Finally, my thoughts are in enough order to discuss the U.S. women. I’m not going to rehash everything that happened at the U.S. Championships last week and I’m not going to argue #Mashton to death.
Instead, what I will do here is use nationals to play Martha Karolyi a little bit in an effort to preview this week’s Olympic Trials. I’ll discuss several of the best options for the team, each gymnast’s chances at making the team, where they’ll fit if they do make it, and what they’ll need to prove to Karolyi if they haven’t done so already.
If you missed nationals, or just casually googled gymnastics and somehow ended up here, the gist of the competition can be summed up here:
- Simone Biles won because Simone Biles wins everything and we’re not worthy of breathing the same air as a woman who is singlehandedly dismantling everyone’s dreams with her perfection (and even when she isn’t perfect – like on the second day of competition where her legs kind of gave out on beam causing her to only score a 15.1).
- If Aly Raisman was a question mark for the team after her performances at worlds, Jesolo, and Pac Rims, she showed a boost in confidence at the U.S. Classic earlier in June and then at nationals, asserted herself as a lock on the team. It’s 2012 Aly Raisman all over again and I actually cry almost every single time she competes because that’s normal.
- Newcomer Laurie Hernandez shut out the reigning Olympic champion Gabby Douglas for bronze, with Douglas muddling through a few of her routines this weekend while Hernandez was like “What back-to-back injuries? What pressure?” and placed in the top three on everything but vault.
- Madison Kocian and Ashton Locklear continue to be exactly the same person, with the exception that Locklear is like two tenths better in terms of her bars execution while Kocian is two tenths better in terms of her difficulty. Kocian also came back on vault and floor, proving to Martha Karolyi that she has something to offer the team in a just-in-case situation, which actually happened in 2012 when Kyla Ross had to step in as a last-minute replacement on floor. Karolyi is #TeamMadison.
- We saw a return from Maggie Nichols on bars and beam, the two events on which she’ll least be expected to contribute, though she trained vault and floor and is planning on bringing her Amanar back for trials.
Following the competition, Karolyi didn’t officially name anyone to the team, though she pretty much flat out said that Biles, Raisman, Hernandez, Douglas, and Kocian are looking the best for it. And I agree, especially with the first four, even though Douglas still hasn’t shown yet this summer that she’s at the top of her game. As usual, her competition this early on looked a bit uninspired, though after she made a mistake on bars during the second night, she came back with a menacing beam set and it’s how I want her to perform always. Last year, Douglas placed fifth at nationals and went on to win the silver all-around medal at worlds, and in 2012, she was about 75% of the gymnast she was just two weeks later at trials, so I question those who are so willing to count her out this early. She’ll get there. It’s her M.O.
I also think there could be a little shake-up with the fifth spot. Well, actually, I don’t really, because Karolyi has said her team hasn’t changed in months and if that’s the case, one more meet won’t change her mind. But my alternative team doesn’t include Kocian and instead considers Nichols in her 2015 worlds shape as someone who can more evenly balance out the team, so I’d like to talk about that. With Kocian, a problem comes up with who competes in the all-around in qualifications. But Nichols on the team in a vault and floor specialist role leaves the other spots open to three all-arounders and one bars and beam specialist, making it an equal distribution that would be perfect…if only the team had a legitimate Kyla Ross-esque bars and beam specialist. Because as good as Kocian is at bars, the beam hole is a problem. If she goes, you essentially need someone to cover everything but bars.
With Biles obviously competing all four events in qualifications, the two remaining all-around spots are between Raisman, Hernandez, and Douglas. Based on the competition at nationals, Raisman and Hernandez have fully earned those spots, but you never know what Douglas will bring to the table at trials, so she – plus Nichols’ readiness – are the wildcards. If Douglas shows up and comes within a few tenths of the other two both days, you can honestly justify any of them for the two spots, though what most don’t consider is that the business side of the sport does actually come into play for decisions like these, putting Raisman and Douglas one step ahead of the new kid Hernandez, who is on the NCAA track and won’t pull in endorsements and sponsors with her finish in Rio. It sounds crazy, but for real, this sport is a huge business, especially in the Olympic year. If these three are on the same page and it doesn’t really matter who competes all four because they’re equally good, money and marketability could be the deciding factor.
On a team with Kocian, this would take Hernandez out on bars, where she stands to bring in one of the strongest scores, but on a team with Nichols, Hernandez moves into that bars/beam specialist role, which is fitting when you think about it…while floor is her showy event, she’s not particularly as high-scoring there, but could bring in great scores if needed.
