By Jo-Ann Barnas, Special contributor
RIO DE JANEIRO – The influence isn’t all internal. It can be seen, witnessed, in a variety of ways if you watch closely enough.
It was happening again and again Thursday night during the U.S. Olympic women’s gymnastics team’s podium training session at the Rio Olympic Arena.
Gabby Douglas searched for her until their eyes met, knowing words need not always be spoken. That’s the kind of communication and relationship the defending Olympic all-around champion has with Martha Karolyi, the U.S. women’s national team coordinator, who has masterfully taken the gymnast whom a few short weeks ago was on the bubble, and put her back in the bubble.
Think about it. Gabby has.
True. She has changed zip codes numerous times since winning a pair of golds at the 2012 London Games (all-around and team).
True. She has changed coaches and home training bases multiple times, and, most recently, even swapped coaches within a training base.
But a rock has always been there for her, firmly at her side, providing clarity and support through it all: Karolyi.
“I feel really good knowing that she believes in me and that motivates me a lot, to have that extra support behind me,” Douglas said with a smile.
There’s no magic wand to explain how Douglas has eliminated the distractions that had been hurting her training and performances and been able to exchange them for a more disciplined approach. We all know that Douglas teetered on the edge of almost not making the team after a sub-par showing at nationals and a so-so start at trials to emerge after Karolyi’s nine-day training camp as a possible participant in the all-around.
At the two-day U.S. Olympic trials, for instance, Douglas appeared insecure on balance beam, hopping off the apparatus twice.
No more. Her insecurities have vanished.
“Probably the biggest accomplishment is the beam,” Karolyi said when asked where Douglas has made the biggest strides. “And her bars because (she’s) much more precise, and certainly the floor, it’s getting better – we still have to do a little step (improvement).”
Douglas, the first reigning Olympic champion to return to the ensuing Games since Nadia Comaneci in 1980, said: “I really feel like I’ve improved on the mental game a lot, and Martha pulls the best out of me. I’ve definitely improved. I’m just really excited about the journey ahead.”
For Douglas and her teammates – Simone Biles, Aly Raisman, Laurie Hernandez and Madison Kocian – the journey starts Sunday in team qualifying. It’s also the event that determines who’ll compete in the all-around with the top 24 advancing to the final, with a limit of two gymnasts per country.
2008 Olympic all-around gold medalist Nastia Liukin said that Douglas, who was runner-up to three-time World champ Biles at last year’s World Championships, is good at “turning it on” when it counts.
“With Simone being the quote, unquote, front runner – she’s expected to win – so that takes a little bit of pressure off Gabby,” Liukin sad. “But there’s still so much pressure on her going in as the reigning all-around champion. I mean, I don’t think people understand the amount of pressure.
“When you go into your first Olympics – Simone excluded because everyone knows who she is – when it’s your first Games, no one really knows who you are. You’re kind of creating a name for yourself. Simone has obviously done that to some extent, and (for) Gabby, it’s like everyone knows who she is. It’s a little more challenging, but then you want to remain focused that it is all about the team first, and, under these bright lights, get the team competition underway and then kind of see where you stand. Obviously, the qualifications for some people aren’t important, but it can be a defining moment, as you remember with Jordyn (Wieber). So you really want to do your best from the moment you step on the floor.”
Wieber was fourth overall in all-around qualifying at the 2012 London Olympics but third among Americans, behind Douglas and Raisman. That meant Wieber was out of the Olympic all-around final one year after winning the World all-around title. Two days later, she helped the U.S. to its first Olympic team gold since 1996.
Christian Gallardo, Douglas’ personal coach in Rio, said he knows his gymnast is ready.
“It was just getting her mind in the right place, making her feel comfortable and confident,” he said. “We’re there now, a lot because of Martha. On (Sunday), I’ll tell her to go out and do your gymnastics, because when she does that, when she’s in her zone, it’s beautiful. It’s phenomenal.”
Douglas said: “It’s not really feeling any different (than in London). We’ve done so many routines we’re kind of like on autopilot right now. It’s go, go, go, go.”
We’ll see how far she’ll go beginning Sunday.