Suni Lee, Shilese Jones and the toughest-ever U.S. Olympic gymnastics team to make (2024)

  • Suni Lee, Shilese Jones and the toughest-ever U.S. Olympic gymnastics team to make (1)

    Alyssa Roenigk, ESPN Senior WriterJun 30, 2024, 11:48 PM ET


      Alyssa Roenigk is a senior writer for ESPN whose assignments have taken her to six continents and caused her to commit countless acts of recklessness. (Follow @alyroe on Twitter).

MINNEAPOLIS -- Look around the arena and it's tough to know where to focus. On Friday night, an hour before the first of two days of competition that will determine the 2024 U.S. Olympic gymnastics team, the athletes have taken the floor to warm up. The Target Center is already filled with young fans holding signs and wearing shirts bearing their favorite gymnasts' names. They've been on the long journey to this moment every step of the way. They know the routines by heart. They cheer every big skill. And they know what's at stake this weekend.

Two-time world champion Shilese Jones, 21, cuts a striking image in a red, white and blue leotard as she stretches near the floor on the far side of the arena. The tape on her right shoulder, visible beneath sparkling sleeves, is a reminder of an injury she has battled for two years. When she was 12, Jones' parents moved her family across the country to support her dream of being an Olympian. Nearly a decade later, this is her final shot at fulfilling that dream.

Leanne Wong, the 2024 NCAA uneven bars champion, sticks the landing on a double-layout dismount on bars and fist-bumps her coach. Wong, 20, was an alternate on the 2021 Olympic team but didn't experience the Olympics. Now, having exchanged the orange and blue of the University of Florida Gators for a red, white and blue leo, she is exploring a new path for gymnasts to the Olympics through college.

Fans of Joscelyn Roberson hold their breath as the 18-year-old sprints down the vault runway for the first time tonight. They clap excitedly when she sticks her landing. It's been eight months since Roberson landed short on a vault during warmups at world championships and tore ligaments in her left ankle. If her body holds up, it is her vaulting skills that will get her to Paris.

Sunisa Lee draws eyes to the balance beam as she warms up one of the most difficult, elegant beam routines in the world. Her performance on the apparatus in Tokyo helped her to become the first Asian American gymnast to win the Olympic all-around title, although she says most days she still feels like an imposter. Making the Paris team will give Lee, 21, the chance to prove her success in 2021 was no fluke -- to herself as much as anyone.

These women, along with 11 others who are competing for five spots, came to this moment from different paths, but their individual stories highlight the collective cultural change that has transformed American gymnastics over the past decade.

Together, they make up the most competitive U.S. trials in history, a once-in-a-generation meeting of athletes made possible by the shift that followed the era overseen by longtime U.S. coaches Bela and Martha Karolyi, who enabled decades of favoritism, secrecy and abuse. These 15 gymnasts comprise a historic group: four Olympians, two Olympic all-around gold medalists, multiple world and NCAA champions, and a handful of hopefuls who came of Olympic age in the three years since Tokyo.

This is also the first trials overseen by 2008 Olympic teammates Alicia Sacramone Quinn and Chellsie Memmel, whom USA Gymnastics hired in 2022 to run the women's national team. Both women know the joy of making a team -- and the devastation of not -- and they bring those experiences into the selection process. USAG has added more transparency and support structure to the process as well: An independent observer will attend the selection committee meeting Sunday night, and athletes who do not make the team will be allowed to join their families in a private room. Mental health professionals will be available to them. All of this would have been unimaginable in the Karolyi era.

In a sport that has long been overwhelmingly white, the 2024 Olympic team has the potential to be composed predominantly of women of color. It is also likely to be the oldest in history, much of the team able to celebrate hearing their names called by ordering a drink at the hotel bar.

Seven-time Olympic medalist Simone Biles is the favorite to win the meet and earn the only automatic nomination to the team. The committee will choose the additional four gymnasts, plus alternates, and announce their names within 30 minutes of Sunday's final routine. This is the last chance for these athletes to prove they deserve a spot in Paris.

The harsh reality is most of these women will not hear their names called, and at least one of them will be a former Olympian, NCAA standout or world champion. Which means the next few days will be unbelievably exciting, gut-wrenchingly stressful and the culmination of many lifelong dreams.

