Gator gymnastics has a long history of excellence, and this year, this decorated team may add another Olympian to their ranks. Riley McCusker, Leanne Wong, and Kayla DiCello are all set to compete at U.S. Olympic Trials this coming weekend and have a strong chance to be part of the U.S. delegation to Tokyo or to be selected for an alternate slot.
One name notably missing from this list of Gator Olympic hopefuls is Morgan Hurd. Unfortunately, Hurd had two elbow surgeries earlier this year and was not able to recover enough in time to compete at her typical level of excellence at U.S. Championships a few weeks ago and was therefore not given a berth to Trials, despite meeting the requirements for a viable petition, showing strong comeback potential at U.S. Classic just a few weeks earlier (shown below), and being a five-time World medalist. Still, her plans to try for World Championships again later this year and join the Gators in Gainesville in January haven’t changed, and she will be an enormous asset to the team with her wealth of experience, level head, and leadership in and out of the gym.
McCusker and Wong are the other two big names joining Hurd in Gainesville for the 2021-2022 season, while DiCello will join the Gators in the 2022-2023 school year. McCusker has arguably the best chance to make the team, as the construction of teams is a bit different for Tokyo than it has been in past Olympics. The actual team will only consist of four individuals, but the U.S. has also earned two individual berths separately from the team through World Cups over the last two years. One of those individuals has earned the spot specifically for herself – McCusker’s training partner and incoming Oregon State freshman Jade Carey – but the other spot is non-nominative and will likely be awarded to the individual with the best medal chances that doesn’t fit into the overall team picture.
With a recent injury to her ankle, McCusker seems unlikely to be able to do all four events. Since the competition format in qualifications is four routines up, best three scores count, the need for all team members to compete all four events is practically set in stone, so she likely won’t be considered for the main team. However, McCusker has some of the cleanest and most difficult bar work of any U.S. athlete, making her a strong contender for the bars final in Tokyo if she were selected. There isn’t really another individual that stands out as much as she does on one particular event (that isn’t already being considered a lock for the team), so as long as she continues to impress on bars, it’s highly likely she’ll be selected. She’s also planning to add beam back at this competition, which could increase her chances of being selected. Here’s her UB set on the second day of U.S. Championships earned her a massive 15.1, the second-highest bars score of two days of competition.
Wong and DiCello will be fighting for the open slots on the main team. While no members of the team are officially confirmed, Simone Biles taking one of them is a foregone conclusion. Jordan Chiles (UCLA) and Sunisa Lee (Auburn) are also near-locks, based on the former’s tremendous all-around performances this year and the latter’s incredibly high bars potential and strong return to the all-around following injury. If all three are indeed named to the team, that leaves just one spot up for grabs. The competition for that spot is pretty wide open – there are probably 6-8 athletes that could realistically contend for that spot and compete at a high enough level to help Team USA win gold.
Both Wong and DiCello are in that mix of 6-8 athletes. Wong is perhaps closer to the top of the pack with more international experience than her future teammate, as well as a cleaner performance at U.S. Championships. She’s a former American Cup champion, Pan American Games team gold and bars silver medalist, and an alternate for the 2019 World Championships team. Her floor seems to be her strongest event right now, but she doesn’t really have a standout per se – some of her routine construction, particularly on beam and floor, can open her up to skill downgrades and missed connections, leading to lower difficulty scores than what she attempts would actually merit. However, she did have a strong all-around showing at U.S. Championships, where she placed fifth overall.
However, DiCello’s strengths perhaps fit better with what the team would need with the aforementioned three forming the majority of the team’s scores. There are lots of various combinations that National Team High Performance Director Tom Forster could put together for their routines in the team final, but a third set of team final-worthy vault and floor exercise scores are almost certainly necessarily, as Lee’s ankle injury makes her a risk for both events. DiCello’s strongest events are vault and floor, and her consistency on both is impressive. She’s not nursing any major recent injuries, so she’s not an injury risk like Lee, and she hasn’t had any routine construction issues, making her floor a more sure asset than Wong’s.
