Back in 2012, the Olympic team decision was bittersweet. Five fantastic gymnasts were named and sent to London, but a bevy of other hopefuls – some of whom were worthy of event medal podiums – were left behind.
Depth is a great problem to have, but if we thought it was a problem three years ago, we were in for a major awakening. The depth now – a year before the Olympic Games – is unbelievable. Let’s just take a peek at how insane it is.
Several gymnasts with 15+ routines were left off of the national team, as were gymnasts who have gone 57+ in international all-around meets. Thinking back to four years ago, only one senior breached 59, seven were unable to break 55, and the average score for those in the top 10 was 56.255. Now, five are consistently hitting 59 or higher, only one all-arounder in the entire two days of competition scored under 55, and the top ten average is 58.76. The silver medalist in 2011 would’ve placed 10th with her routines this year. And there are still three highly competitive junior women to add into the mix next year.
I don’t envy national team coordinator Martha Karolyi this year. Or next year. There are roughly five billion possible team scenarios that could make sense for Glasgow, and it’s at the point where it doesn’t even matter who goes. The U.S. women are going to win no matter what. It’s just a matter of by how much.
Let’s start with Simone Biles. She didn’t have the best performance on day one, making a mistake on beam and then shockingly sitting her final pass on floor. But on day two? She was at her best. Posting a 63 in the all-around, the highest since the code changes came into effect in 2009, Biles shattered her own record of 62.4 set at the U.S. Classic two weeks prior.
You can talk about domestic over-scoring and stick bonuses all you want, and you’re right – she probably won’t get a 63 at Worlds. But that doesn’t change the fact that Biles is a beast. With a near-perfect Amanar, the strongest beam and floor routines on earth, and her comparatively ‘weak’ bar routine on par with many who consider it their best event, she is absolutely unstoppable. Her combination of difficulty and execution simply can’t be matched, she brings a performance value to her routines that goes above and beyond, and honestly, at this point I’ve run out of good things to say about her that haven’t already been said. We are watching a legend in her prime and will look back on this in 20 years the same way we look at Nadia Comaneci. Embrace it.
While no one in the U.S. can come close to touching Biles, there are four women who have bounced back and forth in the second through fifth spots in the rankings this summer – Maggie Nichols, Aly Raisman, Bailie Key, and Gabby Douglas, in order of how they finished on the P&G Championships podium.
But this ranking doesn’t even matter, because it’s going to be different each time. At Classics, it was Douglas-Nichols-Key-Raisman. On day one, it was Nichols-Douglas-Raisman-Key. On day two, it was Raisman-Key-Nichols-Douglas. The four were within about a point of each other considering their two-day scores at nationals, and on day one, Douglas, Raisman, and Key were separated by a tenth. These four have created the most competitive bubble of excellence in the world, and the true all-around battle at Worlds this year will be between them fighting for a finals spot in qualifications, not the actual all-around final itself.
That’s assuming they all do the all-around in qualifications, which is a possibility. In 2011, Karolyi sent all five all-arounders to the floor at Worlds out of necessity when Alicia Sacramone was injured and Anna Li wasn’t able to take over due to a minor injury of her own. This year, it could be an option just to create the most competitive possible atmosphere in the lead-up to Rio. Of these four, there isn’t anyone I’d want to eliminate from the all-around picture simply to get an extra few tenths added into the team score, so it could be a very realistic situation going into Worlds.
Of these four, I think Raisman at her full ability with no mistakes is the one with the most potential to earn the second U.S. finals spot at Worlds, especially if she’s using the next month to perfect her Amanar. Her landing was still a bit scary there on night two at nationals, but she hit bars, and then had great execution on both beam and floor, winning the event title for the latter (though in interviews, she was the first to say the title would’ve gone to Biles had Biles hit on night one).
Raisman took out some of her trickier connections on beam on night two, like the split jump out of her flight series that caused problems the first time around. “I didn’t tell Mihai [about these plans],” she admitted after the meet. “I thought if I kept it simple, I’d feel more confident, and I only lost three tenths in difficulty, so it wasn’t a big deal.” And while her floor isn’t quite at Biles’ level, it’s still easily the second best in the country with supreme tumbling and one of the most fun performances to watch – there’s nothing like the crowd clapping along. Now that she seems more comfortable with her routines, the focus can go back to adding in the little things that will turn her from great to amazing, something I’m fully confident will happen by Worlds.
