They have one of Team USA's toughest jobs: Picking Simone Biles' Olympics teammates (2024)

The garbage can didn’t have a chance. Alicia Sacramone Quinn, captain of the 2008 U.S. Olympic silver-medalist gymnastics team and winner of 10 World Championship medals, had just been told she hadn’t made a long-since-forgotten gymnastics team, so she reared back, channeled her fury into her foot and unleashed it on the bin.


Now a mother of four and a dozen years removed from her last competition, Quinn shares that story to reiterate a simple message: “I get it,” she says. This week, she undoubtedly will incite ire and agony in equal measure. Sixteen women will compete in the U.S. Olympic Trials in Minneapolis; only five will be chosen to compete in Paris, and Quinn, the national team’s strategy lead, will help make the painful cuts.

Yet those three words — I get it — are why she and Chellsie Memmel, the technical lead, are here. They were not obvious choices. For the last 25 years, the women’s national team program has been led by older coaches with a wealth of experience. Quinn, whose focus is planning the overall strategy for the national team, worked on the development staff a decade ago and served on the board of directors for the Athlete Assistance Fund, a not-for-profit that provides financial assistance and counseling for gymnasts who were victims of sexual abuse. Memmel, tasked with ensuring routines are designed to maximize points values, is a respected judge. Both are just 36.

But after a much-needed reckoning awakened the sport to reconcile its ugly past and restore its future, Quinn and Memmel represent the pivot the sport’s leadership intentionally sought. They are athletes-turned-administrators, young enough to recognize the damage the sport incurred, mature enough to improve it and just insouciant enough to not care who gets offended in the process.

“Ultimately, I want these athletes to be able to look back on their careers and be happy about it,” Memmel says. “I want them to be able to look back and have fond memories, to be proud of their accomplishments and not just be like, ‘Well, I did it, but what did I have to do to get there?’ I don’t want that, that cost.”

Asked to describe Quinn, her co-worker, co-conspirator and “work wife,” Memmel considers the question carefully. This is not surprising. She is the stereotypical Midwestern girl — thoughtful, even-keeled and sweet. The Wisconsin-born daughter of two gymnastics coaches, she naturally gravitated toward the gym, where her tactical exactness quickly separated her from the pack. Memmel is, in other words, ideally suited for her current position to nuance a routine and find and maximize the values hidden in the complex code of points.


Quinn is none of that. She jokes that she is here for comedic relief, and when asked about her recurring and ever-evolving roles within gymnastics, she likens it to being in the mob. “Once you get in, you don’t get out.” Born in Boston to an orthodontist dad and hairstylist and salon owner mom, Quinn only found gymnastics after she decided the best way to travel about a mall for a shopping trip with her mother was via cartwheels. She succeeded on equal parts dogged determination, moxie and verve, which make her equally well-suited to be the front-facing person for her sport.

“Spicy” is the word Memmel finally settles on to describe Quinn. The descriptor relayed back to her, Quinn nods in approval but adds — “Chellsie can get spicy, too, if she needs to. I’ve seen it.”

They grew up in the sport in lockstep, albeit via different routes. Memmel stayed the traditional elite course, where she grew into an excellent all-arounder (she won the 2005 world championship gold medal) before a rash of injuries conspired to chronically mess with her timeline. Quinn developed into a floor and vault event specialist and took what was then an unorthodox turn when she opted to compete for Brown University and still train at the elite level.

They crossed paths frequently in the small community that is top-flight gymnastics, and in 2004, shared a room for the first time — at the World Cup in Birmingham, England, where Memmel won uneven bars and Quinn the vault. Quinn also was part of that 2005 world championship team — she won a gold on floor and took third in vault — and in 2008, they both were named to the Olympic team.

It is both their wildly opposing personalities and those shared experiences that prepared them for their current gigs. When Memmel frets, lost in rabbit holes of possible meet outcomes and their potential effects on team selection scenarios, Quinn yanks her out and reminds her to let things be. When Quinn flies off the handle, Memmel restores calm. They have, at times, needed both.


Selecting a team does not earn anyone popularity points, and more than once Quinn has fielded calls from angry coaches, distraught that their gymnast didn’t make a cut. She uses Memmel’s measured approach when she can, but she’s smart enough to know when someone is trying to bully her. Memmel and Quinn acknowledge they are young, they are new, and they do not know all of the answers.

That does not mean they’ll be pushed around. When the measured Memmel approach doesn’t work, Quinn isn’t afraid to use a little Sacramone Italian flair. “I have no problem telling someone that they’re not going to talk to me like that and if they don’t stop, I’m going to hang up and we can continue this conversation at another time,” she says. “I know I’m young. I know I may not have as much experience as someone on the coaching side, but you’re not going to disrespect me because I’m younger.”

Memmel and Quinn have, in a lot of ways, more experience than most of the coaches they’re dealing with, especially when it comes to the nuances of the national team and its antiquated system.

At the 2008 Olympic trials, Shawn Johnson and Nastia Liukin finished 1-2 in the all-around, cementing their previously presumed spots on the Beijing teams. Memmel slotted behind them in third and also finished second on uneven bars, her signature event. Quinn took second only to Johnson on vault and fourth on floor, her specialist apparatus.

Neither, however, left Philadelphia as members of Team USA. They didn’t secure their positions on the six-person team until a month later, when they competed in an invitation-only, all-or-nothing meet at the Karolyi Ranch in Texas.

