mental, it’s never going to be healed completely,” Landi says. “She hits everything perfectly normal but there’s still this, this anxiety of, ‘Am I the next one to get hurt?’ You can’t control this. Control the controllables. You have perfect preparation. You are perfectly fit physically. You have the tools to help yourself.”

Biles then went out, hit a wildly difficult floor routine and an even harder vault to cement her spot atop the all-around leaderboard.

After Biles, that leaderboard is jammed, the second (Chiles) through eighth (Leanne Wong) finishers separated by 1.65 points. Along with the mental anguish these injuries presented, there are some very real tactical issues in play here, too. The strength of this national team is its depth. “We could send a B or C team and still do well,” Alicia Sacramone Quinn, the strategy lead for the national team, told The Athleticlast week. But that depth has taken a significant hit.

Blakely finished second to Biles at the U.S. Championships and seemed a likely pick for the five-person team, while DiCello, a solid performer on all four apparatus, was a very strong consideration as well. Jones took bronze at the 2023 world championships and appeared to be the likely all-around partner of Biles in Paris, but she skipped U.S. Championships to rehab a shoulder injury. Now all three are out.

The goal is to build the strongest five-person team (two alternates also will travel to Paris), and that doesn’t necessarily mean sending the best all-around women.

Olympic rules require that each country put three women on each apparatus, with all three scores counting, which makes room for specialists. Currently, the top four spots in the all-around belong to four Tokyo Olympians — Biles, Chiles, Lee and Jade Carey. Joscelyn Roberson, a vault and floor specialist, is fifth. Kaliya Lincoln, who tweaked her foot and withdrew from U.S. Championships, is sixth, with Hezly Rivera and Wong rounding out the top eight.

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The selection rules allow for wiggle room, and while performance here at trials factors largely, it does not necessarily determine who gets a ticket to Paris.

Earlier this week, Quinn, who is on the selection committee, addressed the what-if scenarios of injury.

“It has to be in this moment, right?” she said. “Because three days from now, two weeks from now, anything can happen. We always have to look at what’s being done right now in front of us, because that’s what we can actually bank on.”

GO DEEPERFred Richard, after lifetime of handstands, is built to burst onto Olympics scene

(Top photo of Kayla DiCello on the vault run that ended in her Achilles injury: Matt Krohn / USA Today)

At U.S. Olympic gymnastics trials, rash of injuries hovers over a major moment (4)At U.S. Olympic gymnastics trials, rash of injuries hovers over a major moment (5)

Dana O’Neil, a senior writer for The Athletic, has worked for more than 25 years as a sports writer, covering the Final Four, the Super Bowl, World Series, NBA Finals and NHL playoffs. She has worked previously at ESPN and the Philadelphia Daily News. She is the author of three books, including "The Big East: Inside the Most Entertaining and Influential Conference in College Basketball History." Follow Dana on Twitter @DanaONeilWriter

At U.S. Olympic gymnastics trials, rash of injuries hovers over a major moment (2024)

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