Next week, the Olympic selection process begins in earnest for the U.S. women with the 2016 US National Championships.
Simone Biles is the closest thing to a “lock” as there can be. Winning 3 straight National and 3 straight World all around titles will do that for you. However, as I’ve thought about the “Road to Rio” for the rest of the gymnasts one thing has become clear: there is a downside to incredible depth, and that is heartbreak.
Not only are gymnasts who have Olympic medal level talent going to be left off the team simply because there’s not enough spots, there’s going to be another major letdown when the two all around spots are decided (in World and Olympic competition only 2 gymnasts from each country can advance to individual event finals).
One of the indelible images from London 4 years ago was a disappointed Jordyn Wieber in tears after qualifications. The then-reigning World Champion had an off day and ended up 4th overall in prelims with a score plenty good enough to qualify. But she was 3rd among the U.S. all arounders, and therefore shut out of the all around final.
This time around we might not even make it to qualification day in Rio before someone on the team has her dream dashed.
Even with a mishap Simone should advance to all around finals, but who will be the other? Gabby Douglas? Aly Raisman? Laurie Hernandez? Someone else? All of these girls, plus others, are capable of an Olympic medal winning score.
Looking into the future, the U.S. start list for Olympic prelims is going to be interesting no matter who is on the team. And the intrigue is magnified for certain team combinations. Let’s use an example with Aly as the focal point.
Aly is capable of a high 59/low 60 score when all 4 event scores are totaled, but her usual score on one event, bars (while good if you’re looking from a worldwide perspective), trails the scoring potential of a number of U.S. national team members by a noticeable amount.
If results from Nationals and Trials indicate she likely won’t be the #2 US all arounder, it makes life easier for Martha Karolyi and the rest of the National Team Coordinators when setting the uneven bars lineup for Olympic prelims — they can simply not use her routine.
However, if it appears she might be the #2 all arounder, or has a very good chance at being it, the coordinators might have to get creative with the lineup like what happened at the 2015 World Championships.
In Glasgow, the U.S. coordinators ran into a similar dilemma. When setting the bars lineup for prelims, they had already allocated 4 of 5 spots to gymnasts with higher potential scores. Problem was they still had 2 team members who do all 4 events that they hadn’t placed yet — Aly and Maggie Nichols — and whichever gymnast they decided not to use in prelims wouldn’t get a chance at an all around medal.
It appeared from video that podium training was used as a mock meet, and whomever scored highest overall in the unofficial competition got the prelims spot.
It ended up being Aly who got the spot, but since her bars routine typically scores a few tenths less than Maggie’s, they didn’t want to use her routine for finals and subbed Maggie back in for the team final.
The decision could be looked upon (and was viewed by some) as being unfair to Maggie. It can also be viewed as the decision makers making the best decision they could in a crummy situation.
(Sidenote: The competition between them ended up being for naught as Simone and Gabby were the highest scoring pair of U.S. all arounders when prelims were complete. It’s also an illustration of how hard it is at times for gymnasts to advance to event finals.)
A similar scenario (for a few gymnasts) could play out in Rio depending on the composition of the team. Unfortunately, any way it works out there’s going to be heartbreak involved.