SAN JOSE — The tears and hugs flowed in the hallway of the SAP Center in San Jose Sunday night after a stressful 15 minutes that seemed to trump anything a balance beam could offer. “You just never know,” Gabby Douglas, the reigning Olympic all-around champion said after making her second Olympic team. “Your heart is either in your throat or its coming out of your chest. It’s just that everyone worked so hard for this, so hard. Once you know, it’s just . . .”
Douglas’ words trailed off, unable to finish what they started. At least now, her gymnastics can do what her sentence could not. The second day of the trials in San Jose meant something different to each of the five women named to the team after women’s program director Martha Karolyi emerged from a closed door meeting with her selection committee to tell the women who would be the five gymnasts competing on an immensely strong U.S. gymnastics team in Rio, who would act as the three alternates and who would go home.
For Simone Biles, the three-time defending world all-around champion, the day was a coronation that confirmed her place as the favorite to conquer the world in Rio in the all-around competition. She’ll be in all four events in the team competition, too. Biles has been the all-around favorite for some time, but she took her vault one step higher and farther on Sunday, landing an enormous distance from the horse with control, security and a 9.900 for execution. It’s just one of her two vaults that she would need in the individual competition—she’ll need an Amanar vault and a Cheng Fei vault, should she make it to apparatus finals—but nobody in the world vaults better than Biles, so she is likely the favorite on that event and on floor. She took a tumble off the beam, her first gaff in four days of nationals and trials competition. Still her respectable score (14.750) reflected the 6.00 difficulty that makes her a medal threat there, too. She parachutes out of her tumbling passes on floor. Honestly, there is no one thing that needs much work, and Biles’s coach Aimee Boorman said afterwards, her ace would be “counting the days to Rio. She’s been ready for this for a while.”
For Aly Raisman, a member of the Fierce Five and the reigning Olympic champion on floor, it was conformation that her comeback could beat the odds. Add a few years, a few pounds, a few aches and pains and the most well-intentioned comeback can turn to fantasy. Raisman had the Olympic medals and the promotional spoils, including a stint on Dancing with the Stars, but she bought into coach’s Mihai Brestyan’s intense conditioning program after a two-year post-London absence and increased the number of repetitions steadily during her workouts. Always a steady competitor, Raisman may be better than she was in 2012. Now she is the team captain with the nicknames “Grandma” and “Momma Bear” that could only make sense for a 22-year old in the gymnastics world. She earned her spot.
Laurie Hernandez is the new it-girl who Karolyi, the program director for the women’s team, loves to see emerge in an Olympic year. Hernandez is fearless and spunky, and her floor routine has an energy that riles up a crowd and draws them into her corner. Hernandez can perform in all four events, and with only two gymnasts per country permitted to qualify for the all-around final, there may be a battle between Raisman and Hernandez to see who joins Biles in the final.
Madison Kocian finished in a four-way tie for the gold medal on the uneven bars at the world championships in Glasgow last fall, but it may be Kocian’s ability to perform an acceptable beam or floor routine in a pinch that got her a spot on the team ahead of Ashton Locklear, another ace on bars, who made the U.S. team as an alternate. Locklear would be a contender for an individual medal on that event in Rio if teams could take an additional athlete—another testament to the depth of the U.S. gymnastics pool. Kocian’s strength on her best apparatus is not so much the skills, but the extension and precision. Many gymnasts fudge their handstands, leaving them just shy of vertical, so they can be sure to swing back in the right direction. Kocian takes her swings right up to the straight line without much hesitation. She has been a rock on that event for the past two years and she can give the team help in other places should the need arise.
For Douglas, the announcement of her name was a relief after a night that had highs and lows. On Friday, Douglas missed a horizontal leg hold full turn on beam and fell from an apparatus that hadn’t especially scared her in the past. On Sunday, she began with a solid effort on vault and bars, two events on which she can help the team. Then, she spilled from the beam again.
“No, no, no, it didn’t happen again,” she said afterwards. “Then I just had to get through it.”
She did. Douglas credited Karolyi for the pep talk she gave her after the weak competition on Friday. Earlier in the day, Douglas had a new face on the floor with her, having replaced Kittia Carpenter, her main coach from the Buckeye Gymnastics team with Christian Gallardo, another Buckeye coach, as her competition spotter and advisor. It wasn’t really a change, insisted Douglas, who seemed a misstep from panic and freefall. But it was definitely a more enthusiastic Douglas on Sunday even with the fall. And as one who has often pulled great competitions out from under ordinary training efforts, she was grateful for the second chance.
“I know I can do better,” she said. “I came back because I knew I could do better.”
Now the gymnasts will have a five-day break before a nine-day camp that will help Karolyi finalize the team lineup. She can use three of the five on each individual apparatus in the team final, essentially putting together complementary puzzle pieces that can allow the team to be strong on each event. The guess for the team lineup here looks like this: (Vault: Biles, Douglas, Raisman. Bars: Kocian, Biles, Douglas. Beam: Biles, Hernandez, Raisman. Floor: Biles, Raisman, Hernandez).
The team also named three alternates, each of who could sub into different events in case of injury: Locklear on bars, Ragan Smith on beam and MyKayla Skinner on floor or vault. In any case, the U.S. will be favored to jump, flip and twist away with a lion’s share of medals at the women’s gymnastics competition in Rio. They have gymnasts in the mix on each event, making this one of the strongest teams ever put together. Now with the trials complete, it is time to exhale and then get back to work.
“It’s taken so much to get here,” Raisman said. “That work will make us even more ready for Rio. If hard work means medals, I don’t think any team can outwork ours.”