Had Simone Biles Withdrawn Sooner, Someone the U.S. Team Left Behind Could Have Been a Tokyo Olympics Medal Contender

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Simone Biles looks on during women's qualification on Day 2 of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Ariake Gymnastics Centre on July 25, 2021.

Simone Biles’ decision to withdraw from the team and individual all-around competitions at the Tokyo Olympics stunned the gymnastics community this week. While it’s an opportunity lost with respect to the Team USA gold-medal count since Biles is an all-time great in the sport, it created an opportunity for one of her teammates.

It also raises the question of what might have been for yet another American gymnast, one the team had to leave home.

Jade Carey moves into the spotlight at the Tokyo Olympics

With Biles’ decision not to compete, USA gymnastics is calling upon Jade Carey to step into the lineup in the women’s all-around competition in Tokyo. Carey is a 21-year-old from Phoenix who placed ninth overall in the qualifying.

That ordinarily would have been good enough for her to advance on her own merits, but the rules in the Olympics only allow two competitors per country to participate in the finals. Biles held one of the United States’ positions, and the other belonged to Sunisa Lee. Biles had qualified with a score of 57.731, followed by Lee’s 57.166 and Carey’s 56.265.

Carey, an Oregon State senior, made it to Tokyo on the strength of her consistency, winning the floor and vault competitions in three World Cups since 2019. She did not participate in the team competition in Tokyo, during which the United States captured the silver medal. But Carey already earned the right to compete next week in the vault and floor exercise.

Simone Biles’ withdrawal came too late to help a near-miss athlete

At any given time, an untold number of athletes will be training to achieve their goal of competing in the Olympics. The process is cut and dried in sports like swimming, where athletes race head-to-head with the clock determining the winners. In team sports, like basketball and soccer, coaches and committees determine the roster.

Either way, there is always heartbreak for those narrowly missing out. One of the best-known instances came in 1960, when coach Jack Riley made Herb Brooks the last player cut from the team that would win the gold medal in ice hockey. Brooks subsequently made the team in 1964 and ’68. Of course, he earned more acclaim for coaching the “Miracle on Ice” team that won the gold at Lake Placid in 1980.

The U.S. women’s gymnastics team members earned their spots primarily from trials held in June in St. Louis, though Carey had accumulated enough high World Cup finishes to advance to Tokyo even before the trials.

Biles, 24, was a lock to head up the team of six coming out of St. Louis. Less than a month later, something went horribly wrong for her, and she dropped out of the team and individual all-around competitions at the Olympics.

Riley McCusker will likely always wonder what might have been

Riley McCusker is only 20 years old but possesses a vast resume that includes competing on winning U.S. teams at the 2018 World Championships and 2019 Pan American Games.

Unfortunately for her, she walked away from last month’s trials as arguably the most disappointed competitor. McCusker fell just short of making the cut after falling off the uneven bars during her routine in St. Louis.

In a complicated string of what-ifs that would have begun with Biles withdrawing before the trials, Carey likely would have surrendered her automatic berth in individual events to qualify for the team and all-around competitions. That could have opened the door for someone like McCusker to lock down a spot in individual events.

With a resume like hers, making it to Tokyo would have legitimately put McCusker in the mix for a medal.

“Devastated is an understatement,” McCusker wrote on Instagram. “My heart is shattered into millions of pieces. It’s so hard to have come this far and been so close to my dreams to fall just short.”

The disappointment over not being able to compete is something that non-athletes can’t fully understand but Biles ironically must be experiencing now.

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