The persistent one

SHILESE JONES IS fresh out of the bathtub as she sits in her bedroom awaiting an answer. She's 12, a middle school student and a junior elite in Seattle.

Until recently, Jones was a talented gymnast but not the type of kid with posters of Olympians on her bedroom walls or dreams of wearing a red-white-and-blue leotard. She didn't connect the experience she had practicing at her local gym with what Olympic gymnasts did on TV.

Then Gabby Douglas won the 2012 Olympic all-around title, the first Black gymnast to do so. "I was like, oh, this can be serious," Jones says. "This can go so much further than me just throwing flips." Not long after, Jones met Douglas in person at a national team camp in Houston. Douglas' coach even gave her pointers.

Jones realized she wasn't all that different from the famous gymnasts she saw on TV, and she started to believe that one day she, too, could make an Olympic team. But she needed to train like an Olympian. "I thought, 'You're elite now, but you need to get somewhere where you're training with other elites,'" Jones says.

Jones started writing letters to her parents begging them to move to Columbus, Ohio, so she could train with Douglas and her coach. Her parents, Sylvester and Latrice, shook their heads. "They were like, 'No. No. No ... That's way too far,'" Jones says and laughs. "They'd ask me, 'Do you know how far that is?' I'd say, 'No.'" She was 12. She didn't care about the logistics of moving to Ohio. She just knew she needed to get there.

Her dad knew his middle daughter, whom everyone called "Shi," was persistent. It was he who taught her the family motto, "Joneses don't quit," and drilled it into her. Since she was a kid, Sylvester had been Shi's rock. Despite a long-term battle with kidney disease, he'd driven her to practices and meets, even on days when he was worn out from hours of dialysis. When she was young, he would sit in the gym and yell, "You got it, Shi!" when he knew she needed him to believe in her more than she believed in herself. He dreamed of seeing her compete on an Olympic stage.

Jones is persistent. She keeps writing letters, and one day, something changes.

"I remember I got out of the tub one day and wrote this long note about how I was going to work hard and go to the Olympics and why these coaches [in Ohio] would help me get there," Jones says. "Whatever it takes, I'll do this. This is where I need to be."

She hands it to her parents, then runs to her room. Her parents read the letter, which has a more serious tone than the previous ones she'd written. They realize she isn't going to stop asking.

"Finally, after that note, it set in," Jones says. "And they were like, 'OK, we're moving.'"

World Championships, Nov. 3, 2022, Liverpool, England

JONES BOARDS HER flight home to Seattle, a medal packed safely in her luggage, and smiles. The all-around silver medalist in her first world championships, she has come so far in the past year since she decided to return to elite gymnastics and make a run at the Paris Games. Less than two years earlier, she had walked away from the sport.

Before the Tokyo Olympics were postponed by the COVID-19 pandemic, Jones was "in the best shape of my life," she says, and a strong contender to make the team. But in January 2021, five months before the rescheduled trials, she fractured her back and left foot in a car accident.

"The doctor wanted me to be on bed rest for three months," she says. "And I was like, 'Oh, that's not going to work. This is not the end.'" She rested for a month, started rehab and returned to the gym two months before trials. "Each day I tried to get as far as I could," she says. "There was never a time where I was like, 'Just give up.' I put the accident aside and kept pushing. But mentally we knew I wasn't ready."

Jones finished 10th, one spot from being named to the team as a replacement athlete. "I always told my parents, 'If I try for the first Olympics and don't make it, I'm going to move on,'" Jones says. "I've said that since I was 4. And that was super important to me."

She didn't watch the Olympics on TV, didn't go to the gym and started thinking about what to do next. She had previously committed to the gymnastics program at the University of Florida but deferred her freshman year. Maybe she would join the Gators in the fall.

But then Biles invited her to perform in her post-Tokyo tour, which kicked off in late September. With each show, Jones started to rethink her future. "So many girls, Olympians and world champions I look up to, were like, 'Oh, you're not done,'" Jones says. "And tumbling again for the first time in several months, everything clicked back so fast. I was enjoying myself."

When the tour ended in November, Jones returned to Ohio and went back to the gym with no plan other than to have fun and work on a few new skills. A month later, the unthinkable happened. Sylvester, who had fought for so long, died because of complications from kidney disease.

