Olympians' big skills, work ethic inspire local gymnasts and coaches

Simone Biles will push the difficulty envelope further than she's done before, as Olympic women's gymnastics competition gets underway in Tokyo on Saturday, July 24.

FARGO — The U.S. women’s gymnastics team is ready to impress at the 2020 Olympic Games later this week in Tokyo, a competition sure to inspire the next generation of young gymnasts.

Athletes from American Gold Gymnastics in Fargo will watch closely as Simone Biles, Jordan Chiles, Sunisa Lee, Grace McCallum, Jade Carey and MyKayla Skinner take on the rest of the world’s elite gymnasts.

Artistic gymnastics is traditionally a highly watched sport of the Summer Olympics, and interest appears not to have waned. A 2021 survey found it was the most followed sport for fans, with 35% of global respondents interested in gymnastics living in the U.S., according to Statista, a provider of market and consumer data.

Biles, the 24-year-old from Texas, is expected to perform a vault that could become the fifth skill for which she’s named.


Simone Biles competes at the U.S. Olympic Trials in June 2021 in St. Louis, Mo. Grace Hollars / USA TODAY Sports

For now, the gymnastics world refers to Biles' highly difficult vault as a Yurchenko double pike, which she debuted in May at the U.S. Classic meet in Indianapolis. But Biles needs to do it successfully in international competition for the naming distinction.

A handful of men have performed it, but Biles is the first woman to do so, and it might be some time before anyone else joins her.

Whitney Beck, competitive director and co-head coach at American Gold Gymnastics, said Biles is pushing the envelope because she’s capable of it. “Whether or not Simone is capable, it doesn't take away the risk factor in what she's doing,” Beck said, in reference to the Yurchenko double pike.

“I’ve seen men do it for maybe 10 years, and even then I was watching and thinking, ‘This is dangerous,’” said Greg Gulbranson, co-head coach at American Gold.

Simone Biles competes at the U.S. Olympic Trials in June 2021 in St. Louis, Mo. Grace Hollars / USA TODAY Sports



A gymnast performing a Yurchenko does a roundoff onto the springboard and back handspring onto the vault table with enough speed and propulsion to flip backward.
Mastering the Yurchenko tuck through progressions and drills can take as long as five years, starting from introduction of the basic concept, Gulbranson said.

It can then be made harder with pike and layout body positions. Adding twists to the vault ups the ante as well.

In Tokyo, a number of gymnasts will perform the difficult Amanar — a Yurchenko layout with 2½ twists. But adding an extra flip, like Biles does, puts the vault into a different stratosphere.

“So much happens so quickly, if one thing goes wrong at the beginning, it's going to throw the rest of it off,” Gulbranson said.

Beck said Biles has an ability to harness and control the strength in her small frame, standing at only 4-foot-8. That power best serves her in the vault and floor events, and somewhat on the balance beam, Beck said.

Other U.S. athletes are stronger than Biles on bars, she said, including Lee of St. Paul, Minnesota.

Gulbranson said Lee’s routine flows from one release skill to another, from low bar to high bar, allowing her to rack up bonus points for difficulty. “Her ability to swing on the bar is the same amount of amazing as Simone's ability to tumble,” Gulbranson said.

Maddie Dukart, an American Gold gymnast who's reached one of the highest skill levels in USA Gymnastics, said Lee is her favorite athlete on the team.


Having competed at many meets in the Twin Cities over the years, Dukart said she’s rotated through events with Lee in the past. “She has all this difficulty but still makes it look easy,” she said.

Dukart, a senior-to-be at Fargo Davies High School this fall, has committed to study at and compete for Southern Utah University in Cedar City.

Chiles, Lee, McCallum and Carey have all announced plans to transition to college gymnastics when their Olympic careers are over. That means Dukart could compete against them in college meets — a possibility that inspires her.

“Obviously, I can't really keep up with them because they're Olympians, but I can strive to have their work ethic,” she said.

The women’s competition in Tokyo runs Saturday, July 24, through Tuesday, Aug. 3, and will be presented across the networks and platforms of NBCUniversal.

American Gold
Halle Gregoire, an athlete at American Gold Gymnastics in Fargo, swings on the bars while co-head coach Greg Gulbranson looks on during practice on July 14, 2021. Chris Flynn / The Forum

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