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The organization that governs gymnastics in the United States is still in bankruptcy and in mediation proceedings with more than 500 women who filed lawsuits alleging they were sexually abused by former national team doctor Lawrence Nassar or others associated with gymnastics. Biles, who won gold in the team and all-around events at the 2016 Rio Olympics, is among the survivors. She’s the prohibitive favorite to win the all-around title this weekend at the U.S. Olympic trials, which will determine the men’s and women’s squads for the Tokyo Games.
Li Li Leung, chief executive officer of USA Gymnastics, said Wednesday the mediation process “has taken far too long” and that “everyone involved would have liked it to be resolved sooner,” but COVID-19 had delayed the process. USA Gymnastics filed a voluntary petition for reorganization under Chapter 11 in U.S. bankruptcy court for the southern district of Indiana in December 2018. Offering a settlement to the sexual abuse survivors was part of the organization’s plan to exit bankruptcy.
“We would love to be out of bankruptcy. That way we can be able to more freely move forward with all of the things we had been working on and not have this be part of the narrative, but what has happened is something we are learning from,” Leung said. “We are using the past to inform how we move forward.”
A $215-million settlement offer by USA Gymnastics was derided by victims because it would have precluded the filing of future lawsuits against the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee and because victims said it didn’t address underlying cultural issues that had allowed the abuse to take place unpunished.
Leung said USA Gymnastics is intent on raising safety standards from the club level and upward. “Our ultimate goal is prevention,” she said. She also said athletes will form 33% of the organization’s boards and committees to give them a greater voice. In addition, USA Gymnastics has worked with a platform called Real Response, which gives athletes a chance to anonymously share information on issues that bother them.
The biggest question at the trials, which begin Thursday at the Dome at America’s Center in St. Louis, is whether Biles’ margin of victory will be big or whether it will be gigantic, boosted by the return of a few singularly spectacular skills she left out when she won her seventh U.S. championship a few weeks ago.
The trials are basically a formality for Biles, who has expanded her repertoire of seemingly impossible moves since she won four gold medals (all-around, team, vault and floor exercise) and bronze on the balance beam in 2016. No one is close to her level, making her an overwhelming favorite to repeat as the all-around champion and to anchor a strong, four-woman U.S. squad in the team event.
The top two finishers in the women’s all-around competition at the trials will automatically get Tokyo spots; the top finisher in the men’s competition will get a berth as will the runner-up if he finishes in the top three in at least three of the six events in the men's contest. Selection committees will fill out the rest of each squad.
Unlike the “Magnificent Seven” U.S. women who won team gold at Atlanta in 1996 — or the “Fierce Five” who prevailed in London in 2012 — each men’s and women’s team in Tokyo will be limited to four athletes. However, the U.S. women can send a “plus-one” individual competitor, and Jade Carey earned an individual spot based on her success in the apparatus World Cup series.
The U.S. men, whose most recent team medal was bronze at Beijing in 2008, will also get a“plus-one” spot. Up to five alternates for the team competition and one alternate for the plus-one spot will be named after the competition. The men will compete Thursday and Saturday and the women will compete Friday and Sunday.
The Tokyo team competition will follow a three-up, three-count format, which calls for some strategic decisions this weekend. Jordan Chiles, who finished third at the U.S. championships and will attend UCLA this fall, is a strong vaulter. The year’s delay in staging the Tokyo Games gave Grace McCallum a chance to enhance her skills and made 16-year-old Skye Blakely age-eligible. Sunisa Lee, who overcame an ankle injury to finish second at the U.S. championships and is exceptional on uneven bars, said the COVID delay was emotionally challenging but added she’s in a good place now.
“It was really hard for me to get back in the gym because we had so much time off and I just felt like I wasn’t good enough anymore, almost,” she said. “But right now, I think I’m doing a lot better mentally and you can see it, my gymnastics is doing a lot better too. So I think I’m just really proud of myself.”
She’s part of a bright future that can’t come fast enough for USA Gymnastics.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.