Jones was devastated. But as she leaned on her mother and sisters for support, they reminded her of the family motto Sylvester had taught her: Joneses don't quit. She thought about what he had always told her and started to consider all that she still wanted to accomplish in elite gymnastics.

"Both my parents were so supportive," Jones says. "My mom is super proud of me. But my dad pushed me more. He always said, 'You're a champion, Shi,' and I'd say, 'Dad, why do you keep saying that?' He'd say, 'Because you're a champion.' I feel I've learned to believe that within myself."

After his death, Jones and her mom and younger sister moved back to Seattle. With her family's support, Jones recommitted herself to making it to the Olympics to honor the belief her dad had in her -- and that she now had in herself. "Joneses don't quit," she says. "Every day, I think, 'Make today count. What you do in this practice, take something away from it.' That's what I strive for and what pushes me every single day to not give up."

Jones needed a new coach. She scheduled a Zoom meeting with Sarah Korngold, who lived outside of Seattle and had experience coaching elites. The two women immediately connected. Korngold remembered Jones from national team development camps as a young gymnast with great artistry who needed refinement. But when she came into Korngold's gym to work out for the first time in early 2022, Korngold was wowed.

"Shi's physically incredibly gifted but also so driven, so hardworking, so kind and giving of her energy, knowledge and time," she says. "She moved away from Seattle to reach a different tier, which requires a different level of commitment. Being her coach, I don't want to say there's pressure, but it's a big responsibility. And I do not take it lightly."

In Liverpool, Jones takes a giant leap on her path toward Paris. With Biles taking time off, she is the top American gymnast in the world right now. Even if Biles returns, Jones believes she has the skills, consistency and determination to become an all-around champion. "My dad always told me, 'Shi, this is your journey,'" Jones says. "You didn't sign up to be in anyone's shadow."

The uncertain champion

SUNI LEE MOUTHS the words to the national anthem from the top of the Olympic all-around podium inside Tokyo's Ariake Gymnastics Center. This moment should be the highlight of her young career, but all she wants is to run and hide. "It's something I'm still working on learning to accept," Lee says, "the fact that I won."

Lee was a force in the run-up to the 2021 Olympics and even outscored Biles in the all-around on Day 2 of Olympic trials. In Tokyo, she was a favorite to win gold on uneven bars, contest for a medal in the all-around and help the team win gold.

But then Biles withdrew from competition citing a dangerous loss of air awareness that gymnasts refer to as the "twisties," and Lee stepped up and performed beautifully day after day. During the team final, she was the stoic rock of Team USA and put up the highest score of the meet, a 15.4 on bars. In the all-around, she nailed her routines to win the most coveted title in gymnastics. Her coaches and teammates tried to reassure her that even if Biles had competed, Lee still could have won. She was the best gymnast in the world that day. She earned the win.

"But in the back of my head I'm like, 'Oh, you didn't deserve it,'" Lee says. "And I still see that [online] every single day. I already don't think I should've won, so when you see it from other people -- and that many people -- it's very hard mentally."

After the Games, Lee began her freshman year at Auburn University in Alabama, where she became the first Olympic all-around champion to compete in the NCAA. Performing every week as part of a team helped her to regain her belief in herself. The summer after her freshman season, she says she felt stronger than ever. "I was at my peak. I was better than I was at the Olympics and feeling confident," she says. Her sophom*ore season with the Tigers started off just as strong.

One morning in February 2023, Lee woke up with swelling in her hands, legs and face. Her body hurt, and some mornings she was so exhausted, she couldn't get out of bed. Her weight began to fluctuate wildly, and she gained up to 40 pounds of water weight. The swelling in her hands made it difficult for her to hold on to the uneven bars, her signature event. She announced she would end her college season early due to a health issue related to her kidneys.

Lee returned home to Minneapolis and worked with her doctors and the USAG national team physician to determine what was going on. "At first, they thought it was an allergic reaction," she says. After weeks of tests, Lee was diagnosed with two separate kidney diseases and began a largely trial-and-error process to figure out what combination of medication and diet best kept them in check. On good days, she could train for several hours, but the good days were few and far between.

"My doctor was telling me he didn't think I would be able to do gymnastics competitively ever again," Lee says.

