There weren't many surprises in the United States women's gymnastic team that emerged this past weekend from two days of all-around competition at the Olympic trials. This was the set of gymnasts that we seemed destined to end up with for months now, or at least since returning Olympic champion Nastia Liukin woefully underperformed on the uneven bars at the national championships three weeks ago.
There'd been some dim hope after nationals that Liukin—who only announced her comeback to elite competition at the end of October—could get her routine together, giving the team the bars specialist it was missing. But while her skills were there individually at the trials, she lacked the fitness and endurance to string them together and survive an entire routine. Friday night, she crashed her dismount, effectively ending her Olympic hopes.
Still, Liukin refused to scratch. She fought through balance beam and returned for more punishment Sunday night—and, it turned out, for redemption. After failing to catch her release move on the bars and crashing to the mats, Liukin, who typically competes with an unreadable game face, was visibly emotional, trying to collect herself before she remounted to complete the routine. The sold-out crowd cheered her through the rest of it until she stood up her dismount.
She finished the night on the beam, her final routine as an elite competitor. The 15,000 people in the arena rose to give her a standing ovation, for the conclusion of one of the greatest careers in American gymnastics.
The crowd likewise supported Rebecca Bross, Liukin's teammate and training partner. Early in this quadrennium—after having been just too young for the age minimum in 2008—Bross was the best all-around gymnast in the U.S. and one of the top athletes in the world. In her brilliant performance at worlds in 2010, though, she was competing with a stress fracture in her leg. After surgery, she's never been the same athlete. Her recovery seemed rushed, and she looked exhausted when she showed up at the 2011 nationals, where she dislocated her kneecap on live television.
After several months and more surgery, she returned to competition as an event specialist, but she struggled mightily on the beam and last night, she fell from the bars three times before her coach advised her to scratch the rest of the routine. Her beam routine was apparently redemptive, but NBC didn't show it.
All that is history now. For five girls, all the elements did come together. Here's who will be representing the United States in London:
Gabrielle Douglas: A year ago, if you had told me that this 16-year-old from Virginia Beach would be heading into the Olympic Games at the nation's top all-arounder, I would've told you to stop sniffing so much chalk dust. Douglas had a disastrous nationals last year and only made the team for worlds on the strength of her uneven bar set, because the American team was so weak there. But she competed better than expected in Tokyo and made bar finals, proving to many fans that she wasn't the head case they'd thought. Then at the American Cup in March of this year, in an exhibition performance scored by judges, she unofficially defeated world champion Jordyn Wieber with upgraded vault and bars. Though she faltered at a subsequent international meet, she gave Wieber a run for her money again at nationals and finally—and in an official competitive capacity—overtook her at Olympic trials to secure the top spot.
Even if Douglas hadn't proven herself as an all-arounder over the last few months, she probably still would have made this team because of her phenomenal uneven bar set. She practically soars out of the frame on her release moves; they don't call her "The Flying Squirrel" for nothing.
Jordyn Wieber: The almost-17-year-old from DeWitt, Michigan has been widely considered a shoo-in for the Olympic team since she was 13. At that age, she won the American Cup as a preternaturally poised junior gymnast, competing big skills including an Amanar on vault, which entails doing two-and-a-half twists off the vault table after performing a roundoff-back handspring entry.
Here's Wieber's Amanar:
This move is the key to women's gymnastics this summer. If the U.S. wins the team gold in London, it will be on the strength of their vaulting, and the Amanar element in particular. Named for the Romanian gymnast Simona Amanar, who did it at the 2000 Games, it has a .8 scoring advantage over more commonly performed double-twisting version. Every member of the American team is able to do one, while the other top countries—Russia, Romania, and China—don't have a single gymnast who can. At least, none have showed it in competition this year; a couple of gymnasts who did it in 2010 have been hampered by injuries that keep them from doing the risky move. This gives the U.S. a huge start-value advantage in the vault, which should help overcome the team's weakness on bars.
In 2011, Wieber's first season as a senior gymnast, she narrowly defeated the defending world champion, Aliya Mustafina at the American Cup and went on to win the world title. She has demonstrated over and over that she is intense and consistent under pressure. Her one weakness is bars. She is capable of doing well on the apparatus (she made event finals at worlds on it) but it has been hit-or-miss for her this year. The team's lack of depth on bars means she will likely compete on that apparatus in team finals anyway.
Alexandra Raisman: The 18-year-old from Needham, Mass., is one of the most reliable gymnasts out on the competitive floor. Self-styled purists tend to disparage her routines as more muscular than artistic, but even a swans' nest like Russia would kill to have a gymnast who can be counted on to hit her routines like Raisman does.
She's especially mistake-free with team medals on the line; her only errors at worlds came during the individual portion of the competition. Her Amanar vault is sloppy, but she has been consistently standing it up since March. Her beam is packed with difficulty, but she never misses a move.
And her floor exercise—Raisman, who is Jewish, performs it to "Hava Nagila"—deserves gold for her first tumbling pass alone. She has also stepped into the role of team leader and morale booster at last year's worlds after team captain Alicia Sacramone had to withdraw due to an Achilles rupture.
Kyla Ross: The 15-year-old Southern California native only became age-eligible for the senior ranks this year. While she was waiting, she won the junior national title twice in a row. In 2012, she has competed a lot and has been very steady, showing few nerves. Her key contributions in London will come on the bars—where she has a higher start value than most, and performs very cleanly—and beam, where she likewise has a high degree of difficulty with few form breaks. (Ross has that "international look" that Elfi Schlegel at NBC won't shut up about.)
