Hazley Rivera has what the US Olympic gymnastics team needs for Paris

MINNEAPOLIS — When Hazley Rivera arrived at the arena for the most important competition of her career, a member of the U.S. High Performance staff asked her if she was feeling nervous.

“No,” the 16-year-old said matter-of-factly before the final night of the US Olympic gymnastics trials. Then Rivera looked at Alicia Sacramone Quinn, who was wearing a bright red dress and matching lipstick, and said: “By the way, you look good.”

Rivera kept her calm demeanor over the next several hours and reached the highest point of her sport. She entered the trials as the “underdog.” She is going in as an Olympian.

Rivera joins four former Olympians on the U.S. women's gymnastics team heading to Paris this month. Simone Biles, Sunisa Lee, Jade Carey and Jordan Chiles have won a combined total of 55 medals at world championships and Olympics. When Rivera thought about her Olympic teammates' accomplishments, she admitted, “I can't believe I'm even a part of this team.”

But Rivera earned his spot by performing so well that selection committee member Quinn said determining the five-man team was “a pretty easy decision.”

Rivera took the lead in the trials because the trials were affected by injuries to the top three athletes. Shilese Jones, Skye Blakely, and Kayla DiCello were forced to withdraw from the trials, giving room for several less experienced athletes like Rivera.

Biles placed first at the trials, earning her the only automatic berth; the selection committee chose the other four athletes. With the field thinned because of injuries, all four Tokyo Olympians seemed almost certainly bound for Paris, leaving one spot 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.

Over the two-day national championships and both nights of the Olympic trials, Rivera has scored at least 13.700 points on all four bars and beam routines. She went into Sunday's competition knowing those events were the most important to her Olympic hopes, and then she demonstrated her ability under pressure. Rivera opened the meet by slamming through a difficult routine on bars with superb execution and scored 14.300 points, a mark that only Lee could surpass. On beam, she was precise and steady — while gymnasts like Biles, Lee and Chiles all fell — and she scored 14.275, the best score of the evening on that apparatus.

Rivera's impressive showing at nationals four weeks ago only added to his performance. Other participants at the trials could not match the role Rivera had on the team.

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

In the qualifying round of the Olympics, the US team will need four gymnasts to perform on each apparatus. Biles, Lee and Chiles will likely compete in the all-around, while Carey, who excels on vault and floor, and Rivera will complement each other to fill the remaining spots.

This roster includes the top five finishers from the Olympic Trials, but more importantly, all the players fit together in a way that maximizes the team score. Jocelyn Roberson and Tiana Sumanasekara also made this list because of their strong performances on beam at Trials, but they are less likely to score on bars. They are both strong on floor, but the four Tokyo Olympians are strong as well. Leanne Wong scored at least 13.900 on bars twice at Trials, but her beam scores were not as high.

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

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

Even if Rivera won the junior national all-around title in 2023, this Olympic berth seemed unlikely, especially given the expected depth of the field as many U.S. gymnasts continue their elite careers into their 20s. At the U.S. Classic in mid-May, Rivera finished 24th in the all-around after a poor performance marred by mistakes. She withdrew from nationals, but still entered the trials to try to make the team.

“She was always someone you kept an eye on because she had potential,” Quinn said. “And she was somehow finding her way. It's very difficult to go from junior to senior. … But the way the cards fell this week, she really got a big opportunity.”

Rivera, who turned 16 in early June, initially saw these trials as a “stepping stone” with the 2028 Olympic Games being her best chance to make the Olympic team. She thought she had a “slight chance” of making the Paris team, 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? Oh my god! She's so young. She's so cute. She's so smart. She's beautiful. We're so proud of her for joining this team, and we're so excited to teach her everything. At least she won't have to do it all alone. Her four experienced players have been there before.”

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