U.S. Classic, Aug. 5, 2023, Hoffman Estates, Illinois

HOFFMAN ESTATES ISN'T exactly a gymnastics hotspot. But this weekend, the Chicago suburb feels like one. It's the first major competition of the season and the start of a yearlong run toward Paris. This is when the pressure ratchets up and national team leaders begin to craft the highest-scoring team in the world next summer. A bad meet at this point isn't disastrous, but a great meet can put a gymnast on their radar.

On the morning of the final day of competition, families wait in line at a Starbucks and discuss the biggest news of the weekend.

"Do you know why this town is so busy?" a dad from two states away asks the barista.

"Gymnastics?" she answers, a bit unsure. "Yes. But do you know why else?" he asks. "Simone Biles?" she nearly shouts.

"Yes!" he says. "She's back!"

Two years after heartbreak in Tokyo, Biles is back. And she looks good. Like, GOAT good. That idea is thrilling for fans and daunting for her competitors. With Biles back, the reality is that four spots are up for grabs on the Paris team. Not five.

While Biles' return dominates the headlines, this meet is also the first time Lee will compete her elite routines since Tokyo. She hasn't shared much publicly about what she is going through with her health, so she believes people expect her to be the same gymnast she was then. She forced herself to stay off social media the past few days, but the negative thoughts still crept in.

"I was panicking because I felt like I'm not going to be the same gymnast I was before," Lee says. "But I calmed myself down."

Midway through her beam performance, she executes a flawless leap series and punctuates each landed skill with a smile that's visible from the rafters. Emotion radiates off her as she dismounts, salutes the judges and embraces her coach and the team physician, all of them close to tears. They know how hard it was for her to step out onto the floor this weekend.

Lee earns silver on beam behind Biles, who also wins the all-around, and earns a spot at U.S. Championships in a few weeks. "I'm proud of myself for pushing through," Lee says. "I got over the fear and doubt and let myself have fun."

Straight-A gymnast

LEANNE WONG SEES the balloons coming her way and flushes with embarrassment. Sacramone Quinn and Memmel are walking toward 18 members of the national team, who are lined up on the gym floor by height. Jones, at 5-foot-3, and Biles and Roberson, who are 4-8, bookend their teammates. Wong, at 5-1, falls smack dab in the middle. "Three people have birthdays this week and didn't want us to know!" Sacramone Quinn says. "But we know!"

Over the past two September days, Sacramone Quinn and Memmel have overseen a competition for international assignments at Stars Gymnastics in Katy, Texas. In about half an hour, the gymnasts and their coaches will gather in their hotel and wait to learn their fates. Wong hopes that for the third time in three years, she will be named to the team representing the U.S. at world championships.

But first, there are balloons. And singing. And group belly laughs when everyone tries to fit three names, Wong's included, into the happy birthday song.

Wong turns 20 today. She traveled to Katy from Gainesville, where she is a pre-med student and gymnast at the University of Florida. Before she left, she met with her professors to let them know she might be gone for nearly a month if she makes the worlds team. Yesterday, her physiology teacher sent a "good luck" video from the class, and her Gators coaches, Jenny Rowland and Owen Field, are here in Texas with her.

Wong is the first gymnast to remain in college and train with only her NCAA coaches while competing in elite. An alternate on the 2021 U.S. Olympic team, she traveled to Tokyo but spent most of the Games in quarantine after her roommate and fellow alternate, Kara Eaker, tested positive for COVID-19. "It gave me a lot of time to think about what I wanted to do next," Wong says.

In the past, Wong would have faced a life-altering decision following the Tokyo Games: Accept a scholarship and compete in college or continue the elite path toward another shot at the Olympics and accept sponsorship dollars. The latter choice, turning pro, would have rendered her ineligible for NCAA gymnastics, which required athletes to retain their amateur, or unpaid, status.

But Wong didn't have to make that choice. In June 2021, the NCAA changed its rules to allow collegiate athletes to earn money from their name, image and likeness, or NIL. That meant the country's top gymnasts, including Wong, could compete in college and earn money while competing internationally for Team USA and training to make the Paris Olympics. Wong was part of the first class of gymnasts who could do both.