It's unlikely she would do the vault in a team finals; though she's done the Amanar successfully, it has become unpredictable and potentially injurious for her lately. She's particularly weak on floor, with low start values, and would only compete in team finals if one of the power gymnasts gets hurt.
McKayla Maroney: For at least a year, the 16-year-old from Long Beach, California has been called the best vaulter in the world for her spectacular Amanar . While there are girls out there doing the skill—most of them are her teammates—no one does it like Maroney. She earned the women's highest individual score at last year's world championships with this one:
Most girls are barely able to eke this skill around and undercooked ones can lead to some devastating knee injuries. Knock wood, but when Maroney does hers, you don't wince and kiss your rosary beads. She finishes twisting well before she opening her body up for landing.
Maroney, the defending world champion on this apparatus, has added a new, more difficult second vault, which is necessary to vie for an event medal. The only reason her spot on the team was in any doubt was her lack of distinction on the other three apparatuses. Now that teams have only five members, it's hard to carry a gymnast who specializes in only one event. At the Olympic trials, though, she showed improvements on floor exercise and had the routine of her life on beam on the second night of competition. Taken together with the scoring advantage she brings on vault, that secured her place.
Does this team have the goods to beat Russia—their likeliest, most immediate rival—and a surging Romania? I believe so. Russia is very strong on bars, but the U.S. neutralizes this advantage with their vaults. Beam and floor will decide the difference between gold and silver between these two teams.
Like the Chinese team four years ago, the Americans will likely have an advantage in start values. Unless Russia recovers their world-championship 2010 levels of difficulty, the gold medal in London should be the United States' to lose.
Meanwhile, there's a men's team, too. Even if it was selected with considerably less fanfare than the women's. Here are the competitors:
Danell Leyva: The 20-year-old Cuban-born gymnast defeated the newly minted national champion, John Orozco, to take the top spot at the trials. In addition to his top-notch skills on parallel bars, where he is the defending world champion, and on high bar, Leyva can also be put up on the pommel horse, Team USA's weakest event, and will potentially vie for an all-around medal.
Pay attention to his stepfather and coach, Yin Alvarez, a ball of energy out on the floor. At the American Cup at Madison Square Garden, Alvarez's theatrical gifts for working the crowd were on full display. Listen for his rhythmic clapping near the end of each of Leyva's routines and the accompanying audience reaction. Also check out his little celebratory dance after Leyva's high dismount during the second day of trials. I'm just waiting for the day when Bravo announces a reality TV show deal with the pair.
John Orozco: The 19-year-old phenom has had remarkable 2011-2012 competitive seasons since rupturing his Achilles at the 2010 national championships, competing at world championships, and winning the U.S. national title just three weeks ago. He should bring excellent form and execution to parallel bars, high bar, rings, and the Americans' perennial weak spot, the pommel horse.
And did you know he's from the Bronx? You might have missed that fact, watching the trials, provided you stepped out of the room all 20 times that Al Trautwig mentioned it. At least this time he refrained from characterizing Orozco's working-class Bronx upbringing as being filled "with human potholes," as he did more than once during the American Cup broadcast. (Al, do you know what else is associated with New York and has holes? Bagels. Try "bagels" next time.)
Sam Mikulak: After the Levya and Orozco, the selection committee had its work cut out to fill the other three vacancies. American men's gymnastics has a wealth of strong floor-vault guys, but it's short on athletes who can handle pommels and rings. Enter 19-year-old Sam Mikulak. He actually had the highest all-around total on the first night of trials but slightly injured his ankle on his final event, the vault, while doing an incredibly difficult skill.
He'd previously fractured that same ankle, on floor at the 2011 Puerto Rico Cup. In fact, he'd fractured both ankles. At that meet, he scratched the vault and kept going. "He was in a wheelchair the whole meet and he did pommels, high bar, p-bars, and he landed on both his feet," Alvarez said.
After tweaking the ankle this past weekend, Mikulak took the calculated risk of scratching every event save pommels and hoping that his first night's performance was enough to secure him a berth on the team. Given his potential to contribute scores on floor, vault, pommels, and rings, the committee named him, obviously hoping that he heals up soon.
Jonathan Horton: He earned the nickname "X-Games" early in his career for his daredevil moves on the high bar, but he wasn't a shoo-in for the team this time around. His high bar continues to impress, but it was inconsistent at trials and he made uncharacteristic mistakes on floor exercise.
Still, if those errors were anomalous, adding Horton to the team made sense, because he has the potential to contribute scores on those events as well as punch a big rings score, another event that is potentially weak for the Americans. And as one of the older guys, Horton has Olympic experience and has been on several world championship teams.
Jake Dalton: The final spot went to Jake Dalton, who has a very high level of difficulty on floor and vault, but can also do rings if necessary. He competed at last year's world championships alongside one of Team USA's other floor and vault guys, Steven Legendre, an alternate. On a five-person squad, the Americans couldn't bring both of them. In Tokyo, Dalton made the event finals on floor where he competes a spectacular opening pass—laid out Arabian double front.
One of the performances that put Dalton on this team was his nearly stuck vault at trials.
Does this team have a chance to medal? Absolutely. But do they have a realistic shot at the gold? While anything is possible, the U.S. will need the top teams, China and Japan, to falter. But with team finals played by three up, three count rules—meaning that three of five gymnasts compete on each event and all scores count—a mistake from the top of the leader board can potentially change the rankings. In that format, anything can happen.
Dvora Meyers is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Slate, Tablet and elsewhere. She writes about gymnastics and Judaism at Unorthodox Gymnastics, and she is the author of Heresy on the High Beam: Confessions of an Unbalanced Jewess. She blogs about woman-y stuff over at The Anti-Girlfriend.