Russians lead Team USA in women’s gymnastics in the Olympic qualifying round


The trouble started early. A step outside the limits for floor exercise here. An additional jump to vault there.

Over the course of two hours on Sunday, they continued to build up and scratch the aura USA Gymnastics has built over the past decade. Not even the greatest of all time was immune to the reality of a sport where perfection is unattainable.

Americans flirted with it for 11 years, at least from a competitive point of view, flew around the globe and then flew home with gold-filled suitcases.

It could still happen with the Tokyo Olympics. But for the first time in a long time it doesn’t seem to be without a fight.

Russia put in an impressive performance in qualifying with a top score of 171,629, more than a full point ahead of the US with a total of 170,562.

During the reigning Olympic champion Simone Biles the all-around at the top and teammate Sunisa Lee came in second, the Americans saw each other on the scoreboard in the team standings for the first time since the 2010 World Cup.

“That wasn’t the final,” said US high-performance director Tom Forster. “That was the entry into the final. So this could be a great awakening for us and we will use it.”

Simone Biles of the United States awaits her score after performing on the balance beam during the women’s artistic gymnastics qualification at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo on Sunday, July 25, 2021.

Gregory Bull / AP

Forster raised his eyebrows after last month’s Olympics when he said it didn’t matter if the top four finishers in the all-round rankings were pulled over a squad that could possibly score a little higher by taking a specialist or two with them . He argued that sacrificing a tenths or two here or there wouldn’t matter, based on the history of Americans’ blowout victories at world championships since his acquisition in 2018.

“We thought it was a good order and I still feel good about it,” said Forster, who later added, “It will all work out.”

This has always been the case since the 2011 World Championships. Everything will be reset for the final when the format is changed to three / three. The pressure is increasing. And Americans found a way to thrive under it.

They finally stalled in a largely empty Ariake Gymnastics Center. At least by the program’s remarkable standards.

Even Biles wasn’t immune.

While the 24-year-old led the all-around competition with a total of 57,731 and made it through to the event finals in several events, it wasn’t easy. She kicked all the way off the mat after diving into her floor training, then basically did the same thing when jumping. She responded with a solid leap on the uneven bars, but one spectacular beam routine ended with her taking three large steps back after her descent, something Forster said he had never seen her before.

Biles, who came to Japan as the face of the Olympic movement in the US and possibly the Games themselves, greeted the judges and walked off the podium with a smile that looked like a combination of relief, sarcasm and frustration.

Gymnastics - Artistic - Olympics: Day 2
Team United States’ Simone Biles competes in floor exercise during day two of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at the Ariake Gymnastics Center on July 25, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan.

Ezra Shaw / Getty Images

There was a lot to do.

Jordan Chile’s remarkably consistent run that led her to a place on the team ended with a big mistake on the bars and a fall on the bar. Sunisa Lee had dropped her jump and floor scores in the team competition, although her e-bar routine helped her climb to second place behind Biles in the all-around competition.

The greatest ray of hope for the Americans was probably the spectacular appearance of Jade Carey. Carey competed as a lone fighter after earning a nominative starting place in the World Cup circus, earned a place in the jumping and floor exercise finals, and only missed the all-around due to the rules that limit the finals to two athletes per country.

Carey’s decision to pursue an individual berth is symbolic of the depth Americans enjoyed during their rise to supremacy. Yet they no longer seem to have geared the market towards excellence.

ROC’s performance is proof that the former gymnastics superpower is in the midst of a resurgence, led by 21-year-old Angelina Melnikova. Even better, the Russians survived the balance beam relatively unscathed.

Gymnastics - Artistic - Olympics: Day 2
Team United States’ Jordan Chiles competes on the balance beam during day two of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at the Ariake Gymnastics Center on July 25, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan.

Ezra Shaw / Getty Images

The 4-inch piece of wood, 4 feet off the ground, was the place where the country’s gold medal hopes have died in recent years, but there weren’t any major issues during qualifying. The only major mistake came when Lilia Akhaimova fell at the end of an acrobatics series.

Not a big problem. The Russians were allowed to drop their score. It will be different in the finale, when the meeting moves into a “three-up / three-count” format with no margin of error. While Melnikova insisted that she won’t predict what might happen Tuesday, she believes what was once a walkover for Americans will become something much more convincing.

“We hope (we win),” said Melnikova. “We will also fight and fight. We have to. That is the expectation of us.”

And for the first time since the 2010 World Cup, it suddenly looks doable.

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