"I was so grateful for NIL," Wong says. "I didn't have to choose one path." But the route she has taken is unconventional. Most of her peers left their college programs, at least for the year, to focus on training only their elite skills and making the Paris team. She knows people question whether she made the right decision or is spreading herself too thin. "This works for me," she says.

In Katy, Wong finds out she's headed to world championships in Antwerp, Belgium, along with Biles, Jones, Roberson, Skye Blakely and alternate Kayla DiCello. "The biggest birthday gift," Wong says.

World Championships, Oct. 8, 2023, Antwerp, Belgium

WONG IS AT a breakfast buffet in the U.S. hotel on Sunday morning. She carries a plate filled with pastries and fruit to a high-top and sits next to Coach Field and across from her mom, Bee Ding. "I guess this is the first morning I'm officially done with competition," she says.

At Wednesday's three-up, three-count team final, Wong was scheduled to compete only on beam, but Roberson injured her ankle during the one-touch warmup shortly before the start of competition and withdrew from the meet. With little notice, Wong stepped into Roberson's spots on floor and vault and helped the U.S. to a seventh straight world title. Those kinds of clutch, impromptu performances will go a long way in making her case for the Olympic team. Yesterday, Wong also competed as a last-minute fill-in in the vault final. "It's been an easy morning today," Wong says. "I got to sleep in."

"I came over last night to give her a massage," Ding says. "She called and said, 'Ma, I'm still sore from my fall. Massage my back.'" Wong fell while training on uneven bars a couple of days ago. "Last night, she showed me the video -- and your heart just drops," Ding says. "They don't tell you about this stuff until everything's over."

"I was so sore," Wong says.

On an off day last week, Wong, Jones, Roberson and their teammates and coaches rode the Ferris wheel in Antwerp's city center and toured a chocolate factory. They ate lunch at the House of Waffles.

"You had a chicken waffle, right?" Field asks.

"It was more like a breakfast sandwich between two waffles," Wong says.

This scene is as heartwarmingly humdrum as it is impossible to imagine happening a few years ago. Although Wong is dining with a reporter -- and her mom -- no USAG communication person is nearby. She did not have to ask permission from anyone to be here. Ding did not sneak into this hotel.

During the Karolyi era and for an awkward few years after, parents were not allowed to visit the team hotels and gymnasts were largely forbidden from leaving them. They did not enjoy lazy Sunday mornings, go sightseeing or carb load at local hotspots. Parents tell stories of having to sneak food to their kids, who were underfed and denied nourishment during the Karolyi era. It is now known that USAG team doctor Larry Nassar, who is serving a life sentence for sexual abuse and child p*rnography, abused athletes in their hotel rooms at world championships and often downplayed their injuries so they would continue to compete despite the pain.

Ding can't imagine traveling halfway around the world to support her daughter and not having access to her hotel or one-on-one time to massage her back when she is hurting. "She needs her mom," she says.

The new girl

JOSCELYN ROBERSON WAS always aiming for 2024. For as long as she can remember, the 18-year-old Texarkana, Texas, native imagined herself landing a spot on the first Olympic team she was eligible to make and then retiring from elite gymnastics, which was the model for gymnasts for decades. "I always dreamed of only doing one Olympics," she says. Paris was the goal.

But when she became a senior in 2022, that goal started to feel out of reach. She was the only elite at her gym, and she wasn't learning new skills at the rate she once did. At the 2022 U.S. Championships in Tampa, Florida, she finished 18th of 19 gymnasts in the all-around. She was in a rut. Her confidence was shot.

"I was mentally struggling because I was working so hard in the gym and nothing was paying off," she says.

Around that time, Roberson's mom, Ashley, a pharmaceutical chemist, accepted a new job in Houston and gave Joscelyn a choice. She could move to Houston with her and find a new gym in the powerhouse gymnastics city, or stay in Texarkana with her dad, Jeff, and older siblings, which would likely mean the end of her elite career. The choice was obvious, if painful.

"I didn't really want to go," Roberson says of her move to Houston, where she would join World Champions Center, the renowned gym run by Biles' parents, Nellie and Ron, and be coached by Biles' Hall of Fame coaches, Cecile and Laurent Landi. "I was so scared."

