By Blythe Lawrence
STUTTGART, Germany, Oct. 2, 2019 – Seems no one told the 500 or so spectators who showed up to follow the U.S. women’s every flip at the World Gymnastics Championships Tuesday night that the competition doesn’t actually begin until Friday.
The U.S. women didn’t appear to know it either. Simone Biles, Jade Carey, Kara Eaker, Sunisa Lee, Grace McCallum and MyKayla Skinner were sharp and focused as they sailed through their podium training session on floor, vault, bars and beam, turning in World’s-worthy performances like it was go time.
Podium training, the chance for gymnasts to get acclimated to the same equipment they’ll perform on in the actual competition, has a dress-rehearsal feel to it. And while not always an indicator of how a gymnast or team will perform, it generates intense interest from journalists and fans — and with good reason.
Those 500 got to watch as Biles warmed up the best looking triple-twisting double backs of her career so far, anchoring a floor rotation where stuck landings abounded and nary a toe was put out of bounds. The team showed its might on vault, with Eaker leading off with her steady Yurchenko with 1.5 twists, followed by Yurchenko double fulls from McCallum and Lee, while Skinner, Carey and Biles each displayed Chengs and Amanars, among the most difficult vaults in the competition. Complete routines on bars and beam from each team member capped the night.
Biles, the undisputed queen of the all-around competition, also performed her own vault, a roundoff, half on, front layout with two twists, which she unveiled at last year’s World Championships and is named for her, as well as her brand new double twisting double tuck beam dismount. The Americans’ breathtaking all-around difficulty and excellent execution on all events generated gasps and enthusiastic cheers from spectators, who paid 10 euros each to watch.
“It’s pretty cool that everyone is interested in us,” said Carey, who is at her second World Championships following silver-medal performances on vault and floor exercise in 2017. “Overall it went pretty well, and we had a lot of good energy,” she added. “I think that spirit is really great. There’s a lot of that in the team and we all just feed off of each other.”
The Americans come into the competition as the overarching favorites, having won every World team title except one since 2007, the last time the championships were held in Stuttgart. Another gold this year would give them five in a row, tying for the most consecutive world titles with Romania, whose teams dominated the sport in the 1990s.
Joining Biles and Carey are three 16-year-olds: 2018 World team gold medalists Eaker and McCallum, and Lee, a first-year senior who finished second to Biles at both the U.S. Championships and World Team selection camp.
“It’s been my goal for so long, but I feel amazing now that I’m actually here,” said Lee. “It still feels so surreal because I’m competing with such amazing people and I’ve just worked towards this my whole gymnastics career basically, and to be here is just so amazing.”
Being at her first Worlds hasn’t fazed Lee. Though admittedly nervous, the Auburn University commit has performed solidly day in and day out in training. “I’ve just been doing what I’ve been doing at home and working on my nerves a little bit and putting a little more pressure on myself so I can prepare for how it’s going to be here,” she said. “This training really helped a lot, so I can kind of get a feel for what the competition is going to be like. I think it went really well.”
Skinner, a 2014 World team champion and alternate to the 2015 team, brings the wisdom that comes with maturity — not to mention three years of NCAA competition experience at the University of Utah.
“It kind of feels like I never stopped doing it,” said the 22-year-old, who returned to elite competition this summer for the first time since 2016. “The energy and even having some fans there supporting us made it feel like a real meet, but it was just so great to be back out there and to help represent Team USA. I’m just kind of going out there and having fun with it, and kind of bringing back the good times, so it was really good.”
Eaker and McCallum both also have individual goals they’d like to check off their lists. McCallum hopes to qualify for the all-around final, while Eaker, seventh on beam in last year’s event finals, has high hopes of making the event final once more.
“It feels really good to be back,” McCallum added. “It kind of boosted my confidence coming into this one knowing what to expect.”
“I want to hit my routines and do the best that I can do,” Eaker said. Would she like another shot at the World title on balance beam? “Yes, I would,” she said.
Individual goals aside, all six made it clear that team comes first. Sure, such potential comes with the pressure to uphold the tradition, but it’s a challenge the U.S. women are well prepared to meet, Biles said during a press conference Tuesday morning.
“I feel like this year our team dynamic is really strong. We have six really strong all-arounders and that’s different from any other quad,” she added. “Any event that we go up, we can put any girl up, and we’re not afraid of what the outcome will be.”