Gymnastics, Olympics

On Gabby and the U.S. Olympic Team Selection

I got to be on the Know the Score podcast again! (Listen to the episode here.) This time talking, among other topics, the Olympics. My area of expertise is gymnastics, so of course we discussed the team. But per usual, there’s more on your mind than actually comes out of your mouth.

So below I expand on one of the topics we touched on, Gabby and her selection to the team, since it was such a popular topic.

First, this team is not a surprise. For those who have been paying attention, these five names (Simone Biles, Gabby Douglas, Aly Raisman, Madison Kocian, and Laurie Hernandez) are the ones that seemed likely since April. That fact doesn’t speak to shadiness in the selection process or the competition results not mattering, but rather to the top 5 gymnasts coming into the Olympic selection competitions (U.S. Nationals and Olympic Trials) not giving away their positions. Although, some people (not me) feel Gabby tried to.

Gabby’s an enigma right now. I can’t stress enough how great of a comeback she, and Aly for that matter, have made since London. This is a sport that if you take 2 weeks off you’re playing catch-up. They both took about a year off, and both look just as good as, and in cases better than, 2012.

With Gabby, however, it seems she’s plateaued at the wrong time. After Day 1 of Olympic Trials, she spoke to reporters about losing passion and focusing on “the wrong things.” She said, “I lost the joy. I forgot what it means to go out and have fun, and it’s catching up.” The cracks were evident when she made a surprising coaching change right before Olympic Trials.

Despite that, and some stories I’ve seen written, her place on the team was earned — it wasn’t given to her.

Now, was it well deserved as an all-arounder? Not based solely on the results of Nationals and Trials — and I believe the results from those 4 days of competition are what detractors are seeing and making their assumptions off of. They’re only seeing the 7th place finish, not how she fits into the puzzle of the team.

Where her spot is 100% justified is as a really good bar worker that does all 4 events well.

To the media after Olympic Trials, Martha Karolyi, National Team Coordinator and head of the selection committee, stated the committee discussed leaving her off the team. Martha also divulged that the 5th position on the team came down to Gabby and Ashton Locklear, who is a pure bar specialist.

Why is having another big score on bars important to the U.S. team? There’s a couple reasons. One, Aly’s routine, while great for most of the world, lags behind the rest of the U.S. team. The team coordinators simply don’t want to use it in a team final. Secondly, while Simone has a good enough bar routine to be used — her score is typically right around one from Gabby or Laurie — they don’t like to use her on the event in team finals (even though it could happen). The origin goes back to a shoulder injury she had in 2014. That year, Simone didn’t do bars in the team final at Worlds and they’ve kept with that setup.

Yes, a team with Ashton theoretically would score higher, but the team selected is the highest scoring “safe” team. Martha and the committee are very risk adverse — with good reason. There have been several years (2011, 2008, 2006 and 2003 come to mind immediately) where the U.S. had a major injury happen to a gymnast at a major competition. At a couple of those meets more than 1 injury occurred.

Sometimes you need a plan B. And, if I’m not mistaken, teams aren’t allowed to substitute gymnasts within 24 hours before qualifications begin, making it more critical for Olympic team members to be able to fill in if necessary.

With this team, you have 5 gymnasts that can go up on any event and not lose significant ground, if any. If Ashton (who was named as one the reserve athletes) were on the team, you would have less cushion on floor or vault because she can’t train those events (for now at least) due to back and knee issues.

What’s going to be interesting with the U.S. team is seeing who gets to attempt to qualify to the all-around final the first competition day in Rio.

Right now, Gabby, the defending Olympic champion in that event, would be in a precarious spot based off her performances at Nationals and Trials, as well as season average. Simone is far and away the #1. Laurie and Aly are virtually tied for 2nd. Gabby is 4th, almost a full point behind Laurie and Aly. (You can read more about this potential dilemma here. I’ve also posted season averages here.)

But there’s a 9-day training camp, which starts this upcoming week, plus the training days in Rio left to go before the lineup is set. Martha and the coordinators could still put her in, banking on her potential and tendency to peak late. Some could view that decision as not fair to one of the others that outperformed her during Nationals and Trials. However, as we’ve seen before, lineup decisions aren’t made off of just what we (the public) have seen. It’s a possibility to keep an eye on.

Speaking of the training camp, Gabby said she knows it was close to going the other way and she’s ready to work hard. And there’s no doubt that she will. Furthermore, Martha has made little secret of her belief that getting her away from “distractions” and into a regimented daily program will get her in even better shape to help the team.

Hopefully, what I’ve written above clears up any confusion you may have. If not, leave a comment or shoot me a message and I’ll get back you.

Photo Credit: Christy Ann Linder Gymnastics Photography

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