National Team Camp, Feb. 5, Katy, Texas

ROBERSON IS SEATED on the floor at Stars Gymnastics in Katy, her legs stretched in front of her. "I'm not on the same track I was last year or that I was hoping to be on, but I feel like I will be 100% by [U.S.] Championships," she says.

It's early February 2024, four months since worlds, and Roberson is talking with a couple of reporters who are sitting, cross-legged, on the floor in front of her at the first national team camp of the year, the unofficial start of the Olympic team selection process. In the year after joining WCC, Roberson's Olympic stock skyrocketed. At the 2023 U.S. Championships, she finished seventh in the all-around, a massive improvement over 2022, and won gold on vault, her best event.

Roberson is one of the few gymnasts in the U.S. who performs a Cheng, a round-off back handspring (or Yurchenko) half onto the springboard with a laid-out 1.5 off it. It is one of the most difficult vaults in the world. Roberson landed it for the first time in competition at U.S. Classic last August and knows that it alone could launch her onto the Olympic team.

But while she was warming up the vault before the team final at worlds, she landed and felt a pop and pain in her left ankle. "The landing didn't look that bad," Roberson says, "but I knew it was terrible."

Laurent picked her up and carried her off the mat. Once they were in a private space, he and a trainer asked her to be honest about how her ankle felt. They determined, together, that she should not continue to compete.

"I was crying in the back corner, really distraught," Roberson says. "I wanted to go out and be with my team and cheer them on." A trainer wrapped her ankle and handed her a pair of crutches. "I composed myself and went back out because I knew they were going to need me," she says. "When Simone finally did her last floor routine and we secured first place, I started crying so hard."

Roberson was disappointed beyond belief but also incredibly proud of her teammates, especially Biles. "I knew seeing me get hurt on vault would spook Simone because of her past experience [in Tokyo]," Roberson says. "As soon as I got back out, I was like, 'I'm OK. I'm good. We'll deal with this later.'"

Since joining WCC, Roberson has become close with her training partners. Biles, she says, taught her to balance hard work and fun -- even in the gym -- while showing her that there is life outside of gymnastics. It's an ethos that has permeated through the WCC walls and onto the national team.

Roberson had an MRI when she returned home from worlds and learned she'd badly torn her deltoid ligament, which meant eight weeks without training. In the past, such an injury would have likely ended a gymnast's Olympic prospects. "But I never thought, 'Oh, well, you're out. There's someone next coming up,'" she says. "It's not like before, when if you got hurt, you were done. It's, like, if you get hurt, you're going to come back. And we're going to be here with you all the way through your recovery. It's a great change that's happened in the sport."

Roberson says in addition to her WCC coaches, Memmel and Sacramone Quinn have checked in throughout her recovery and understand what their gymnasts are going through.

"You can go to Chellsie with any question about gymnastics or technique," she says. "Alicia is our anything person. Like, if you're having a mental health issue, you can go to her, and she will find you the help. But she's never going to take those things into consideration or hold them against you. We have a bunch of mental health people, but a lot of times they don't travel, so [Alicia]'s like, 'Do we need to get you on the phone or on a Zoom call?' She and Chellsie are good about that."

U.S. Championships, June 2, Fort Worth, Texas

JONES IS PETTING a golden retriever inside Dickies Arena in Fort Worth. It's the first Sunday in June and U.S. Championships, the final meet before Olympic trials, ended a half hour ago. Jones, Lee, Wong and Roberson are mingling with other gymnasts and various members of USAG leadership while they wait to learn who will be named to the national team and earn a spot at trials in Minneapolis in three weeks.

While Jones chats, she reflexively rubs the ears of a 4-year-old therapy dog named Beacon, a USAG staff member whose credential identifies him as the organization's "Goodest Boy." He travels with his handler to important meets. "Science shows petting or sitting with a dog, or even watching someone pet a dog, can lower blood pressure and anxiety, help increase the feel-good hormones serotonin and dopamine, and lower cortisol levels," says Tracey Callahan Molnar, Beacon's handler. Cortisol is the body's main stress hormone.

Jones did not compete this weekend and is waiting to learn if USAG approved her petition to trials. After finishing second at U.S. Classic two weeks ago, she started experiencing pain in her right shoulder, a flare-up from a labrum tear she has been managing for two years. She and Korngold decided, together, that competing here wasn't worth the risk. "Shi's was the loudest voice in that decision," Korngold says.