DiCello does not have the international experience that Wong has, however, mostly due to the COVID-19 pandemic. DiCello only turned senior last year, so her debut season was cut abruptly short when competitions ceased in March of 2020. Since then, the only opportunities for her to compete have only been domestic meets, so it’s harder to say how she’ll handle the pressure of such a big meet or how international judges will score her compared to the scores she receives here at home. However, her scores at home are promising, including her floor scores at U.S. Championships, which earned her the silver medal on the event behind Biles.
These Gators aren’t just competing against each other, though. Aside from the presumptive three in Biles, Chiles, and Lee and Carey, who’s earned a nominative individual berth already, there are a few other gymnasts to keep an eye on. In terms of taking a favorite for an individual medal, McCusker doesn’t have much competition for the second individual slot, but Forster could choose to go another route, taking another all-arounder to add another name in the mix for the second U.S. all-around final qualifier behind Biles. This would also give him a built-in alternate in case someone on the main team were injured – he could pull the individual over to the team without having to wait for a replacement athlete to fly to Japan and clear COVID protocols, a contingency plan which could come in handy in an emergency. Wong or DiCello would be even stronger contenders if Forster did choose that route and could make room for the other on the main team. Alternatively, another all-arounder could be chosen.
For the fourth team berth that Wong and DiCello seem to be competing for, as previously mentioned, there are 4-6 other athletes that really could make a case for themselves. MyKayla Skinner (former Utah standout) and Grace McCallum (Utah) could both contribute to the team in similar ways. Skinner’s standout events are VT and FX, and she has a wealth of international experience that could be valuable to this team. She’s a three-time Worlds team member or alternate and the 2014 World Championships bronze medalist, and she was one of the alternates for the 2016 Rio Olympics squad. McCallum, too, has strong vault and floor scores and international experience, and she could potentially have more usable scores on all four than Skinner, whose bars and beam are not the cleanest execution-wise. However, McCallum has had consistency problems recently as she’s fought back from injury and difficulty training during the pandemic.
Others to watch for these two berths include Skye Blakely, Emma Malabuyo (UCLA), Kara Eaker (Utah), and Shilese Jones. Blakely is a first-year senior and younger sister to incoming Gator freshman Sloane Blakely, and she has strong beam and floor scores that could help Team USA and cover a potential inconsistency on beam in Lee. Malabuyo came off of many people’s radar after injury plagued her throughout 2018 and 2019, but she seems to have bounced back and be in the best shape of her life after placing fourth at U.S. Championships. Eaker is likely more in contention for the individual berth as a specialist, though her beam difficulty has not been valued the same internationally as it typically is domestically, so selecting her may be contingent upon either reconstructing her beam routine (unlikely at this stage in the game) or Forster being confident that her leap positions are up to snuff to be properly credited in Tokyo. Lastly, Jones is a bit of a dark horse, as she hasn’t had many official international assignments from Team USA – only one Pan American Championships and a City of Jesolo Trophy, though she helped the team to gold medals at both and earned bronze on bars at Pan Ams. However, her vault is spectacular, and she could also potentially contribute strong scores on bars and floor as well – she earned the AA silver medal at Winter Cup earlier this year, as well as bronze on UB and FX, so she is peaking at the right time. Jones is also a former Florida commit, though her status with the team is currently unknown as she has not signed an NLI despite the fact that she should have been part of either this past season or this coming season’s incoming class. If she does appear at Florida this season or in the future, whether as an Olympian or not, she’ll definitely be a welcome addition to the Gators with powerful tumbling like the ones she showed at U.S. Championships.
With all that said, it’s clear that U.S. Olympic Team Trials will be an absolute bloodbath. There are 18 total competitors, with only 6 Olympic berths and 5 replacement athlete opportunities, so even with the small field, there will be many high-level athletes who come out of this meet with nothing. However, the odds are pretty good that at least one Gator will be honored with one of those 11 slots, maybe even all three or four. Tune in Friday, June 25 at 7:30 P.M. Eastern on the Olympic Channel or 8:00 on NBC and Sunday, June 27 at 8:00 on the Olympic Channel or 8:30 on NBC to watch these athletes and their journey to Tokyo. If you can’t tune in, I’ll be tweeting live throughout the evening, so make sure to follow me @mycluttereddesk and I’ll have all the quick hits for you on our Gators, the other top contenders, and general news from St. Louis.