© John Cheng

By John Powers

This time it was official. When Gabby Douglas ‘won’ the AT&T American Cup during the last Olympic year she was participating as an alternate whose scores didn’t count. "It just feels so good to actually be a competitor," the London champion said Saturday afternoon after she had outpointed teammate Maggie Nichols to win the women’s title inside Newark’s Prudential Center in the season’s first major international meet. "The time before, I wasn’t, so I was so happy to be out on the floor and my scores counted."

Douglas went wire-to-wire with a performance that indicated that she was well along her comeback trail en route to this summer’s Games in Rio de Janeiro. "There’s just something that flips and something that clicks," said Douglas, who won on vault, beam and bars and was second on floor for a total of 60.165 to Nichols’ 59.699. "I’m so honored to still have that clicking mode when the cameras are on, when it counts."

Nichols, who won floor and was second in the other events, was solid and secure in what was meant to be a showcase opportunity as an all-arounder. "I think I gained a lot more confidence knowing that I can hit my routines in this big of a meet," said Nichols, who was a key contributor to last year’s U.S. team victory at the World Championships.

It was the 14th consecutive time that the American women had won the all-around title and only a slipped hand in the final rotation deprived the U.S. of a victory in the men’s competition, as well. Donnell Whittenburg, who’d placed first on floor, rings, vault and parallel bars, was in the lead after five rotations when he fell on horizontal bar, allowing Japanese rival Ryohei Kato to slip past him for the crown.

"It’s been a while since a Japanese has won the American Cup," observed Kato, who was the first victor from his country since Mitsuo Tsukahara in 1977. "So it was good to ride the momentum from Worlds last year and to put on a good show."

While Whittenburg was disappointed by his mishap, he felt that his overall effort was an encouraging milestone on his buildback from last year’s global meet. "I feel like it was a really good day except for the last event," said Whittenburg, whose 88.565 score was .366 of a point shy of Kato’s. "It definitely will help me in my consistency and that’s what I’ve been striving for right now. Just try to hit sets as best as I can the majority of the time."

Sam Mikulak, who won the title two years ago, had a rough outing with a break on pommel horse and a fall on high bar, but managed to finish fourth behind China’s Sun Wei. "It’s not the competition I wanted, but maybe the competition I needed," said Mikulak, who is working his way back from a left ankle injury. "This definitely got a fire building inside of me. It’s never fun to look up and see other people winning an American event."

The U.S. women haven’t had that experience since Russia’s Elena Zamolodchikova prevailed in 2001. With two members from last year’s global gold-medal team, the Americans were the class of the field that included challengers from the British, Canadian, Italian, Dutch and Brazilian World squads.

"For the beginning of the season, it is very much promising," said national team coordinator Martha Karolyi. "They hit four routines of four. We still have some little upgrade that we will be introducing in our routines later in the season, but they actually competed as I expected."