SAN JOSE, Calif. — They are pound for pound arguably the toughest athletes in sports. Their pain thresholds alone are off the charts. Yet by Sunday’s end of the two-day U.S. Olympic team trials — the last stop in the months-long, intentionally pressure-packed process of whittling down the deepest pool of gymnasts America has ever had to the five-woman team that will compete next month in Rio de Janeiro — the principals gathered in a room backstage. Then they had a good cry before the survivors returned to the arena floor to take a bow.
Martha Karolyi, the 74-year-old architect of the U.S. program who is often accused of being curt, cried while facing the 14 competitors and their coaches and announcing whom she and the selection committee had chosen. Trials winner Simone Biles and Aly Raisman cried though they were locks to make the team. And defending Olympic all-around champ Gabby Douglas cried because she was not. Then, she made the cut, news that left her patting her heart as if it nearly gave out.
Only 16-year-old Laurie Hernandez, the shimmering newcomer of the bunch who has a chance to be a scene-stealing star in Rio, seemed immune to the tears at first, laughing and asking Raisman and Biles, “Should I be crying, too?”
“It’s a mix of joy and relief — it’s both,” Biles said. “It’s like a tornado of emotions.”
There might be kinder ways of picking an Olympic squad than funneling these gymnasts through the seven-month gauntlet they just went through.
But Karolyi’s unforgiving methods are proven. They work.
The squad the U.S. will send to Rio — Biles, Hernandez, Raisman, Douglas, and Madison Kocian — is a potent mix of blockbuster talent and experience, new blood and complementary pieces. Biles, Raisman and Douglas didn’t have the most mistake-free nights Sunday at San Jose’s SAP Center. But nothing happened that isn’t fixable.
The U.S. will still be the prohibitive favorite to win the team gold medal next month at the Rio Olympics. And Biles, despite a rare fall off the balance beam here, will remain heavily favored to win the all-around title, too. The three-time world champion hasn’t lost an all-around competition since 2013. Rio will be her first Olympics. Don’t be surprised if Hernandez contends in the all-around, as well.
Raisman, now 22, was the most decorated gymnast at the 2012 London Olympics with two golds and a bronze. She and the 20-year-old Douglas are the first American gymnasts to make back-to-back Olympic teams since Amy Chow and Dominique Dawes in 2000. And Douglas is the first Olympic all-around champion to make a second Olympic team since Nadia Comaneci did it in 1980.
But it easily might not have happened for Douglas. The selection committee has broad discretion in choosing the team, and it was going to leave someone unhappy no matter which way it fell on her. Douglas’ comeback from a long layoff after the 2012 Games looked promising when she finished second to Biles in the all-around at the 2015 World Championship. But after winning the American Cup competition early this year, her scores slid a little each time in the last three events in which she competed. Adding to questions about Douglas’ readiness was her choice to switch primary coaches between the nationals two weeks ago and trials, and then scratch doing the difficult Amadar vault here that she had used to great effect in London — decisions that left Karolyi “disappointed” and questioning her training.
Karolyi said “it didn’t help” Douglas when she fell both Friday and Sunday off the balance beam, and performed a lackluster floor exercise Sunday night.
Douglas’ exclusion was discussed. But, Karolyi explained, she and the committee unanimously agreed Douglas’ versatility in all four events and her strength on the uneven bars in particular — an event the U.S. is weakest in — made her a valuable asset in Rio along with Kocian, a former world champion on the bars.
And Douglas? She said she felt both relieved and invigorated by the news.
“I can’t wait to get back in the gym,” she said. “I wasn’t as sharp as I wanted to be — but that is going to change. Because I am so determined. And I totally believe more is in me.”
The Olympic team now convenes at the U.S. national team training camp at Karolyi’s ranch north of Houston for nine days before leaving for the Games. Karolyi is confident she and the other coaches can whip the team into even better shape there.
Raisman, who has been through this before and knows how it goes, said, “Just making the team is just so incredibly hard to do. But it’s almost like the job is just beginning, too, and it’s just getting more intense from here. It’s exciting, but now you turn the page and focus on the next job, which is Rio.”
If Biles and the U.S. don’t win it all, it will be a shock.