There were really no surprises on the U.S. women’s gymnastics team, with national team coordinator Martha Karolyi selecting the five she’s had her eye on all year while going for the three alternates who best fit as replacement athletes for this particular group.
Ten-time world champion Simone Biles, 2012 Olympic all-around champion Gabrielle Douglas, 2012 Olympic floor champion Aly Raisman, 2015 world bars champion Madison Kocian, and newcomer Laurie Hernandez make up the five who will compete in Rio de Janeiro this August while world champions MyKayla Skinner and Ashton Locklear will serve as alternates alongside first-year senior Ragan Smith.
Karolyi told the press following the meet that her decision to go with Douglas – who fell on beam on both days of competition here to finish seventh all-around – was based on what she can do for the team on bars. The spot came between her and Locklear, though Locklear wasn’t as high on Karolyi’s list due to her inability to contribute on other events if needed.
With the U.S. team so far ahead of all other countries, the decision between one gymnast and another won’t make a huge difference in the overall outcome for the program, and Karolyi also justified her decision by speaking of Douglas’ potential to contribute more than what we’ve seen so far this summer based on how she generally tends to get into her best competition shape and mindset when a medal is on the line.
Frankly, when you have a team with the potential to win gold by more than five points, as the U.S. is poised to do in Rio, you have much more room to play, and can make decisions based on more than just numbers. I’ve discussed the business side of gymnastics decisions before, and while Douglas wouldn’t add that much more on bars than others would on their key events, it’s a good business decision to bring the reigning Olympic champion, who will hopefully be back in top fighting form so she can make the all-around final along with the reigning world champion. Even though it wouldn’t be as close between Douglas and Biles as the media might make it out to be, the story is a fantastic one, a once-in-a-lifetime dream Olympic Games narrative.
Personally, I would’ve also been happy with Skinner on the team. She came back from a disastrous beam performance at nationals to have the meet of a lifetime in San Jose, climbing slowly all season long to reach what is the pinnacle of her elite career, peaking right when she needs to and showing a tremendous confidence and passion for the sport with her smiling and fist-pumping and waving and dancing after all of her awesome routines. Skinner would more or less add the same on vault that Douglas could add with her bars, and with her difficulty level on vault, she’d be practically guaranteed a medal barring a fall, but this isn’t really more than Douglas would offer, while Douglas has the additional star power factor, which does matter.
It seems the whole country was rooting for Skinner, and the whole country is very confused as to why she’s not on the team. Skinner herself seemed happy about getting as far as she did, especially not coming in as a real threat to make the team, but she was definitely a bit frustrated about it not working out, stating that she really got her hopes up to see she finished fourth. Her tears were a mix of happy and sad, but she should be incredibly proud of her journey and for getting as close as she did. Four years ago, she didn’t even make it to trials, and the work she’s done this quad has been unbelievable.
Both she and Douglas have reasons to justify them for this controversial spot, though it seems many people are totally against Douglas making it for whatever reason. I do think that if this was a blind selection process with no names attached to scores, the impression of Douglas based solely on this week’s trials would be that she is a great gymnast, but one who wouldn’t contribute as much and isn’t consistent enough, but Douglas is more than just this one meet. Choosing a team shouldn’t be a one-and-done competition, especially when there are still several weeks to go before the Olympic Games, and when there have been several meets prior to this one that all would have pointed to Douglas over Skinner, and pretty much everyone else up for the spot.
Douglas made the team not based on what she did or didn’t do in San Jose, but rather based on the precedent she set in 2012 and again with her performance at World Championships in 2015. That’s a fully valid reason to take her to Rio, even if Karolyi seemed hesitant to admit this. Douglas has made an incredible return to the sport which is why I’ve been defending her all summer long, believing in her ability to come out and show us what she’s truly capable of. The pieces are all there. It’s just a matter of putting everything together all at once. She has a great DTY, an incredible bars set, strong work on beam (as she proved with her angry beam on day two at nationals), and good enough work on floor to bring in strong numbers internationally. A team decision comes down to more than just one meet, so while Skinner killed it this weekend and left a huge final impression on the selection committee, overall this season, Douglas is worthy of a spot and more than earned it.
You can fight about these two to death and both sides would have legitimate arguments, so I’ll let you do that in the comments while I move on. Biles, Hernandez, and Raisman continued to be locks for the team even with some little spots here and there, which they’ll hope to work on before August. Most surprisingly was Biles’ fall on her barani on beam during the second day of competition, but really, with Biles called an Olympian in the press for months at this point, she had nothing to worry about. She was making this team.
Kocian, meanwhile, had a fall on beam on day two, but hit the most brilliant bar routine of her career and secured her spot over Locklear, who got the bars-specific alternate spot, something no one was shocked to see based on Karolyi’s own admission that Kocian would act as a built-in alternate on vault and floor while Locklear couldn’t offer that to the team.
As for Smith, I had guessed that she’d go as an alternate specifically for beam, but I thought that spot would be between her and Nichols. According to Karolyi, though, Nichols was never really part of the conversation due to her recent injury and surgery, so despite her strong performances on vault and floor this weekend, her lack of an Amanar and inability to reach the top three on floor took her out of both the team and alternate equations, with Skinner the clear winner for the vault and floor alternate spot. Smith, who finished fifth all-around, made the most sense both as an all-arounder and for her beam, where she placed second behind Hernandez. The 15-year-old competed with strep at nationals and a cold here, performing admirably in a tough field and handling the high-pressure competition with the maturity and class of someone much older.
So that’s the U.S. team and why it came to be. Love it or hate it, they’ll still win gold and by a pretty good margin. Depth is a bittersweet problem to have, and in this case, several potential event medalists – Skinner on vault, Locklear on bars, and even Smith on beam – will not get the opportunity to compete at the Olympic Games because of something beyond their control. They performed as best as they could this weekend, but at the end of the day, the decision was made for reasons that have nothing to do with them.
I’ll be back with a separate article highlighting those who didn’t make it, because they didn’t get the coverage they deserved on television and are worthy of more than a postscript.
Article by Lauren Hopkins