I think Key is the most underrated of these four. She’s definitely a bit more in the shadows, which as I’ve said before is probably the best thing for her – it allows her to compete without as much pressure from the media and the fans. The fact that she placed third on the second night of competition with a huge score of 59.75 is very telling, as is the fact that she finished in the top three on her two best events, bars and floor…which just so happen to be the two events the team needs a bit of help on at Worlds.
After the competition, Key said she was proud of her strong finish, and was especially happy to see people responded well to her floor routine. “I’ve really been trying to bust out of my shell and stop being shy,” she added, and said she thought the leo choices – however unusual – really helped her get into character for her routine. That, and she was thrilled to pay tribute to coach Kim Zmeskal-Burdette on night one. “It really meant a lot to Kim.”
Nichols and Douglas are interesting figures in the Worlds picture, because while they boast two of the top all-around scores in the country, they lack routines in the top three. Douglas shines on bars, but isn’t quite at a specialist level, and the same goes for Nichols, who has big routines on bars and floor but is deducted quite a bit in terms of execution. That said, neither is SO far out of the top three that it makes much of a difference; it’s not as though Karolyi would have to ‘settle’ for 10th best on either event. But if Karolyi’s aim is to take the absolute best on each event rather than the strongest all-arounders, it would mean Nichols and Douglas might not be top choices.
Madison Kocian, Alyssa Baumann, and MyKayla Skinner didn’t make the top five all-around, but all fall under the top seven, and each picked up an event medal for her strongest routines – Kocian on bars, Baumann on beam, and Skinner on vault and floor. If you want to go with the absolute best, you’d have to consider these three as well as Ashton Locklear for bars and then of course, Kyla Ross for beam (and then bars as well if she begins hitting at selection camp).
Personally, I’d be happy with the top five and no one else. Yay exclusivity! But I can’t ignore others who fit in somehow. Like, look at how incredible Kocian has been on bars this summer. She took off so much time after Worlds it was hard to gauge where she’d be at Classics, but no need to worry – she was phenomenal and carried that same ability and beauty right over to nationals, averaging 15.567 over her three performances this summer. Sure, it’s a little higher than she might get on the Worlds stage, but no one in the country can match her there right now. How do you leave someone like that behind?
But how do you leave ANY of them behind? Skinner with her medal-worthy vaults, Locklear and Baumann with their beautiful work on bars and beam (respectively), Ross with everything she’s done for the program over the past three years, even Nia Dennis with her newfound consistency and huge DTY…that’s the question I keep going back to whenever I try to make a case for someone or justify someone else. Anyone in the top ten could go to Glasgow and be a major asset to the team. This team is up to my eyeballs in depth and it’s killing me slowly, one day at a time, knowing world class gymnasts worthy of individual medal podiums are going to be left at home.
The next women’s national team camp will be held from September 12 through September 16, and then the Worlds training squad – featuring the national team in addition to Locklear, Rachel Gowey, Amelia Hundley, Brenna Dowell, and Madison Desch – will reconvene from October 6 through October 9, where seven gymnasts (six team members plus an alternate) will be selected for competition in Glasgow.
Whatever the decision is will be the ‘right’ decision. You can justify pretty much any of these women for a spot and not be ‘wrong’ about it. This isn’t like previous years when there was a clear group of six or seven and then ‘everyone else.’ And with Karolyi stating that the selection camp will be the most important determinant in terms of who will go, there’s still a big chance that gymnasts who may have under-performed in Indianapolis – like Ross – can still make themselves contenders for this team.
I know who I’d bring and who I’d have compete on each event, but I could also swap out at least three of my options for women who are equally valuable and necessary, so even the most educated guesses this year could end up being totally wrong. I’d love to sneak into Karolyi’s head for a minute to see what exactly she wants most, because that’s going to be the group that goes.
It’s not necessarily about the ‘best’ anymore, or even having just one event that fits perfectly into the puzzle. Everyone’s the best and everyone fits. Now it’s a matter of what Karolyi thinks is most important, which could be anything – using five members to get in the mood for 2016, grabbing an extra medal from a specialist like Skinner, testing someone who may not be at the top right now but shows promise for next year (a la Douglas’ own path in 2011)…anything’s possible and I’m so excited about literally everything this team has going for them, no matter who ends up making it to Glasgow. The U.S. women have no competition but themselves. It’s an incredible time to be a gymnastics fan in this country.
Article by Lauren Hopkins