Winners and Losers of the 2016 US Women's Gymnastics Olympic Trials
For results that seemed all but preordained, the U.S. Olympic Trials in women's gymnastics sure had their share of drama.
But in the end, we had what we expected from the beginning: a dominant five-woman team consisting of surefire pick Simone Biles—the three-time world champion and overwhelming favorite for gold at the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro—and 2012 all-around Olympic champion Gabby Douglas. Aly Raisman returns as the second member of the Fierce Five who helped win 2012 team gold in London, and new star Laurie Hernandez is the crowd favorite at 16 years old.
The only real drama in the team selection, led by the ever-watchful national team coordinator Marta Karolyi, was the battle for the final spot. That went to Madison Kocian, who performed the night's best routine on the uneven bars—the event coaches believe the U.S. squad needs the most help in if it is to pull off the rare feat of successfully defending team gold in Rio.
Figuring in to team selection was the Olympic team finals format of three-up, three-count, where teams pick three gymnasts to perform on each event and all three scores count toward the team total.
Read on for the ups and downs of the final day of trials.
Winner: The New Kid on the Block
Simone Biles may be the best Olympian the gymnastics outsiders don't know about, but it was Laurie Hernandez who had the San Jose, California, crowd chanting her name when she finished her last routine, the balance beam, on Sunday night.
She finished second to Biles at trials and got the highest score of the night on the beam, a 15.7, besting Biles on that apparatus for both nights.
At a freshly minted 16 years old, Hernandez just became age-eligible for senior competition this year. But don’t think she’s not ready for the major leagues. Hernandez was last year’s world junior champion and didn’t skip a beat when she moved up, tying veteran Aly Raisman for second at nationals last month. She never wavered at trials.
She's got all-around potential, and she's strong on the vault and the floor too.
And she has grit. Hernandez missed six weeks with a knee injury this year, giving her less than a month to prep for nationals.
Hernandez is the latest in a list of first-year seniors who will compete in an Olympics as her first major international meet.
No big deal.
The list includes Kyla Ross of the Olympic champion 2012 team, Courtney McCool in 2004 and Tasha Schwikert in 2000. Bridget Sloan had competed as a senior in the pre-Olympic year, but she didn’t have a major under her belt when she was named a member of the 2008 team.
Loser: The Standings
- Simone Biles (winner gets the lone automatic selection)
- Lauren Hernandez
- Aly Raisman
- MyKayla Skinner
- Ragan Smith
How gymnasts finished in the Olympic trials mattered not one bit when it came to naming the five-member U.S. Olympic team.
In fact, San Jose didn't host the Olympic trials; it hosted a selection camp.
In a true trials like track and field—whose broadcast preceded gymnastics—the top finishers make the team. If the three-person gymnastics selection committee had gone by overall performance, then the 2016 Olympic team would've looked like this:
Gabby Douglas was seventh and Madison Kocian eighth.
The committee tried to ease the pain by naming Skinner, Smith and Ashton Locklear as "replacement athletes," but that still has to sting.
What this competition was about, really, was who was best on uneven bars, where the U.S. has less depth. That was Kocian.
Winner: The Favorites
One of the trickiest things in sports is to win when you’re supposed to. Simone Biles and Aly Raisman did.
Three-time world champion Biles, 19, is finally an Olympian and officially the Games’ next big thing.
As talented and high-flying as Biles is, she was not at her best Friday or Sunday, and she still wrapped up the No. 1 spot and the automatic selection following her second of four events: the vault.
She did it with a resounding leap and a resolute thud, sticking the landing on what's considered the most difficult vault women do: the Amanar. It's a two-and-a-half twisting layout backflip that begins with a back handspring onto the vault. The highlight of Biles night: She scored 16.2 points out of 16.3.
Biles wound up with a combined all-around total of 123.25, winning by a 2.1-point margin in a sport where tenths or hundredths of a point separate competitors.
Raisman, 22, was third with a combined total of 119.75, holding her place from Friday's first round. Rock-solid despite flubbing the landing on her opening vault, Raisman will provide veteran leadership as one of two 2012 returnees to the Games.
Loser: Marta Karolyi Retirement Doomsayers
All indications are that Marta Karolyi will stick to her plan to retire after the Rio Games, making Sunday night’s Olympic trials her final meet on U.S. soil.
But fear not, Marta fans. The Karolyi system will not tumble like gymnasts doing a wolf turn on beam. Yes, meets will never be the same when Karolyi hangs up her track suit, but the national program is unlikely to change much.
A transition plan will begin shortly after Rio. Gymnastics federation President Steve Penny said that “a couple people” have shown interest in being the next national team coordinator—the position Karolyi, 73, has held since 2001.
She is leaving the program on top of the world. The U.S. women won 2012 Olympic gold and the 2015 World Championships—an unprecedented third straight world title after winning the 2011 and 2014 events.
Americans have won the last three individual all-around Olympic gold medals (Carly Patterson in 2004, Nastia Liukin in 2008). Biles is the three-time world all-around champ.
Penny won’t name names, but at the top of the list is likely Valeri Liukin, father and coach to 2008 all-around Olympic champion Nastia. Valeri, 49, is a current coach and retired Soviet gymnast who has played a major role in the federation’s elite-athlete development program.
“The key is you have to have someone who is doing it solely for the best interests of the country,” Penny said, “and No. 2, this person has to be someone that everyone else will follow.”
Winner: The Future of US Women’s Gymnastics
Even with the impending retirement of national team coordinator Marta Karolyi after the Olympics, the American machine keeps rolling. It’s the golden era of women’s gymnastics in the U.S., with no signs of slowing.
Karolyi has led the U.S. women to three straight Olympic individual all-around titles, most recently with Gabby Douglas. No nation has won more than three in a row.
