By Nick McCarvel
What makes for an explosive four days in St. Louis? Try Simone Biles going for her fourth consecutive P&G Gymnastics Championships gold medal and a host of American men vying for five spots on the U.S. Olympic team for the Rio Summer Games.
That’s what gymnastics fans have to look forward to as the women take to Chaifetz Arena for the P&G Championships and the men do battle in the U.S. Olympic Trials, held separately from the women’s trials for the first time since 1976.
Who to Watch – Men
If there is any gymnast who is confident to show us his current form in the Show-Me State, that’d be Sam Mikulak, the 2012 Olympian having just won his own fourth consecutive national all-around title, the first to do so since Blaine Wilson won five from 1996 to 2000.
Fellow London Olympian Jake Dalton is coming off a third-place finish at the men’s P&G Championships in Hartford a few weeks ago, but the other members of that 2012 squad – John Orozco and Danell Leyva – will have uphill battles to climb having had less-than-satisfactory performances there.
The cast of characters is many in the race for tickets to be punched to Rio, however: Chris Brooks, a 2012 Olympic alternate was the silver medal winner in Hartford, while Akash Modi, the 2015 NCAA all-around champion, was fourth. Donnell Whittenburg, Paul Ruggeri, Alex Naddour, Yul Moldauer, Sean Melton, Marvin Kimble and C.J. Maestas also factor into the Rio conversation, while Steven Legendre, Brandon Wynn and Eddie Penev will have to bounce back from disappointments of their own in Hartford to make strong Olympic cases.
That’s right: About 15 guys lining up for five Olympic spots and three replacement opportunities. “Crowded” barely begins to paint the full picture.
Brooks, Naddour, Ruggeri, Whittenburg, Leyva and Wynn were part of the American team that was fifth at the World Championships last year, the same spot Team USA found itself in at the 2012 Olympics. The hope and thought is that with the right team coming into place and puzzle pieces fitting where they need to, the Americans can be in medal contention, much like their 2014 World Championships bronze.
“We’ve got an amazing team, we have a team that can push for the gold medal in Rio,” said two-time Olympian Jonathan Horton in an interview last week with USA Gymnastics. “These guys have been on a mission to prove the rest of the world wrong. They have been working really hard leading up to this perfect point in time. Now, it’s time to deliver.”
Horton points out what fans should take note: While the women will be competing for podium spots in St. Louis, the men want to make their best showing under pressure and mathematically for the selection committee, who in the end will choose the five Olympians and three replacement athletes for Rio.
So, who’s it going to be?
Who to Watch – Women
Here’s something most people following along this weekend can attest to: It’s almost impossible to take your eyes off Simone Biles no matter where or when she’s competing.
The 19-year-old is the three-time reigning U.S. and World champion, and this weekend begins her official march towards what many think is destiny: An Olympic gold medal. But what sport makes any great athlete do – and particularly Olympic sports – is earn such accolades, and Biles’ quest to top her 14 World championship medals with Olympic hardware could, in fact, be the story of Rio.
First, however, is the P&G Championships, which features the two lone remaining Fierce Five members looking for back-to-back Olympic appearances: Gabby Douglas and Aly Raisman. Both gymnasts have been gaining stream in the 10 months since last year’s Nationals, in which Raisman won bronze and Douglas, the reigning Olympic champ, was fifth. Raisman won the all-around title at the Secret Classic in Hartford earlier this month.
If either Douglas or Raisman makes the team, it would be a first for an American woman since Dominique Dawes and Amy Chow took repeat trips to the Games in 2000. (Dawes was a three time Olympian: 1992, 96, 2000.) For Douglas, no reigning Olympic all-around champ has made the trip to Olympia again since Nadia Comaneci in 1976 and 1980.
The similarity for the women to the men is that the talent crop is a vast one, and beyond Biles, Douglas and Raisman it includes Maggie Nichols, Madison Kocian, Alyssa Baumann, MyKayla Skinner, Ashton Locklear, Laurie Hernandez, Ragan Smith and Brenna Dowell to name a few.
Well, that’s more than a few.
Nichols, a hard-charging Minnesotan, was the lone American woman to compete on all four events in the team final at the 2015 World Championships, where the U.S. won gold. She is trying to come back full force after knee surgery in April, having injured herself on a vault landing. Her strategy for St. Louis might be to get her feet under her again – literally – before going full force at the Women’s Olympic Trials July 8 and 10 in San Jose.
Biles is no doubt the favorite, though Douglas has shown marked improvement after finishing in second at Worlds last year. Kocian tied for the uneven bar gold medal in Glasgow, as well, while Nichols was a bronze medalist in the floor exercise.
St. Louis will be a warm-up event – as Nationals becomes every four years – for the women, looking to hone in their best skills and clean up what they’ve been struggling with ahead of the trials.
While the Biles train will no doubt pick up speed in St. Louis, who is close behind en route to San Jose (and then Rio) is what will be most interesting to see this coming weekend.