SAN JOSE – Gabby Douglas has been here before. But that doesn’t make things any easier.
The reigning Olympic all-around champion, Douglas arrives at SAP Center (yes, she’s been having some deja vu from 2012) this weekend for the U.S. Olympic Trials four years older, having walked away from the sport and come back to it, and trying to – through the noise of an Olympic year – make history by making the team. No woman has won the Olympic all-around gold and returned to the Games since Nadia Comaneci in 1976 and 1980.
“I thought it would be easy coming back, but it’s been up and down,” Doulgas told reporters Thursday ahead of trials. “There’s always going to be bumps in the road or rocks in your shoes, you can’t get away from that. It’s a matter of: Are you going to break or are you going to be a lot tougher?”
Breaking is not something Doulgas has allowed in her career, and after a fourth-place finish at the P&G Gymnastics Championships two weeks ago in St. Louis, it was back to the gym to recalibrate – she knew she could be better.
“The focus since St. Louis has been trying to be a little more consistent,” said Douglas’ coach, Christian Gallardo. “I want her to be more confident, be in her element and focus on what she needs to do.”
Stern-faced in St. Louis, Douglas was noticeably tense. She struggled through her uneven bars routine on night two and then delivered a less-than-her-best floor.
“Everyone said I looked angry. I didn’t mean to be angry; I wanted to go and do it and I was forcing it. It wasn’t really me,” Douglas explained. “It taught me that I need to enjoy more of what I’m doing. I forgot about enjoying it and having fun. I lost that a little.”
The last 10 days have been about that in Ohio for Gallardo and Douglas: Find that love and passion for gymnastics again and then let the rest of it flow.
“She loves gymnastics, which is part of what makes her so good at it,” Gallardo said.
Women’s national team coordinator Martha Karolyi noted that St. Louis left something to be desired for Douglas, who stormed to all-around silver at the World Championships last fall, behind only teammate Simone Biles. It was the first time a reigning all-around Olympic champion had returned to the Worlds and won an all-around medal since Elena Davydova in 1980 and 1981.
“I told Gabby, ‘You don’t worry about other people’s expectations. Set your goals and try to fulfill them instead of trying to please everyone. You have to do that for yourself,'” Karolyi said. “I would hope that she will have a consistent performance here because at nationals she was a little wobbly at times.”
Consistency is key for Douglas, who was knockout on the beam and solid on her vault in St. Louis on night two. She will stick with double twist on vault, opting not to go for the harder-to-hit Amanar. Bars is where Gallardo has honed in on finding excellence again.
“We want to clean up on bars,” he said. “She did a good job in St. Louis of fighting, but we have to be consistent. That is her bread and butter. I think she was trying to so hard to make everything so perfect. You get a case of ‘the try-hards,’ as I call them. Just do what you do. Relax, do the gymnastics that you train so hard for.”
It’s easy to see the pressure that swallows Douglas wherever she goes in this Olympic year, however. The roar from the St. Louis crowd for her echoed that of Biles, the three-time reigning World champion. Thursday the throng of media that surrounded her called out familiar questions – and a lot of them.
“How does this year differ from 2012?” “How do you deal with all of the expectations?” “How can you make sure the pressure doesn’t get to you?”
Gabby has been here, Gabby has done that. She’s ready with her answers, even if at times she has to think through what she wants to say. It’s been a long road, with those aforementioned bumps and rocks.
“It can be overwhelming because it’s the Olympic year and everyone is gearing up,” she said Thursday, cameras fixed in her face. “But you just have to stay in your bubble and do your thing.”
“The pressure is on; everyone feels it,” Gallardo added. “For me as her coach, it’s about staying motivating and calming to do what she needs to do. Sometimes she needs me to be stern, but then other times, she just needs a hug. She’s a kid, she’s a human being.”
Douglas’ comeback has mirrored that of 2012 Fierce Five teammate Aly Raisman, who returned to training just months after Gabby in 2014. Through all the work, however, San Jose is suddenly here. There is no turning back.
“I don’t think either of us can believe how fast it came,” Raisman said of Douglas and their respective comebacks. “It feels like in the blink of an eye we’re back at Olympic trials again. We both can give one another a look and just know that we can’t believe that we’re back here.”
In the very same building, actually. Douglas said she and Raisman took a moment earlier this week when walking into SAP Center. Yes, this is where their Olympic dreams came true four years ago, and they wholly intend for history to repeat itself.
“It was like, ‘Oh my gosh! There’s where the team got decided!'” Douglas remembered, gesturing down a hallway. “It brings back a lot of memories. It’s like, ‘Are we really here again?'”
Yes, they are. And yes, we are.
Through all of it, Douglas has surprised herself with what she’s accomplished and how she’s handled those road bumps and those rocks. From here on out, however, she’d like things to be smooth sailing.
“I think both Aly and I forgot about how hard this process is,” Douglas said. “It’s ‘Get up and hit! Get up and hit!’ You have to stay in a zone. It’s tough, but I think we have both done a good job in handling it.”
Maybe that’s something 2012 taught them, or maybe it’s something they’ve learned since. Regardless of when – or how – they’ve arrived here better because of it, but still hungry for Olympic glory.