When Juda and four other U.S. gymnasts traveled to the Pan American Championships last month, Team USA had qualified a four-member men’s team to the Tokyo Games. Countries could earn up to two additional individual spots for athletes who will compete with a chance to earn medals but won’t contribute to the team score, and the United States had yet to secure either of those spots. The international competition in Rio de Janeiro served as the final opportunity to do so, and Juda’s second-place finish earned an additional Olympic berth for Team USA.
“Knowing that I had that to bring home was an unbelievable honor,” Juda said. “Olympics or not, that made my year.”
The gymnast who filled that slot wasn’t determined until the trials a few weeks later. Juda competed at the selection event and didn’t earn one of the five Olympic spots. So the 20-year-old is back in Ann Arbor, Mich., training while the U.S. men compete in Tokyo. Alec Yoder filled the spot that wouldn’t have existed if not for Juda’s performance, and he hopes to win a medal on the pommel horse.
Before the trials, Tim Daggett, a 1984 Olympic gold medalist who’s now a commentator for NBC, asked Juda about his Olympic dreams, then said, “So how does it feel that you just made someone else’s dream possible?” Juda still gets chills when he thinks about his accomplishment in that light. And he laughs at the irony that a Michigan gymnast earned the spot eventually given to Yoder, a graduate of rival Ohio State.
The selection committee prioritized all-arounders when choosing the four-member team. The individual spot favored athletes who excel on specific apparatuses and could increase Team USA’s medal potential. Juda knew he didn’t fit that mold.
But to earn that spot, the United States needed a top-two finish in the all-around competition at the Pan American Championships. Some national team members thought the person who won the spot deserved to keep it, Juda said, but from the get-go, he didn’t expect the Olympic berth to be his.
“Let’s be honest here: I’m not going to get a medal this Olympic Games,” said Juda, who placed sixth on the floor and the parallel bars at the trials. “I know it. I’ll be the first one to admit it. A miracle — 10 miracles — would have to happen in order for me to get into even an event final. And so it would be kind of selfish for me to say, ‘Oh, they should have given me this spot.’ ”
Because those specialists often perform on just an apparatus or two in competitions, they couldn’t go to Brazil to deliver the needed all-around result.
So after Juda clinched the spot, Yoder messaged him: “YOU BLOODY LEGEND!!!!!!!”
Eddie Penev, a floor and vault specialist who was in contention to earn the spot but injured his knee before the trials, told Juda he was “keeping dreams alive.”
Yoder and fellow pommel horse specialist Stephen Nedoroscik emerged as front-runners to win the spot. Nedoroscik edged Yoder at nationals earlier in the summer, but he fell during the first night of the trials. Yoder hit his pommel horse set on both days of competition and was named to the Olympic team. Alex Diab, a rings specialist, was chosen as an alternate.
Yoder, 24, finished third in the all-around at the 2014 Youth Olympic Games, but in recent years, he’s mostly collected medals on the pommel horse. For Tokyo, it didn’t matter whether he could contribute on multiple apparatuses in the team competition; the selection committee wanted an individual athlete who might win a medal. Yoder scored a 15.050 on the pommel horse during the first night of the trials, and even though results aren’t perfectly comparable across competitions, he would have landed in fourth with that mark at the most recent world championships.
The pool of athletes who were willing to go to the Pan American Championships was “very small,” Juda said. The competition coincided with the U.S. championships, and Brazil had struggled to contain the coronavirus. Most gymnasts qualified for the trials through the U.S. championships, but the national team staff decided all athletes who traveled to the Pan American Championships would qualify as well.
Juda felt safe because he was vaccinated, and once he heard about the automatic qualification for the trials, he said, “That sounds like a free ticket, and I want the free ticket because I might not have the best chance to make the Olympic team, but I will be very upset if I don’t make the Olympic trials.”
Juda struggled in training before the competition. He felt tired from the NCAA season and hadn’t taken a break. But after he performed well when it mattered, he remembers his coach, Yuan Xiao, saying: “Doesn’t this one taste so much better? … You were at the bottom, man.”
Juda, a rising junior at Michigan and the 2021 Big Ten gymnast of the year, still has much of his career ahead of him. He believed he had a shot to make this year’s Olympic team, particularly after an additional year to improve, but he finished eighth at the trials and wasn’t named to the team that also included five alternates. While at the St. Louis airport before his flight home, he started a countdown to the 2024 trials.
“Because I knew exactly where I wished I was,” Juda said. “I wished that I wasn't on that plane home on that day. I wished that I was staying for another day [for the pre-Olympics meetings].”
Some athletes and coaches thought the gymnast who clinched the plus-one spot would automatically receive a funded spot on the national team. But those 12 slots were allocated first to Olympic team members and then to those who accepted invitations to world championships trials, as outlined by the selection procedure. Juda would have been the first to earn a spot under the third criteria, but all spots had been filled. This funding helps athletes, even those still in college, pay for training expenses. Juda was disappointed not to be invited to the world championships trials, and he said not receiving the national team funding has motivated him to earn one of those spots in the future.
A flag with the Olympic rings hangs on the wall in Juda’s room. On that flag, he added the paper numbers he wore on his back at the Winter Cup and at the trials — reminders of the meets in which he wished he had performed better. The mementos associated with positive memories are mostly stashed under his bed and in the closest.
Juda took off a couple of weeks after the trials. He relaxed with his family and enjoyed his birthday. Then he returned to Michigan to train. The countdown — still more than 1,000 days to go — reminds him how quickly time moves. Juda wants to help Team USA earn a team medal in Paris. But for now, he will watch these Games, and even though he’s in Ann Arbor instead of Tokyo, if Yoder wins a medal, he said, “it would give me a lot of validation that what I did was important.”