But okay. Both Kocian and Hernandez defeated Douglas on bars at nationals, so…what does it look like if Douglas is the one in this trio to come out? In this scenario, beam suffers a bit in qualifications with Kocian going up, sure, but it’s only qualifications…and Kocian did a fine enough job at worlds qualifications on the event last year, actually outscoring Douglas, who fell. So maybe the ideal choice would be to remove Douglas from the picture. What would a team that features Biles, Raisman, and Hernandez in the all-around, Nichols on vault and floor, and Kocian on bars and beam be able to accomplish compared to teams that feature Douglas but scrap either Nichols or Kocian?
Here are a few of the scenarios below, using averages of all meets from fall 2015 until the present day. The first three listed in each scenario are the all-arounders, and I included both qualification and team final scores. Note that qualifications are actually four-up three-count but I included the fourth score so you can see what the drop is like between the two (if you subtract the second score from the first, that’s the number dropped).
|Biles, Raisman, Douglas, Hernandez, Kocian||61.368
|Biles, Raisman, Douglas, Hernandez, Nichols||61.856
|Biles, Raisman, Hernandez, Nichols, Kocian||61.623
Now again, remember that this is assuming that Nichols is at her 2015 worlds shape on vault and floor, which she might not be, and that Douglas is going to look the way she did at nationals, which as we all know can change. Team two, with healthy Nichols over Kocian, picks up a few tenths in qualifications but finishes half a tenth behind in team finals, which is nothing. Either could go and be fine, with the difference being that Kocian can realistically challenge for a medal on bars while Nichols doesn’t have a standout medal event.
But neither does Douglas, really, unless her bars really improve. The scenario with no Douglas means the team final score could improve by nearly half a point, using specialists to maximize on not just one event, but three. If I was in charge of picking the team right this second, I’d take that last option and it’s nothing to do with Douglas looking weaker than usual. My reasoning has more to do with the fact that it’s difficult to justify where she’d go up in a team final situation aside from bars (and even then, Biles has been just a tenth away from her on average).
Douglas is pretty much equally fantastic across the board, with that little boost on bars, but in general when it comes to top three routines, she doesn’t really make that happen. Or at least hasn’t made that happen yet this year. Using the six biggest team contenders above, here’s where they stand on each event, based on averages. You’ll see that bringing Douglas is akin to bringing a second bars specialist whereas Nichols would contribute on both vault and floor in a team final situation.
Unless, of course, Nichols isn’t fully back while Douglas comes out at trials and murders her events, hits an Amanar, and blows everyone away. This makes her a leading contender, actually, someone who can contribute routines on pretty much every event like she did in London. That’s the Douglas I want to see in San Jose this weekend and I think that’s who Karolyi wants to see as well. It would also be pretty controversial for Karolyi to leave Douglas behind based on how well she’s done this quad, and like I said, there’s always that business aspect to consider. I don’t think Karolyi will give Douglas the axe for Nichols, unless Nichols shows up in the shape she was in last October and makes things tricky. But I do think it’s something to consider when analyzing the team puzzle as a whole, given how much depth this country has.
Are you wondering about Locklear? Seriously, insert her into any of those Kocian spots above and she seamlessly creeps right on in with almost no change. The one difference, again, is the whole “she doesn’t train two events” aspect, which Karolyi absolutely has noticed and is taking into consideration.
You can also consider a team with Biles, Raisman, and Hernandez plus both bars specialists, which comes in at about 183.330, the second-best of these scenarios. But while it’s quantitatively a good team, you have literally no back-up if one of the three all-arounders were to get injured, meaning Kocian would go up on all four events in team finals. Sure, they could probably still win, but it’s not ideal and we all know Karolyi isn’t exactly a fan of throwing out risks of that magnitude.
Now begs the question does it really matter whether this team scores a 183.407 or a 182.985? Will those five tenths matter when the team that can come closest is likely to finish several points back? China looks fantastic right now, but they won’t get within half a point of the U.S. team unless the Americans count a couple of falls, at least. But seriously, in looking at all of these team scenarios, the one thing jumping out in my mind is that as long as this team has a strong core, the fifth spot can go to literally any of the 14 competing at trials and the U.S. would still come out on top.
