© John Cheng

By Nick McCarvel

SAN JOSE – Madison Kocian knows that you’re watching her on uneven bars. She can feel your gaze – in the arena or through the TV screen – and it hits her like a hot white light, a spotlight shining brightly onto what she is expected to do and what she needs to accomplish in the next 45 seconds.

But Kocian also does this: She blocks all of it out. She chalks up, coach Laurent Landi helping her, and walks underneath the high bar, her eyes even with the low bar and she stares at it, the most menacing face that Madison can manage. It’s both her enemy and her best friend in this moment. And then, she begins.

Friday night at the U.S. Olympic Trials inside an electric SAP Center, Kocian quieted her mind and delivered a knockout 15.750 on bars, tying her with Ashton Locklear for first place in the event heading into Sunday night.

It was a scenario you couldn’t make up: Kocian, U.S. and world champion on bars in 2015, and Locklear, U.S. champ this year, were in a dead heat in the event that many see as the Americans’ weakest, meaning they need a specialist heading into Rio.

But to Maddie, all that matters is delivering when she needs to. Friday night she did.

“I think things went really well tonight,” the 19-year-old from Dallas said. “I was really confident coming into this. I was trying to keep the same positive attitude that I had at nationals. I’m trying to do the same routines that I’ve been doing in training because that has been going really well. I’m trusting in my training.”

Kocian, however, looked the stronger of the two elsewhere. She finished sixth overall and outscored Locklear on beam, 14.700 to 13.200.

“Based on today’s performance, Madison, in my eyes, is ahead of Ashton because she performs for the group in other events as well,” women’s national team coordinator Martha Karolyi said. “Her execution on bars is very good, and in my opinion her score should have been higher by one tenth of a point. It was improved from championships.”

If Martha Karolyi is of the opinion that you should have been scored higher, you’re obviously doing something right.

“So far, I think it’s the best routine she’s ever competed,” her coach, Landi, said of bars Friday night. “It’s getting better and better. It’s very positive.”

But four months ago, things were less positive in the world of Kocian. Her foot, broken, was in a cast, and she couldn’t train, not even on bars, due to the injury. Her mind raced through the worst-case scenarios, the Rio Olympics looming in August.

“I didn’t know what it meant for me, how long I was going to be out,” Kocian explained of the forced time off. “I started thinking about if I was going to be behind the other girls and what competitions I was going to be missing. You just try to focus on what you can control. But I think it made me stronger; I want this more now than I did before.”

Kocian was back for the Secret U.S. Classic last month, where she was second on bars (the only event she competed), and then went for all four events in St. Louis at the P&G Gymnastics Championships (as she is this weekend in San Jose), even if her vault and floor exercise were watered down versions so as not to risk further injury.

From there, it has been all systems go. Karolyi pulled her aside after St. Louis and said she was happy with Kocian’s consistency in going eight-for-eight at nationals (she placed fifth in the all around), telling Madison that that was exactly what she wanted to see at trials, as well.

How does a 19-year-old who has dreamed her whole life of being an Olympian not become consumed by what could and might be, however?

“I just don’t think about that right now,” she said, stone faced. “My main focus is Olympic trials and doing the best that I can. I let what’s going to happen in the end just play out on its own.”

Her mom Cindy, on the other hand, is a nervous wreck, unable to sit with Madison’s dad during meets and oftentimes pacing the arena, too stressed to sit down. She still watches her daughter compete, even if she can barely bear to watch.

“At this point, I think I’ve learned how to control my nerves, so maybe for her it’s more nerve-racking,” Kocian said of her mom, laughing.

Landi points out that this is a mature Madison, a Madison that has been through a frustrating injury this year and two World Championship teams, a Madison that has won a Worlds gold on bars and doesn’t hone in on the process or the outcome. She just competes.

“I can see right now that she is much more relaxed, she can handle pressure,” he said. “She is going to take every opportunity to deliver what she can do best on the bars. She’s on a mission.”

While Friday night was mission accomplished, Sunday will be packed with more pressure and expectation for all the girls, Kocian included. She is keeping her head down, however, concerned more with each skill and each event more than anything else. She likens it to golf: Do your best on one hole, forget about it and focus on the next.

Friday night, as Kocian stepped up to the bars as she always does, her eyes fixed on what’s in front of her, teammate Aly Raisman stood just off the podium, shouting encouragement at her. Moments earlier, Raisman had locked eyes with Kocian and reminded her that she – Madison Kocian – was a world champion in this event.

How’s that for a confidence boost?

“It’s definitely not annoying,” Kocian said of Raisman’s persistent shouts from the sideline. “Actually, I love all of the cheering. We had a huge crowd tonight and some people think that it’s distracting or might make you more nervous, but it’s fun to have more support here.”

So, gymnastics fan, keep watching, because Maddie intends to keep delivering. Actually, she plans to be even better.

“I did what I was supposed to do tonight. On day two, there are a couple little things that I can improve on for bars. That is my goal. ; The competition isn’t over until you stick your final landing.”