Team USA high performance director Tom Forster says next generation has ‘missed so much’ in the past few years
That’s because Biles, the sport’s third-most decorated athlete in history, gives Team USA a huge advantage every time she steps out.
Forster saw that play out last month during a virtual national team training camp.
“There’s no reason to be at her best in the January camp. So, she intentionally was just kind of going through the motions,” he explained in a recent interview with Olympic Channel, “and she’s still two points ahead in her start value.
“This is one of the reasons why it's so nice having her on the team,” he continued. “It just reduces everybody's anxiety when you have an athlete like that.”
But Forster also knows that, like all good things, Biles career will come to an end, likely sooner rather than later. All indications are that she'll hang up her leotard after what promises to be a historic run at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics in 2021. That's left the team that has dominated women's gymnastics since 2011 preparing for what comes after the superstar.
Biles is in a league of her own. She hasn’t lost an all-around competition since taking the 2013 U.S. title. She dominated the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, picking up five of a possible six medals, including golds in the team, all-around, vault, and floor finals.
In five trips to the World Championships, she’s collected 25 medals – 19 of them gold. She’s the only woman to win five World all-around titles, and her combined 30 World and Olympic medals is third most all time. She’ll likely pass Vitaly Scherbo’s record (33) at the Tokyo Games.
Biles has so revolutionised her sport that she has four elements named in her honour as the first female gymnast to produce them in international competition. And, Biles says, there may be one or two more by the time she finally hangs up her grips.
“The cool thing about her is, she doesn't want to just do the status quo. I think she gets bored with that,” said Forster. “So luckily, [her coaches] Laurent and Cecile [Landi] allow her to play and know it helps motivate her, to keep her excited about putting up with the pain that gymnastics can cause.
“But the cool part is she wants to, I mean, she really wants to.”
It hasn’t been all Biles, and it hasn’t been all easy. Far from it, at times.
The U.S. women have plenty of talent backing Biles up, including Morgan Hurd, who won the 2017 World all-around title while Biles took a year off. Jade Carey has won medals at two World Championships, and Sunisa Lee emerged as the breakout athlete at the 2019 Worlds, picking up individual medals on the uneven bars and floor exercise.
The battle for three coveted berths to join Biles at the Olympics on Team USA this summer will be fierce with any number of women in the running.
That pool of talent hasn’t insulated U.S. gymnastics from difficulty. The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent postponement of the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo to 2021 has created more than its fair share of bumps.
Forster says some on the U.S. team have taken full advantage of the extra year, noting that 2016 Olympic champion Laurie Hernandez has improved tremendously and that 2017 U.S. all-around silver medallist Jordan Chiles is better than ever.
“Jordan Chiles looks better than I've seen her in a long time, so she's taking full advantage,” he says.
But others have missed training time with closed gyms, been forced to quarantine after close contacts, or they themselves, contracted the coronavirus, or struggled with the toll the sport takes mentally and physically.
Forster also inherited a program in crisis as USA Gymnastics dealt with the fallout from the abuse scandal around its former national team doctor Larry Nassar.
One of Forster's main tasks since day one: change the culture of elite gymnastics in the U.S. that had allowed such abuse to occur.
“It was a challenge because I was asked to change the culture of a successful program that was having world success and a dynasty at that,” Forster said during a January 2020 press conference. “That’s what I was hired to do.
“It’s been a tremendous challenge, but a good challenge and one that I think the athletes and coaches have embraced.”
Despite those challenges, the U.S. women will enter the Tokyo Olympics as the odds-on favourites for gold. With Biles on their team, they seem untouchable.
But she has repeatedly said Tokyo will be her swan song, and so Forster has already turned his attention to the future after the GOAT.
The U.S. women’s ability to reload talent quadrennium after quadrennium has been unparalleled. But that system has taken much criticism in the years since Rio 2016 that it prioritised medals over the well-being of its athletes, part of what Forster has been tasked with changing. Talent development programs were interrupted in 2017 and 2018 as the scope of abuse inside the sport became more clear, and then 2020 happened.
“Training centers were taken away from them. They didn't have a director for more than a half a year, so camps were cancelled,” said Forster. “So, between that, and then, the pandemic, it's going to be different for the next generation.”
“The biggest challenge is the next generation has missed so much,” he explained.
Chief among missed opportunities: international competition in 2020 and 2021.
“I think it's a disadvantage to our current junior athletes because this particular year they would usually be getting a lot of very critical international experience and they don't get it,” said Forster. “They weren't allowed to get it last year, so we're going to lose two full years, essentially, of them gaining the experience they need to have confidence going into World Championship in 2022 and 2023.”
Those junior athletes may also face more competition from more experienced athletes. He says he thinks the smaller gap between Games may allow athletes to step away or compete in college for a season or two before returning to elite and a chance at Paris 2024, noting the example of MyKayla Skinner, who competed three seasons at the University of Utah before resuming elite training.
Both are examples of how the future is far from certain for the team that hasn’t lost a World or Olympic team title since 2010.
“People, they're so focused, as they should be, on the current group. We have the GOAT of our sport and it's so much fun and it's exciting, and the next generation has been completely forgotten,” said Forster.
“We’re going to do our very best to help the coaches and these athletes moving forward. But it's going to be different.”