By Jo-Ann Barnas – Special to USA Gymnastics
ARLINGTON, Texas – They stood in front of Martha Karolyi as straight as an arrow and with their arms at their sides, giving the USA Gymnastics Women’s National Team Coordinator their full attention Thursday at AT&T Stadium.
Women’s podium training for Saturday’s AT&T American Cup was over, and Simone Biles and MyKayla Skinner listened intently as Karolyi spoke the words that have helped fuel the U.S. women’s team into the international power that is today.
Of course, having a gymnast the caliber of Biles, the two-time defending world champion, certainly helps keep the train rolling – hopefully, through the 2016 Rio Olympics, where the USA hopes to win its second-straight team gold.
Biles and Skinner are the two U.S. women’s entrants at the AT&T American Cup. The event is the third and final competition in the 2014-15 FIG All-around World Cup Series. But it’s also the “first” event for both of the new year.
And that means pacing yourself, Karolyi said after podium training at AT&T Stadium.
“We always do strategic planning,” she said. “For this year, we have two peaks in the spring season – American Cup and Jesolo (Trophy on March 25-29 in Italy). Then we’ll come down a little, work on some more of our skills to be completely ready for the first cycle at the Secret U.S. Classic on July 25 in Chicago.
“For that I want 80 percent shape,” Karolyi said. “For (U.S.) championships, 90 percent, and 100 percent at final selection – and we hold it all the way to Worlds.”
Even before Biles was asked about competing at the AT&T American Cup, she wore a broad smile Thursday. Life is good for Biles, who will celebrate her 18th birthday March 14.
First the event is located in her home state – just a three-hour drive for her family and friends in Spring, Texas. Biles will graduate from high school this year. And she has a solid friendship going with Alec Yoder of Indianapolis, who was recently named to the U.S. Men’s Senior National Team (“You can put in that we’re best friends,” she said).
And, oh, yeah, Biles’ gymnastics’ career continues to flourish. The rose is still in bloom.
“She’s better than she was last year,” said Aimee Boorman, who coaches Biles. “She keeps growing. And it’s that emotional growth where she’s keeping responsibility for her role in gymnastics.”
Along with winning the all-around title (again) and helping the USA to its second-straight team gold (again) at Worlds last October, Biles left China with golds on balance beam and floor exercise. That made her first woman to win four gold medals at a single world championships since the Soviet Union’s Ludmilla Tourisheva in 1974.
Biles’ career total of nine world medals in two world championships puts her one away from tying Alicia Sacramone’s U.S. record medal haul of 10.
But that’s getting too far ahead for Biles’ liking. And don’t ask her about the 2016 Olympics.
She said she doesn’t like to think about anything beyond what’s happening next – and this week, it’s the AT&T American Cup.
“It’s a year away – it’s still too hard to think about it,” she said of Rio. “When I do, that’s when the stress builds up.”
She said she was slightly anxious about competing in the Dallas Cowboys’ stadium, if only because “everybody made it seem like a bigger deal than it is.”
“I was anxious to come in here because I saw pictures of it,” she said. “When you’re in an event, you don’t realize how big it is.”
Event organizers have partitioned off half of AT&T Stadium with gigantic dark curtains, so the stadium has a cozy feel while retaining its majestic atmosphere.
“It feels comfortable,” said Skinner, 2014 world vault bronze medalist.
Like Biles, Skinner has been focused in her home gym working on upgrades for the summer. She said she has added a slight upgrade on bars for Saturday’s competition. Lisa Spini, who coaches Skinner at Desert Lights Gymnastics in Arizona, said they’ve been working on getting Skinner in routine shape.
“She has high expectations of herself,” Spini said. “She definitely cares about this, about everything that she’s doing.”