'Defying Gravity' Gymnasts Rack Up Olympic Medals in Tokyo

August 4, 2021

The Artistic Gymnastics competition at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics just wrapped up and the athletes featured in our award-winning YouTube Originals documentary series “Defying Gravity: The Untold Story of Women’s Gymnastics” are coming home with an armful of medals — and memories.

The biggest story of the Games was of course Simone Biles’s withdrawal from the Team Finals competition after the first rotation, citing her mental health and what is commonly known in the sport as the “twisties,” when gymnasts lose their orientation mid-air, especially on twist moves.

With Simone suddenly sidelined and serving in chief cheerleader mode, Sunisa Lee, Grace McCallum, and Jordan Chiles kept their composure and rallied to earn a Team Silver medal for the instantly dubbed “Fighting Four.” Simone’s decision to prioritize her mental and physical health over the entire world’s expectations was as courageous as it gets. And her teammates’ poise, grit, and resilience in the face of unprecedented circumstances was nothing short of incredible.

Two days later, Suni became the first ever Asian woman of any nationality to win the Olympic All-Around Gold Medal. Her victory was celebrated around the world, but nowhere more so than in Minnesota, where her family and the local Hmong community gathered together to watch. Episode 3 of our series tells Suni’s incredible story and how, with the help of her coaches, she stays focused on and off the mat, especially in the wake of her father John’s 2019 accident, which left him paralyzed. John was front and center watching and cheering every performance, including when Sunisa earned a Bronze medal on Uneven Bars, making it a full Gold-Silver-Bronze set for the Games.

For Grace, a fellow Minnesotan who is featured in Episode 4 of the series, the Team Silver capped a rock-solid Olympic performance in which she “hit” on 8 of 8 routines (including preliminaries), perhaps none more important than her Bars routine just moments after learning of Simone’s withdrawal. We shot with Grace in her home gym, with her family, and in Los Angeles for a specialty photography shoot alongside some of her Twin City Twisters teammates, and found her to be just as kind, supportive, and poised as she proved to be in Tokyo this past week. 

Jade Carey, Grace’s best friend and fellow Episode 4 standout, charted her own path to the Games as an individual specialist, earning a spot in the Vault and Floor finals, with her dad and coach Brian by her side the whole way. After an unfortunate balk on her first vault left her off that event’s podium, she rallied two nights later to deliver a stellar, Gold Medal-winning performance on Floor.

In Episode 6 of our series, we shared the story of MyKayla Skinner, the NCAA champion who was out for redemption after being named an alternate for Rio in 2016 and again for Worlds in 2019. Although MyKayla just missed out on making the four-athlete U.S. squad for Tokyo, she earned a trip as an individual specialist alongside Jade. The two-per-country rule initially kept her out of event finals, but when Simone withdrew from the Vault finals, MyKayla stepped in and delivered excellent back-to-back Cheng and Amanar vaults, winning a Silver medal and fulfilling a lifelong dream in the process.

Simone, who appears in every episode in the series (she is the GOAT after all), returned for the Beam finals and earned a triumphant Bronze medal, her seventh ever in the Olympics, tying Shannon Miller for the most ever by an American gymnast. She also earned the respect of athletes and fans around the world for giving voice to the mental health issues that so many athletes must contend with and yet are far too often overlooked.

On the international front, we featured Canada’s Ellie Black in Episode 4 of the series, discussing the inherent risks of the sport, and what it takes to recover from an injury. True to form, Ellie recovered from a brutal mid-Olympics ankle injury to finished just a tenth of a point behind Simone on Beam, earning her country’s highest ever finish in women’s gymnastics, fourth. In the same episode, Ellie, U.S. icon-turned Tokyo commentator Laurie Hernandez (featured in Episodes 1 and 2), and others also pay tribute to Oksana Chusovitina, the incredible 46-year-old vault specialist and mother, who told us that after her first Olympic appearance in 1992, she figured she was still “good at it, so why should I leave if this is something I love?” Nearly 30 years and seven more Games later, Chuso announced in Tokyo that she is now ready to retire, garnering kudos from the entire gymnastics community. 

“This sport, it teaches you so much about yourself, not only as an athlete, but as a person, and you get to learn and discover and grow,” Ellie told us back in her home gym in Novia Scotia. “There’s always something new to try, always something new to work towards.”

Indeed, the 2024 Olympics in Paris are just three years away — and only time will tell if Simone, Suni, Grace, Jordan, Jade, MyKayla, and Ellie will return. But it’s been a privilege following their progress and achievements over the last four years that we’ve been working on “Defying Gravity,” and we can’t wait to follow their college and professional careers for years to come.

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