Shilese Jones is flying into a void left by Simone Biles at the US Championships

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TAMPA — When Simone Biles competed at the USA Gymnastics Championships for much of the last decade, it wasn’t really a competition — at least not for first place. Even her competitors sometimes admitted that the real race was for the silver medal.

Not so anymore. The senior elite field this year in Tampa includes two returning Olympians, Jade Carey and Jordan Chiles, plus a pair of world medalists in Leanne Wong and Kayla DiCello. Konnor McClain, 17, has won three all-around gold medals this year. Shilese Jones soars with excellent amplitude on each apparatus, and Skye Blakely excels with her powerful tumbling on both floor and beam. Going into the competition, any combination of these gymnasts on the podium would not have seemed surprising. Together they delivered an exciting competition largely free of major mistakes from the best athletes.

The margins at the top of the standings remained tight throughout Friday night at Amalie Arena, but Jones, a 20-year-old who has never competed at the world championships or the Olympics, emerged as the headliner. Her high-flying releases on bars and powerful but controlled tumbling on floor earned her top marks on each of those apparatuses—even ahead of Carey, the Tokyo gold medalist in Tokyo. She sits in the lead at 57.200, but less than a point separates her from McClain, whose strong beam performance helped her to a 56.400 mark after the first of two nights of competition.

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“I’ve dreamed about it and I knew it was possible,” said Jones, who had previously planned to try out for the Olympics only once, but after missing out on Tokyo, is already eyeing Paris.

They will need to repeat the strong routines on Sunday to fight for the all-around title. Results at nationals depend on cumulative results across both days, so consistency strengthens a gymnast’s chances, especially in a race as wide open as this one. The top five gymnasts are separated by only 1.55, so any significant mistake will shuffle the standings.

Chiles (56,150) is in third place, just ahead of DiCello (55,950). Carey landed in fifth place, mostly because the others performed so well and her beam and tact scores were not on par with the other top Americans. But she ended the night with a strong floor routine, earning a 14.050, topped only by Jones (14.100), who followed her into the final rotation.

“We’re in a really good spot,” Carey said of the U.S. women. “It’s nice to see a lot of great gymnastics again.”

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After performing a strong bars routine and a beam set with a few minor faults, Wong scratched the rest of the competition and her status for Sunday remained uncertain.

The drama surrounding the top spot is unknown at this competition. Biles won the U.S. all-around title seven times during her senior career and only missed out on the crown in 2017 when she skipped the season following her Olympic debut. Biles won her first senior title by a narrow margin as a 16-year-old in 2013. After that, her margin of victory was massive, nearly five points better on average in a sport that can often be decided by tenths.

Now those athletes – a 21-gymnast field without anyone who has won a senior national all-around title – are next in line, hoping to join a distinguished list of champions from this marquee event.

After their freshman seasons of NCAA gymnastics, Carey and Chiles appeared in elite competition for the first time since the Tokyo Games. Chiles was especially pleased with her showing on bars — earning a 14.250, the second-best score — because she has been dealing with a recent shoulder injury. Both Carey and Chiles are eyeing the Paris Games, and their ambitions to make the world championship team are the first step towards that goal. But they are challenged by their peers, especially the impressive performances of Jones and McClain. Jones had the best scores on bars (14.850) and floor, while McClain topped the field on beam (14.800).

“To me, I just think all competition is the same, honestly,” Jones said. “I just worry about myself and know that I have to hit and if I hit I can be on top.”

DiCello, an 18-year-old from Boyds, Md., missed months of practice this winter because of a back injury. Finally healthy, she was solid and avoided big mistakes. Blakely fell on a difficult element of her beam routine — a backflip with a full twist — but was strong the rest of the night.

Biles has not retired from the sport, but since Tokyo she has yet to give any indication that she plans to return. For now, the U.S. women’s team will aim to maintain its excellence without her. The massive cushion Biles had in individual competitions translated into the team’s margin ahead of her peers. The Americans won the gold at every World Championships and Olympics from 2011 to 2019, then took the silver behind the Russian Olympic Committee in Tokyo when Biles withdrew after the first rotation of the final.

“Simone is an anomaly and obviously the best gymnast in many of our times,” Alicia Sacramone Quinn, the strategic manager of the three-person high performance team, said before this competition. “And I think we have some work to do to close that margin.”

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