By the way, like Biles and Raisman, there’s no way Hernandez gets left behind in any scenario. For those of you who are huge fans of the 16-year-old kid from New Jersey who first wowed the crowd with her sassy floor routine at twelve, she will be on this team barring major drama or injury. Commentators have called her out for her bars and floor, but actually her beam – consistently second to Biles on the event all season long – is what gets her plane ticket to Rio scanned. It was the weakest for the U.S. women at worlds last year, and had she been eligible to compete in Glasgow, she would’ve added at least a half point to the overall team total. It helps, of course, that her bars are fantastic and she’s brilliant to watch on floor, but this kid is absolutely 100% going for beam.
Now for the rest. I think among the seven I haven’t covered, MyKayla Skinner and Ragan Smith stand out as next “most likely to make the team” even if I don’t see it happening at all this year. Skinner is a huge loss, with a potential medal on the line, similar to the position Alicia Sacramone found herself in four years ago. She could conceivably fit into one of the Nichols spots above, and actually gets a boost above Nichols because of that medal potential, but I don’t see her floor – while looking better – as strong enough to make her a legitimate option. The fact is that someone like Douglas scores similarly enough on both events so while Skinner wins out on the potential vault medal, Karolyi prefers consistent all-arounders and makes the team a priority over individual medals, which gives Skinner a disadvantage (though if this was a six-member team, she’d be my sixth member in a heartbeat).
Smith, on the other hand, was a big name coming into nationals and only fell a bit in people’s minds because of her rough first day of competition, where mistakes on her two best events left her lagging behind. She came into this season like a mini Raisman, shining on beam and floor and I’d actually say her beam might be stronger than Raisman’s as a total package. But what she lacks – in addition to a strong enough vault for team finals – is the confidence that Raisman has brought back into the mix. She showed at nationals that she’s still very much a kid just excited to be here, even if she has the skills and the talent.
Then there’s my secret favorite, Amelia Hundley. I can go on for years about Hundley, who emerged at 12 as the kind of junior elite you’d think would spend a couple of years trying to work her way up the ranks before quietly moving back to level 10. But even in the shadow of teammate Lexie Priessman, Hundley managed to assert herself as one of the top juniors in the country, earning assignments that took her well into her senior career, even despite growth spurts and injuries. At 18, Hundley is in her seventh season as an elite with six years of international experience under her belt, and while she’s never been “the best of the best,” she showed at nationals that she should absolutely be in the running for an alternate spot thanks to her incredible consistency and maturity.
As for the remaining four – Rachel Gowey, Brenna Dowell, Christina Desiderio, and Emily Schild – I don’t think any will really fit into the picture, though Gowey and Dowell could have had things worked out a little differently for them. In this talk about a bars/beam specialist, Gowey looked like she might be working her way up to something big based on what we saw last summer, but just hasn’t been able to bring what the team could use at the Olympic level, whereas Dowell has the skills but hasn’t yet shown the mental toughness needed to make her reliable.
The other two are basically lucky to be here, and will hopefully enjoy the experience without any of the pressure that comes with trying to make the team. Being that far behind and without any events to really contribute, they must know the reality of their situation, and hopefully they approach it like Kennedy Baker did in 2012. Baker seemed to be having the most fun at trials, not attempting to make it to London but rather doing her best, hitting her routines, and walking away proud and happy with a job well done.
Desiderio’s inclusion here means her gym, Parkettes, has placed an athlete at trials every Olympic cycle for 40 years, and with Schild on the roster, it means Everest – a gym that I don’t think has ever been to trials before – will have the most gymnasts competing in San Jose this weekend. Watch for Desiderio’s powerful tumbling on floor and her grace on beam, and keep an eye out for the tiny Schild’s big DTYs and clean, difficult bars.
I overwhelmed myself with this post, so I apologize. But I’m sure Karolyi has been through similar thought processes and it’s always fun to analyze what different combinations of people could pull it off, though everyone is so impossibly close, it almost doesn’t matter. Even with all of my numbers and scheming and strategizing, I still think the team that will represent in Rio is going to include Biles, Raisman, Douglas, Hernandez, and Kocian, unless Nichols comes in and makes herself impossible to ignore. But no matter who ends up going, this group is crazy deep and the lowest-ranked finisher this weekend would be more than welcome on pretty much any other team in the world.
I hope you enjoy the suspense and drama of the announcement and come Sunday, I’m sure we’ll all be crying together along with the girls. Especially Raisman. I am so prepared for a good old fashioned 2012-style ugly cry.
Article by Lauren Hopkins