The career of a female gymnast is notoriously short—many gymnasts get just one shot in a four-year Olympic cycle—but the U.S. appears to have hit on the right formula for success, Penny said. That formula involves a decentralized national team system installed in 2000, when Marta’s famous gymnast-carrying coach and husband, Bela, led the program.
The system allows gymnasts to train with private coaches but incorporates monthly camps for the nation’s top athletes at the Karolyi Ranch in Huntsville, Texas.
Local and regional private clubs all over the nation feed the national program, identifying talent at the grassroots level.
Loser: Gabby Douglas
Douglas, the 2012 Olympic all-around champion, finished seventh at the trials behind three competitors who did not make the team (MyKayla Skinner in fourth, Ragan Smith in fifth, Maggie Nichols in sixth).
She showed grit in coming back from a deflating first round Friday, where she shockingly fell from the beam on a routine full turn. Her placement didn't improve, but it appeared her confidence is on the upswing.
Luckily for Douglas, one of her strengths is the uneven bars, and her selection underlines Karolyi and the selection committee's emphasis on that event if the U.S. is to repeat as team Olympic champions.
Douglas was shaky all weekend, though, falling off the balance beam on Sunday as well, garnering huge deductions. This time, it was a more aggressive move, a backflip, that was her undoing.
But on both nights, she was top three on the unevens. In the weeks leading up to the Games, be certain that Karolyi and crew will be helping Douglas to improve.
In general, Douglas' trials and tribulations this year—she was fourth at nationals—underscore how hard it is to return to the Games as an all-around champion.
She made the Olympic team—all but the top finisher at trials are coaches’ selections—but in the past month, she went from being an automatic choice to one with an asterisk.
It didn’t help that she raised some eyebrows by naming co-coach Christian Gallardo as her on-floor coach over usual coach Kittia Carpenter shortly before trials, saying Gallardo was valuable as a spotter, per Julia Fincher of NBCOlympics.com. She has changed coaches before, but the timing was odd.
The last time someone returned to the Olympics after winning the all-around was Nadia Comaneci in 1980. After winning a memorable gold in 1976 in Montreal (where the phrase “perfect 10!” was popularized), Comaneci still managed to tie for silver in 1980, the year of the U.S. boycott.
Still, Douglas did not look like her 2012 self or even her 2015 World Championships self—the one who was runner-up to Biles and seemed finally on form after taking almost two years away following the last Olympics.
Winner: The Floor and the Balance Beam
Newly minted members of the 2016 Olympic women's gymnastics team have to be grateful for the month they have until the gymnastics competition begins Aug. 7 in Rio.
They have some floor and beam work to do.
In a mystifying development, some of the world's top gymnasts couldn't seem to keep their feet inside the large rectangular boundary of the floor exercise. Simone Biles went out of bounds, and so did Laurie Hernandez and Aly Raisman. Maybe they were too amped—most of the overshot landings happened at the end of tumbling passes.
The beam claimed victims too: Biles fell off on a front flip with a half twist. Kocian fell too—on a standing Arabian. And don't forget Douglas, who fell from the beam both Friday and Sunday.
Loser: MyKayla Skinner, Ragan Smith, Maggie Nichols
It's hard to call MyKayla Skinner, Ragan Smith and Maggie Nichols losers when they finished fourth, fifth and sixth, respectively, in the U.S. Olympic trials.
Consider them victims of circumstance.
Nichols might've taken the hardest hit, as she was considered a near-certainty for the Olympic team until she suffered a right knee meniscus injury in April and had arthroscopic surgery. She made an impressive comeback to get to San Jose, but oh, what might have been.
Nichols was runner-up at the 2015 P&G Championships in a breakthrough performance.
Winner: Madison Kocian vs. Ashton Locklear
The only true competitive drama of the weekend came down to these two, who duked it out (figuratively speaking) on the uneven bars, where the U.S. doesn't have the depth it has in other events.
(Though judging by Sunday's mishaps on beam and floor, coaches might rethink that.)
Kocian, who came back from a broken tibia in February, won the Olympic berth. Did Kocian and Locklear know that their Olympic hopes and dreams were riding on two uneven bars of wood? Probably. If they didn't, all they had to do was catch a glimpse of NBC's broadcast, which hammered home the point at every opportunity.
But this wasn't manufactured drama. Kocian, 19, of Dallas, tied for 2015 World Championships gold on the unevens. Locklear, 18, is the two-time national uneven bars champion and won the event in this April's Pacific Rim Championships.
On Friday, Kocian and Locklear were deadlocked at 15.75 points, tying for first in the event. On Sunday, Kocian edged ahead with a 15.9 versus Locklear's 15.7.
The pair outdistanced the field, with only Gabby Douglas' bars score on Sunday (15.250) in the vicinity. All other competitors scored less than 15, including Biles' 14.9 the second day of competition.
Kocian's versatility—in the event she needs to step in for another team member in Rio—likely bolstered her bid for Olympic selection.
Loser: US Rivals in Rio
- Great Britain
The Americans enter the 2016 Olympics favored to repeat as gold medalists. Some have said the program is deep enough to win an Olympic medal with its second five—a bit of hopeful exaggeration.
Those expected to take a run at the Americans include China and the surprising Great Britain.
Here's a look at the 2015 World Championships results:
But before anyone hands team gold to the U.S., recognize that the Olympics often bring surprises, especially in this best-served-by-youth sport. While the U.S. has emerging star Laurie Hernandez, other nations could have new secret weapons.
The American team might have to watch out for China. Or not. China, which was embroiled in a minimum-age controversy in both the 2008 and 2012 Games, said its current team is inexperienced internationally but meets age requirements.
Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.