Olympic gymnasts head to Tokyo, leaving their biggest supporters behind

By Mackenzie Brooks | July 14, 2021
Olympic gymnasts head to Tokyo, leaving their biggest supporters behind
MyKayla Skinner, Grace McCallum, Sam Mikulak, and Shane Wiskus at the 2021 U.S. Olympic Team Trials. (© Amy Sanderson)

Olympic gymnasts from Team USA and countries all around the world are traveling to Tokyo today, but they are all leaving behind one pivotal part of their gymnastics support system: their family.

Brody Malone and girlfriend
Brody Malone greets his girlfriend, Serena Ortiz, after being named to the Olympic Team at the 2021 U.S. Olympic Team Trials. (© Amy Sanderson)

In response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Japan announced in March that there would be no foreign spectators at this year’s Tokyo Games. The country also recently banned local spectators after Tokyo entered a new state of emergency on Monday, July 12.

Although there won’t be fans in the stands, staff, volunteers, and media are still expected to be present, but none of them can replace the support of mom and dad, husbands and wives, and the loved ones that have helped these athletes get to this point. 

“Making an Olympic team is a moment that I always dreamed about sharing with my family. The fact that we can’t do that, it sucks, but it is what it is,” Team USA’s Alec Yoder said after Olympic Trials in late June.

No family rule is uncharted territory for many athletes

After nearly a year’s pause in competition, this quad (or better yet, “quince”) is still feeling the blows of the pandemic, with the GK Classic in May being the first U.S. meet with a crowd in the stands, and after gymnasts got a taste of a packed house at Olympic Trials in St. Louis, it will be tough on both the athletes and their families to be separated – halfway across the world – during the biggest meet of their lives.

In an episode of Simone Biles’ Facebook Watch series, ‘Simone vs Herself’, Biles shared that her parents have never missed a competition in the 18 years since she started the sport at the age of 6.

Biles elaborating, sharing that she has a habit of locating her parents in the crowd to calm her nerves. It’s a habit she will have to break in Tokyo, where the 5-time Olympic medalist is expected to once again dominate the women’s competition. 

“It doesn’t matter where we are, which competition it is, she knows where we are sitting,” Biles’ mother, Nellie, said in the documentary. “She could hear me. I know that because I scream so loud.”

Valeri and Nastia Liukin
Valeri and Nastia Liukin. (Courtesy Olympics.com)

Being separated from loved ones and far from home is a feeling 2008 Olympic all-around champion and current NBC broadcaster Nastia Liukin fortunately never had to experience in her gymnastics career.

Liukin’s dad, Valeri, was always by her side as her coach, and her mom always joined the two wherever they traveled. The 5-time Olympic medalist’s reassurance was always nearby, making foreign lands feel a bit more like home.

“I honestly can’t imagine what that’s like,” Liukin told GymNow this week. “But I think trying to be as positive as possible… that’s the best way to look at it.”

Restrictions pave the way for new traditions and close friendships

Without their parents in Japan to keep them grounded, athletes will have to rely on each other’s company more than any previous Olympic Games.

Many of the gymnasts set to compete in Tokyo have already forged close bonds from their years in the sport.

“Honestly, there’s not much we need to build on,” Yul Moldauer said. “We’ve grown up together. We all know each other really well.” 

Sam Mikulak and Shane Wiskus - USOPTC
USOPTC teammates Sam Mikulak and Shane Wiskus compete at the 2021 U.S. Olympic Team Trials. (© Amy Sanderson)

The biggest challenge for Moldauer and the other U.S. men, all of whom have competed in the NCAA, will be competing in an arena without any fans.

Shane Wiskus explained that as college gymnasts, they have been trained to feed off of the crowd’s energy and put on a show for their fans. 

“We’re definitely going to have to rely on our team camaraderie, and we’re going to have to get loud for each other,” Wiskus said.

With characters like Moldauer, the unofficial “hype man” of Team USA, and the passionate (and always positive) Sam Mikulak, the undisputed leader of the group, on the team, keeping each other motivated and locked in should come naturally.

The only Olympic veteran on the U.S. men’s team, two-time Olympian Mikulak is hopeful he can lead and mentor his younger teammates in his third and final appearance at the Games. In fact, one of the reasons he has been such an advocate for taking care of your mental health was so that athletes, like his teammates, are prepared to experience the same challenges he did early on in his senior career.

Simone Biles and Jordan Chiles - World Champions Centre
Simone Biles and Jordan Chiles talk during warmups on night two of the 2021 U.S. Olympic Team Trials. (© Amy Sanderson)

On the women’s side, two U.S. gymnasts will always be able to find a piece of home in one another: Biles and Jordan Chiles.

After training with one another at World Champions Centre the past couple of years and growing close, the best friends – “sisters” as Chiles refers to the reigning Olympic all-around champion – will be the closest thing to family each other will have in Tokyo.

An added bonus for the WCC pair? Since they train at the same gym and are allowed to have one coach each travel with them to Japan, both of their coaches, Cecile and Laurent Landi, will get to join them.

Biles’ leadership will be complicated by fellow veteran Olympic Team member MyKayla Skinner, who traveled to the Rio Games as an alternate.

Skinner, who is 24 like Biles, steps into a mother-figure like role with the team.

“It’s really nice to have MyKayla a part of the team. She makes you feel not so homesick,” Grace McCallum said. “She’s kind of like the mom of the group. She makes you feel safe.” 

MyKayla Skinner and Grace McCallum
MyKayla Skinner and Grace McCallum during an interview with NBC following the conclusion of the 2021 U.S. Olympic Team Trials. (© Amy Sanderson)

Skinner, McCallum, and alternate Kara Eaker will be able to pass some time and bond talking about their NCAA gymnastics team, the Utah Utes, as the former is a Red Rock legend who recently retired from NCAA and the latter two are set to join the team this fall.

Skinner and the rest of the veterans will have to find balance leading and supporting their teammates while in a foreign country. Training camp will be a crucial time for Team USA to continue to build its chemistry and find support in one another.

Both the U.S. men and women will spend the first few days after arriving in Japan at camp before checking in to the Olympic Village next week.

While they settle in to their new home for the next three weeks, their loved ones will undoubtedly give their all supporting them from afar, sending infinite love and well-wishes from home.