In the wake of the revelations around Nassar and the mental health awakening in sports over the past decade, gymnasts have taken ownership of their bodies and become involved in their day-to-day training and injury recovery in a way they weren't before. Jones says she and Korngold view their relationship as a partnership built on communication and trust, two things that are tested when dealing with an injury. "We have a strong bond," Jones says.

Coaches like Korngold are also demonstrating a more positive way to coach elite athletes.

"I think in the past everyone thought they were doing what was necessary. I think they did care about their athletes and want what was best for them," Korngold says. "But we didn't have long-term studies, feedback. Now we know better. So, if we know better, do better."

As the gymnasts continue to socialize, dancing and laughing with one another in small groups around the arena, USAG staff members hand out red warmups to those named to the national team. Jones receives one, which means her petition to trials was accepted. So too does Roberson, who landed her Cheng in competition for the first time since world championships and finished in a three-way tie for fourth place on floor.

Wong steps into her red warmup knowing she didn't have a great meet this weekend but has been one of the most consistent gymnasts in the country over the past few years. She has three weeks to train, her longest stretch since the NCAA season ended, and one more opportunity to make a statement.

Lee made her statement this weekend. With her hair pulled tightly into a bun and her lips glossed a fiery red to match her red-and-black, high-neck leo, she projected the performance she wanted to give -- and the Olympic champion that she is. She recovered from a scary fall on vault in the first rotation to nail her bars routine and perform the best beam set of her return, maybe one of the best of her career.

Lee's comeback this year has been an emotional sequence of extreme highs and lows. After her triumphant return in August, her health took another turn and she declined USAG's invitation to the world team selection camp the next month. "It was my lowest point," she says. "I stopped doing gymnastics for four months." She barely left the house, sometimes not getting out of bed for days at a time.

Then, on Jan. 4, she received a call from her doctors "that changed literally everything," she says. She hasn't shared details of the call, but the next day, she went back into the gym.

"It was a simple phone call, and I was like, 'Oh, my gosh, I'm going back into the gym tomorrow and I'm going to be better than I ever was,'" she says. "January 4. That was the day I realized this is what I want. I decided I'm going to put my mind into it."

Now, she can hardly believe she's here. "After the meet, I was constantly asking, 'Did I make trials? Did I make trials?'" Lee says. For the first time, trials will be in in Minneapolis, her hometown. "Everyone's like, 'Yeah, duh, you got the red jacket!'"

"We're going to trials!" she says, almost in disbelief. "We're going to trials!"

U.S. Olympic trials, Day 1, June 28, Minneapolis

JONES GOES DOWN to a collective gasp. In her final run of warmups, she lands a double-twisting Yurchenko on vault, grabs her left knee and hops on one foot to the side of the mat. Biles runs to her. So do Korngold and Memmel, who help Jones limp off the floor. Lee and Roberson are visibly shaken. The crowd is stunned. Is Jones' night over before it begins?

Ten minutes later, Kayla DiCello, one of Lee's closest friends and her roommate in Minneapolis, starts off the meet on vault and lands awkwardly. She is taken out of the arena in a wheelchair. Lee, who is up next on vault, performs through tears. It's a shocking, emotional start to an important night.

Jones returns to the arena for introductions, which means she plans to compete. She isn't giving up easily on her Olympic dream. She jogs gingerly down the vault runway but eventually scratches the event. Her next rotation is bars, her best event. It might be her only chance to show the selection committee she can help the team in Paris, even with an injury. But without knowing how badly she is hurt, she could injure herself further. She and Korngold discuss her options, and she decides to compete.

The arena falls silent when she mounts the bars. They know this could be the last elite routine of her career, but Jones can't think about that right now. Instead, she attacks every skill as if it is the most important she'll ever do. Her mom, Latrice, watches through tears, knowing the committee could still choose her daughter. Jones lands her dismount, and the crowd erupts. It is a memorable, gutsy performance.

Jones earns the highest score of the night on bars. She scratches the final two events and spends the rest of the evening watching, knowing her Olympic dream -- a dream she chased across the country and back again, through a pandemic and injuries and her dad's death -- might be over. Her future is now out of her hands.

