SAN JOSE – For all the pressure, fanfare and other-worldly amount of expectation at the U.S. Olympic Trials in San Jose this weekend, Simone Biles sees it this way: At least it’s better than a quiet selection camp at The Ranch.
“It’s crickets when we’re there,” Biles explained of said camps, breaking into her trademark smile. “This crowd here, it really pumps us up.”
A sold out crowd of 17,904 inside SAP Center (and millions at home on NBC) watched as Biles once again bounced her way into first place at a major gymnastics meet, this one the two-day selection process for the five-member team that will represent the U.S. in next month’s Olympic Games in Rio.
Biles would like to use that approach – and her scores – to secure the lone automatic bid, and on Friday, she set herself up well to do so in two days’ time, leading by a full point over second-place finisher Laurie Hernandez (61.850 to 60.850), and by nearly two points over Aly Raisman, in third with a 59.950.
“It’s unreal, actually, because we have been waiting so long for this,” Biles said of Olympic trials finally arriving. “We’re finally all here, and we’re sort of in shock. It’s emotional because we know how close it is.”
Perhaps the most famous (and fun) game being played on the Gymternet right now is this: Who’s on your Olympic team?
There are only five spots to be filled, and after Friday night, women’s team national coordinator Martha Karolyi said her list (which, by the way, is most important) has not changed much, even after an eventful evening in San Jose.
“I wasn’t really surprised by anything,” Karolyi told reporters. “For me, there is a little bit more work to be done. That is all.”
Some of that work may fall on the shoulders of reigning Olympic all-around gold medalist Gabby Douglas, who fell on her final event – the balance beam – knocking her down to a disappointing seventh place finish, having placed fourth at the P&G Gymnastics Championships two weeks ago.
MyKayla Skinner was fourth behind Biles, Hernandez and Raisman, followed by Ragan Smith in fifth, Madison Kocian, Douglas and Maggie Nichols.
The night’s most highly anticipated race was a dead heat, as Ashton Locklear (who only competed on uneven bars and beam) and Kocian registered identical 15.750 scores on bars, tying for first. Many lists (yours included?) hinge on one of those two being put on the team for their bars prowess, with Kocian as the reigning World bars champ and Locklear a World finalist in 2014.
“Based on today’s performance, in my eyes, Madison is ahead of Ashton,” said Karolyi plainly. “Because she can contribute on other events, also.”
That was most evident on beam, where Kocian was rock solid for a 14.700 while Locklear suffered from a fall, scoring a 13.200.
“Things went really well tonight,” Kocian said, explaining that she now feels fully healed from a broken foot she suffered in late February. “I’m just trying to trust in my training.”
It was a night that was going well for Douglas, who – along with Raisman – is trying to make a second straight Olympic team. But as she stepped on for beam, that fell away as she fell, on what she called her “easiest skill,” her full turn. She scored a 13.700.
“Obviously, I didn’t want to fall on beam,” Douglas said in the mixed zone. “I got back on because I wanted to finish and fight.”
It will be a fight to the finish for Douglas, who won the silver medal at Worlds last year.
“(Gabby and I) talked about more disciplined training,” Karolyi said, having spoken to Douglas after the competition. “She has a history of not peaking early. That’s what we know about her.”
Biles wasn’t without her bobbles either, committing a similar (albeit, smaller) mistake on the uneven bars as she did at nationals and then catching herself early on the beam to save a fall.
“That’s completely uncharacteristic of Simone,” Nastia Liukin said of the near-fall on NBC.
But Biles finished on a strong note, her can’t-miss floor registering her a 15.700.
“That was good,” Karolyi could be seen saying after it.
Biles’ good friend and San Jose roommate Nichols continued to feel the after-effects of a spring knee injury, having competed just two events at nationals. She was strong on vault and uneven bars to start, but then fell on an aerial cartwheel midway through her beam routine. The entire arena groaned.
While Nichols, who had a breakout season in 2015, is still in the Rio running, she needed a knockout night in San Jose. Like Douglas, it wasn’t quite there.
Hernandez followed her breakout St. Louis performance with more electrifying gymnastics, Raisman running to her after her floor routine to exclaim, “That was awesome!”
Raisman was awesome throughout, too, perhaps, the most consistent competitor of the evening coming off of a reassuring St. Louis performance.
“That’s a job well done for Aly,” Liukin said of her uneven bars routine, which Raisman said was the best of her career. And then, after she finished on the beam to assure herself a four-for-four night, Liukin said: “And that’s why you want Aly Raisman on your team.”
It’s a good question: Who is on your team? Skinner and Smith complicated things with strong all-around performances, though all eyes will be locked on Locklear and Kocian again on Sunday night to see who will excel on bars.
Raisman said her rarely smiling coach Mihai Brestyan was so happy with her bars routine that he took a photo of the scoreboard after her 14.450 flashed up.
“I considered taking a selfie with him in that moment because we were both so happy,” Raisman said. “But I realized that probably wasn’t right to do during the competition. We’re going to have them put (my score) up again so we can take a picture.”
There will be plenty of time for pictures on Sunday when the Olympic team is announced, a moment Biles said they’ve all been anticipating for a long time.
“It’s taken a lot of patience and confidence,” to get to this point, Biles said. “We have all worked so hard to be here. This is such an honor, and it’s a new experience for us.”
Not to mention it’s just a little louder than a selection camp at The Ranch, right?