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FORT WORTH, Texas — Let’s get this out of the way first: Simone Biles leads the competition. By a lot.
That Biles, the reigning world and Olympic champion and owner of many records and even more medals, would be in first place after the first night of competition at the U.S. gymnastics championships was a given before Friday’s meet began. She’s going to Tokyo, where she’s going to win many medals, most, if not all, of them gold.
Spectacular as Biles is, however, even she can’t win the team title on her own. So the intrigue at nationals, and at the Olympic trials at the end of the month, is to see which three women will be going with her. With three nights of competition still left, it’s too early to buy anyone plane tickets.
But Jordan Chiles and Suni Lee are starting to separate themselves.
Lee, who was boosted by her father being at a meet for the first time since an accident two years ago left him partially paralyzed, finished second with a 57.35. Chiles, who has been enjoying a breakout season with a win at Winter Cup and second-place finish — first in the non-Biles division — at the U.S. Classic two weeks ago, was 0.45 behind Lee despite mistakes on balance beam and floor exercise.
“This meet was really, really important due to it (being) the competition before trials, and I just wanted to show I can stay consistent throughout the whole time,” Chiles said. “I’m really happy I was able to do that today.”
As for other contenders, well, it’s a good thing Olympic spots aren’t being handed out just yet.
Kayla DiCello, the 2019 U.S. junior champion, fell off both uneven bars and balance beam. Grace McCallum, a member of the 2019 world team, fell off bars and on floor exercise. MyKayla Skinner fell off beam and went out-of-bounds twice on floor.
Jade Carey, who already has an individual spot locked up, was fourth and Leanne Wong was fifth.
Team size has been reduced from five to four for the Tokyo Olympics, which puts a premium on all-around competitors. All four gymnasts compete on each apparatus during qualifying, with the lowest score being dropped. In team finals, three gymnasts compete on each event and each score counts.
So whoever goes with Biles has to be able to put up big scores on every event, and do it on a consistent basis.
Lee and Chiles qualify.
Because of a nagging ankle injury, this was Lee’s first all-around competition since the 2019 world championships. Though she was limping visibly after landing short on her last pass on floor, Lee said she wanted to make it clear she’s determined to do the all-around and said she expects to be “back to 100%” by the Olympic trials, which are June 24-27.
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Lee had the fourth-best scores on both floor exercise and balance beam, and her 14.4 on vault was serviceable. It was on uneven bars where she really dazzled, though.
Lee scanned the crowd in search of her parents before bars, getting anxious when she couldn’t find them at first. But just as she was about to begin her routine, she spotted her father, who was sitting on the lower concourse with her little brother.
“I saw them and I was like, ‘OK, this is going to be a good routine,’ ” Lee said.
Lee appears weightless as she floats between the bars, her grace and flow masking the difficulty of her skills and the intricacy of their connections. Her score of 15.3 was the second-highest of the night, second only to the 15.8 Biles got on vault, and would make her a heavy favorite for the bars gold medal in Tokyo.
“My bar routine was something I’m super proud of,” Lee said. “It just felt like — I don’t know, it just felt amazing. Like so surreal that I actually made the bar routine because I feel like people kind of doubted that I would be able to make that bar routine. Yeah, I was really excited about that.”
Chiles, who was revived her career since moving to train with Biles, wasn’t as clean as she was at the last two meets. She had a big wobble at the start of her balance beam routine, and was well out-of-bounds on her second-to-last tumbling pass on floor.
But those errors, the one on beam in particular, actually showcased what a strong — and dependable — competitor she’s become.
“Definitely years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to (recover), probably would have been wobbling here and there throughout the rest of the (beam) routine and it wouldn’t have been good,” Chiles said. “But my confidence in my gymnastics that I’ve been doing has been so much better.
“I’m very happy that I was able to pull the rest of the beam routine out.”
Her 13.95 was the third-best beam score of the night, behind Biles and Lee. She also was second on vault, fourth on uneven bars and sixth on floor.
Chiles also gave Biles a pep talk before floor exercise.
“I just told her that this is her time,” Chiles said.
A couple more nights like this, and Biles will be saying the same thing to Chiles and Lee.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.
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