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Hezly Rivera has just what U.S. Olympic gymnastics team needs for Paris

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Hezly Rivera has just what U.S. Olympic gymnastics team needs for Paris


MINNEAPOLIS — After Hezly Rivera arrived at the arena for the most high-stakes competition of her career, a member of the U.S. high performance staff asked her if she felt nervous.

“No,” the 16-year-old said matter-of-factly before the final night of the U.S. Olympic gymnastics trials. Then Rivera looked at Alicia Sacramone Quinn, wearing a bright red dress and matching lipstick, and added: “You look nice, by the way.”

Rivera maintained that cool demeanor over the next several hours and ascended to her sport’s highest peak. She entered the trials as a self-described “underdog.” She’s leaving as an Olympian.

Rivera joins four past Olympians on the U.S. women’s gymnastics team headed to Paris this month. Simone Biles, Sunisa Lee, Jade Carey and Jordan Chiles have won a combined 55 medals at world championships and the Olympics. As the wide-eyed Rivera thought about the accomplishments of her Olympic teammates, she admitted, “I can’t believe that I’m part of this team as well.”

But Rivera earned her spot with a performance so strong that Quinn, a member of the selection committee, said determining the five-member team was “a pretty cut-and-dried, easy decision.”

Rivera surged into contention as these trials were rocked by injuries to three of the top athletes. Shilese Jones, Skye Blakely and Kayla DiCello each were forced to withdraw from the trials, giving several less experienced athletes such as Rivera a chance.

Biles finished first at the trials, earning the only automatic berth; the selection committee chose the other four athletes. As injuries depleted the field, the four Tokyo Olympians seemed almost surely bound for Paris, leaving one slot to fill. Sacramone Quinn said the committee analyzed the strengths of those four gymnasts and determined the team would benefit from an additional athlete who was strong on bars and beam. Rivera was the ideal choice.

Across the two-day national championships and both nights of the Olympic trials, Rivera has scored at least a 13.700 on all four bars and beam routines. She entered Sunday’s competition knowing those events were most critical to her Olympic hopes, and then she showcased her potential under pressure. Rivera started the meet by working through a difficult routine on bars with superb execution to score a 14.300, a mark only Lee could top. On beam, she was precise and steady — while gymnasts such as Biles, Lee and Chiles all had falls — and she scored a 14.275, the best score of the evening on that apparatus.

Rivera’s solid outings at nationals four weeks ago boosted her résumé. None of the other trials participants could match what Rivera would bring to the team.

“She is just so mature for a 16-year-old,” Sacramone Quinn said. “And she’s always very calm, cool and collected.”

In the qualifying round at the Olympics, the U.S. team will need four gymnasts to perform on each apparatus. Biles, Lee and Chiles probably will compete in the all-around, while Carey, who is excellent on vault and floor, and Rivera will complement one another to fill the remaining spots.

This roster features the top five finishers from the Olympic trials, but more importantly the pieces fit together in a way that maximizes the team’s score. Joscelyn Roberson and Tiana Sumanasekera were also in the mix because of their fantastic showings on beam at the trials, but they have lower scoring potential on bars. They’re both solid on floor, but so are the four Tokyo Olympians. Leanne Wong scored at least a 13.900 on bars twice at the trials, but her beam scores weren’t as high.

Rivera was the only option who had the right combination of strengths. It didn’t matter that she had never competed at a world championships or that she only became age-eligible this year to compete at the senior level. Rivera has performed internationally several times, including at last year’s junior world championships, but the pressure of the Olympic stage will be her most challenging test yet.

Giving Rivera the opportunity to compete in Paris is “also investing in our future,” Sacramone Quinn said, adding that she could be a contender for the 2028 Games.

Even though Rivera won the junior national all-around title in 2023, this Olympic berth seemed improbable, especially given the expected depth of the field as many American gymnasts have continued their elite careers into their 20s. At the U.S. Classic in mid-May, Rivera finished 24th in the all-around after a performance derailed by mistakes. She rebounded at nationals but still entered trials as long shot to make the team.

“She was always somebody that you were keeping an eye on because she has potential,” Quinn said. “And she was kind of figuring her way out. Transitioning from junior to senior is so hard. … But with the way the cards fell this week, it really just gave her a huge opportunity.”

Rivera, who turned 16 in early June, had initially viewed these trials as a “steppingstone” with the 2028 Games as her best chance to make the Olympic team. She thought she had “a slight chance” of earning a spot on the Paris squad, but when her name was announced, she was shocked.

“I mean, she can’t even drive,” Biles said. “Should we teach her how to drive before she gets to Paris? Jeez! She’s so young. She’s so cute. She’s so smart. She’s beautiful. We’re really proud of her for making this team, and we’re really excited to kind of show her the ropes. At least she doesn’t have to do it alone. She has four veterans that have been there before.”



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