With injuries to Jones and Skye Blakely -- both of whom were considered shoo-ins a few days earlier -- as well as contender DiCello, the field is more open than ever before. Wong and Roberson seize the opportunity.

Wong debuts a Cheng -- the same vault Roberson performs and one of the most difficult in the world -- and nearly sticks the landing. The arena erupts in boos when her score appears: The judges docked her two points for missing the vaulting table with her left hand. After review, the judges reinstate the points, and Wong earns the third-highest score of the night on vault. She outscores Roberson by more than a tenth of a point and leads the all-around standings after the second rotation.

After an emotional start to her outing -- and a pep talk from her coaches -- Roberson is solid on every event and fantastic on beam. She finishes third in the event and ahead of Wong in the all-around.

Lee, who is considered a lock for the team alongside Biles, fights for every score in front of her hometown crowd. When she nearly falls off beam on a layout step-out, she makes a dramatic save. Even with the mistake, she wins the night on beam.

After the meet, Lee posts a photo of herself with USAG's therapy dog on Instagram. "Thank god for Beacon," Lee writes. "Day 1 of trials done, onto day 2."

U.S. Olympic trials, Day 2, June 30, Minneapolis

AS THE GYMNASTS' families wait nervously in the stands for the five names gymnastics fans have been waiting 30 minutes -- and three years -- to hear, the mood in the arena is excited, yet somber. Saturday afternoon, USAG announced that Jones had withdrawn from the meet -- and thus contention for the team. Her Olympic run ended with that unforgettable performance on bars.

Douglas, the Olympic champion who had started it all for Jones so many years ago, posted a photo of the two of them hugging on Instagram. "I'm completely heartbroken," she wrote. "No one deserved it more."

Jones watched the competition from the stands, her mom and Korngold by her side. It's not how she imagined this night going. No one expected trials to end without Jones' name being called, least of all her.

"I think we both shed a few tears during the anthem tonight," Korngold says. "She did everything right all quad to earn a spot on Team USA. To see that dream shatter is devastating. I'm heartbroken for Shi."

When the meet ends, Lee is second behind Biles in the all-around, followed by 2021 Olympians Jordan Chiles and Jade Carey. The selection committee has a tough job ahead. Sixteen-year-old Hezly Rivera's breakout performance landed her fifth in the all-around. The committee members could choose to take the top five, including an athlete with no international experience, or select a gymnast such as Wong or Roberson who fell out of the top five but whose skills they believe could best help the team.

Around 9:30 p.m., they call the women together in a room and announce their decision before they tell the public. Minutes later, 2004 Olympic all-around champion Carly Patterson and seven-time Olympic medalist Shannon Miller read out the names in the arena:

"Jordan Chiles.

Jade Carey.

Hezly Rivera.

Suni Lee.

And Simone Biles."

After all she's been through, incredibly, almost unbelievably, Lee is headed to Paris.

"I'm so thankful because a year ago I didn't even think this ...," Lee says, her voice breaking as she is overcome by tears. "I didn't think this was possible."

Roberson and Wong are named the two traveling alternates and receive raucous applause. Although she fell short of her ultimate goal, Wong is going back to the Games. Roberson, who didn't know what her future held after her injury eight months ago, finishes sixth at U.S. trials, and she will support her teammates in Paris. "I can't wait to see the Eiffel Tower," she says.

Although this team looks different than expected, it represents how much has changed about gymnastics in this country. This is the most diverse and oldest team in history -- with four members of the 2021 Olympic team -- and it is filled with women who went through the Olympic process while dancing and laughing and petting therapy dogs, all while posting about their lives and speaking openly about their mental and physical health. They're women who support one another, who run to each other to celebrate when things go great and comfort when they don't. Together, they have the potential to be the most successful U.S. Olympic gymnastics team in history.

Not long from now, few will remember more than the names of the women who made the team and competed in Paris. But for the women who gave their all week after week, meet after meet, through the ups and the downs, it's the journey they all will remember.

On the floor with her new teammates, red, white and blue confetti all around them, Lee says, jumping up and down, "I can't wait to be in Paris!"

Suni Lee, Shilese Jones and the toughest-ever U.S. Olympic gymnastics team to make (2024)


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