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Olympic Spotlight: U.S. Women Participate In Gymnastics Team Final


U.S. gymnasts will compete in the highly anticipated women's team final in Tokyo today. Going into the games, the U.S. was the odds-on favorite to win gold again. But in the preliminaries, the team stumbled a bit. NPR's Russell Lewis has been following this one from Tokyo. Hey, Russell.


KING: What happened in the preliminaries?

LEWIS: Well, you know, it's hard to say exactly. I mean, perhaps it was a bit of nerves. But we just don't know. The squad is led by Simon Biles. She is the greatest gymnast of all time. And there really aren't enough superlatives to explain just how good she truly is. I mean, watching her fly higher than others and do vaults that no other woman can land in competition, you know, really are a hallmark. Gymnastics is a sport that is measured in hundredths or tenths of a point between competitors. And typically, Biles finishes full points ahead of the others. But, you know, she had some uncharacteristic falls and stumbles on Sunday, particularly on the vault and the floor exercise. She stepped all the way off the mat after one tumbling pass. She grimaced after one of her vaults, reacting to a mistake on the landing. Still, despite all of that, she did end up with the highest score. But for her, it was a rare off day.

KING: Still the highest score. That's extraordinary. OK, so that was the preliminary. Today is the final. How much trouble is the U.S. team in?

LEWIS: Well, one should never bet against the United States and women's team gymnastics. Let's remember that coming into these games, the U.S. had not lost on the world stage since 2010. That's more than a decade ago. So a second-place finish in the preliminary competition on Sunday behind the team representing the Russian Olympic Committee came as a surprise, no doubt. But at the Olympics, these scores are wiped out for today's final, and all teams will start with a clean slate.

KING: OK. So we're starting from scratch. And we talk a lot about Simone Biles because she is the greatest of all time, but this is a team competition. It's not all on her. Who else are we watching?

LEWIS: Well, certainly, you know, while she had an off day for sure, she still, as we said, turned in one of the best performances in the world. But this team is fairly young. The other three gymnasts on the U.S. team - they're all making their Olympic debut. So that's Sunisa Lee. It's Grace McCallum and Jordan Chiles. But each of them made errors in the preliminaries as well.

KING: And who do they go up against today? And what are you going to be watching for?

LEWIS: Well, there are eight countries that are competing. Obviously, the U.S. and Russia really are the two favorites going in. China is in the mix as well. And France actually could be a sleeper. They could lead to a little bit of a surprise.

We should talk a little bit about this competition. There are four events that are in the team competition. So there's the vault. There's the balance beam, uneven bars and the floor exercise. In each of those events, three gymnasts from each country will compete, and each score will count and be added to the overall tally. For Team U.S.A., Simone Biles and Grace McCallum will compete on every apparatus. Suni Lee will do the balance beam and the uneven bars, and Jordan Chiles will do the floor exercise and the vault.

Remember that in gymnastics, the scores are a combination of difficulty and execution. So it's important to execute jumps and routines cleanly, but also to add in layers of difficulty. And speaking of difficulty, we'll be watching to see if Biles will perform her signature Yurchenko double pike. It is the hardest and most difficult vault in the women's gymnastics, and she is the only woman to have ever landed it in competition.

KING: NPR's Russell Lewis in Tokyo. Thanks, Russell.

LEWIS: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARMS AND SLEEPERS' "SOME DIE YOUNG") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Southern Bureau chief, Russell Lewis covers issues and people of the Southeast for NPR — from Florida to Virginia to Texas, including West Virginia, Kentucky, and Oklahoma. His work brings context and dimension to issues ranging from immigration, transportation, and oil and gas drilling for NPR listeners across the nation and around the world.
Noel King is a host of Morning Edition and Up First.