Because that is the way Marta Karolyi, the national team coordinator, wanted it and that is how USA Gymnastics operated. From 1999 until 2021, elite gymnastic decisions wrested at the discretion of one person — first Bela Karolyi (1999-2000), then his wife, Marta (2001-2016), followed by Valeri Liukin (2016-18) and finally Tom Forster (2018-2021). The national team coordinator essentially chose the team based on his or her standards and preferences. Marta Karolyi, it was long rumored, would nix an athlete if they fell so much as once during a selection competition.

Neither had the Olympic experience they envisioned. Designated to compete on all four events in the team final, Memmel instead was rendered a bars specialist after injuring her ankle days before competition. It was only after the meet that Memmel explained that her “minor” ankle injury was, in fact, a broken ankle. Quinn, in the meantime, fell on both the beam and the floor, and when China overtook the U.S. for gold, she largely blamed herself.


“We didn’t come back with the color medal we wanted,” Memmel says. “And it took me a long time to be able to look back and be fully proud of what we did. It’s taken many years — not just one or two — to be able to say, ‘Look at what you did. You were still able to do it.’”

Still, Memmel and Quinn believe they were the “lucky” ones. Mercifully, neither was part of the cycle of abuse exposed during and after the Larry Nassar investigation. That reckoning not only led to Nassar’s imprisonment and the exposure of others, but called into question the wisdom of allowing one person to wield so much power.

In 2021, after Forster resigned, USA Gymnastics officially decentralized control. They turned the one-person job into three, creating strategy, technical and developmental directors (Dan Baker is the third member of the current team), and then subcontracted it even further, appointing a three-person selection committee to fill out competition rosters (the top finishing all-arounders automatically qualify).

It was already better under Forster. That Simone Biles could own up to and ultimately remove herself from competition because of the twisties is progress. But he did not always communicate well, and Memmel and Quinn believe that it is as much the minuscule, seemingly inconsequential, mistakes that ultimately led to the fracturing of the old system as much as the more global problems.

Gymnasts, quite simply, weren’t considered. They were the cogs in the very successful gymnastics machine, told when to show up, and what to do, with little thought about what they wanted to do and almost no explanation as to why they had to do it.

Team mealtimes, for example, were set without any input from the athletes about when best to fuel their bodies. Quinn and Memmel ask their gymnasts before cementing competition schedules. Under the old regime, little to no time was spent with the athletes individually to understand their personalities, their quirks and their fears. Upon getting their jobs a year ago, Quinn and Memmel set up individual meetings with each gymnast and her personal coach.

Microaggressions left unchecked led to major inflection points. Unlike similar individualized sports, such as swimming and track, gymnasts compete for a team medal. That team, however, is composed of individuals trying to win their own medals, too, and to do that they have to beat each other while simultaneously winning for their country. Consequently, Quinn, who witnessed the infighting firsthand, intends to make team dynamics and chemistry an immediate focus.


“Our sport was stuck in its ways for so long,” Quinn says. “We’re finally modernizing and progressing to take things like nutrition and mental health into consideration, things that were shoved to the wayside or viewed as unimportant before. It was always like, ‘We’re winning, why fix it? Is it broken?’ Well, yes. It was. And it still could be better.”

They have one of Team USA's toughest jobs: Picking Simone Biles' Olympics teammates (1)

Alicia Sacramone Quinn understands the demands and expectations required of an Olympic gymnast. (Ronald Martinez / Getty Images)

This is going to be hard. Of the 16 women in Minneapolis this weekend, four were on the Tokyo Olympic team (and Kayla DiCello was an alternate) and five others on the most recent world championship squad. “We could send a B or C team and still do well,” Quinn says.

But building an Olympic team is complicated; it’s not as simple as picking the five best all-around athletes. The Olympics run off the “three up, three count” format — meaning each team sends three athletes to each apparatus for team competition, and all three scores count. Specialists, in other words, matter. Despite the wealth of talent and experience at trials, there are, besides Biles, no obvious choices.

Shilese Jones, widely considered the other most likely all-around candidate, withdrew from the U.S. Championships last month with an injured shoulder (she tore her labrum in 2022). Sunisa Lee is the defending gold medalist in the all-around, but she’s been fighting the lingering effects of a kidney disease. Jordan Chiles fell on both floor and beam at championships, and Skye Blakely, while solid at that meet, stumbled elsewhere. DiCello is generally solid in all four events, but Jade Carey likely will perform skills on floor and vault that no other athlete will attempt.

This is not a test. There are no right or wrong answers. Just incredibly difficult choices. The U.S. won gold in 2012 and 2016 and silver in 2020. Without Russia this year, the Americans will be heavily favored again. “It is a ton of pressure,” Memmel says. “An incredible amount of pressure.”

If anything has caught both women by surprise in their new jobs, it is how emotionally fraught selections are. As athletes, they felt it singularly; they wanted to make the team. Now they’ve spent months watching 16 women at various camps and competitions who all want to make the team. Memmel likens it to watching her own daughter compete. “Only this isn’t Level 3,” she laughs.

Adds Quinn: “I’m like everyone’s crazy aunt. I want them all to do well. I try to stress to them that this is going to be one of the hardest things you’re ever going to do, and more than half of you will be disappointed. It kills me, but I want them to know this is only one step on their journey, one page in their book.”

In other words, Memmel and Quinn get it.

(Illustration: Dan Goldfarb / The Athletic; photos: Tim Clayton, Xavier Laine, Aric Becker / Getty Images)

They have one of Team USA's toughest jobs: Picking Simone Biles' Olympics teammates (2024)
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