Biles set to lead Team USA in Rio
posted on 07/10/2016

© John Cheng

By Nick McCarvel

SAN JOSE – Four years later, what will we call this group of five?

How about fantastical? Phenomenal? What if we went with the fairytale five?

It was a dream-come-true kind of evening Sunday at the SAP Center, with Simone Biles, Aly Raisman, Laurie Hernandez, Gabby Douglas and Madison Kocian being named by the selection committee to represent Team USA at next month’s Olympic Games in Rio.

Ashton Locklear, Ragan Smith and MyKayla Skinner will serve as the three replacement athletes for Team USA.

At the start Sunday night, all eyes were locked on the 14 women vying for those five coveted spots, Biles earning hers automatically by winning the U.S. Olympic Trials with an all around score of 123.250, the three-time reigning World and four-time U.S. champion outdistancing Laurie Hernandez by 2.100 points (121.150).

“It’s a moment I’ll feel forever,” a wide-eyed Biles said about hearing her name announced by national women’s team coordinator Martha Karolyi. “I’m excited about the whole team being together to start training.”

Hernandez, just 16 and the 2015 junior national champion, was her explosive self on Sunday night again, following up her bronze medal from nationals two weeks ago with another top-three finish. She said the nerves crept up on her before the start of the competition, Karolyi the one to come over and calm her down after a fall on uneven bars in warm-up.

“It was hitting me that we were at Olympic trials,” Hernandez explained. “I got a little bit nervous and Martha came over and told me not to overthink it and just do it. She told me, ‘You know you’re going to hit it when the time comes.’ And I did.”

In the two-day event, Raisman was third, Skinner was fourth, with Smith, Maggie Nichols and Douglas going five, six, seven.

It was another up-and-down night for the reigning Olympic all around champion Douglas, who came out firing with strong showings on vault and uneven bars in the first two rotations, registering 15-plus scores on both.

But then came beam, which had been her Achilles heel on Friday. She fell once again, this time on a full twisting back tuck, but would finish the routine strong and then deliver well on floor, leaving her Olympic fate in the hands of the selection committee.

Karolyi, however, didn’t bat an eye when asked about Douglas’ selection for the team.

We picked her “because we feel that she can contribute to the team,” Karolyi said simply. “She has a bar score and has the other three events where she’ll do fine.”

“I can improve a lot more,” Douglas said of the time between now and Rio. “I’m going to go into the gym and work so hard. I’m willing to put everything into it.”

Douglas is the first Olympic all-around champion to return to the Games since Nadia Comaneci in 1980. She and Raisman are the first American women to make back-to-back Olympic teams since 2000, when Amy Chow and Dominique Dawes returned from the 1996 squad. Dawes was also a member of the 1992 team.

Kocian, for her part, delivered on uneven bars as she needed to, hitting a personal-best 15.900 and separating herself from Locklear, who had been pushing the reigning World champion on bars all season.

“I tried to stay in the zone,” Kocian said of her bars routine, which came in the second rotation. “I was really happy with that. I thought I was going to get the 16 today, but maybe it’s holding out for Rio. I’ll take that routine any day.”

While Kocian was best on bars, Biles soared to a monster 16.200 from her Amanar on vault, sending a roar through the arena. She had also opened the evening with her world-class floor routine (scoring a 15.550) and Hernandez was an evening-high 15.700 on beam.

Hernandez finished the night’s competition with that routine, all 13 other gymnasts meeting her off the podium for hugs and congratulations. That’s when the tears began for Raisman, who – after her floor routine in the fourth rotation – stepped off the floor and waved to the crowd, stopping for a few seconds and putting her hand to her heart.

“I was just trying to take it in,” said Raisman, who was ice-cool on her 15.250 beam, as well. “I was trying to relax and have fun.”

The selection process was far from relaxing (or fun) for Karolyi and her committee, however.

“I felt like it was one of the hardest decisions we’ve had to make because of the strength of the team,” Karolyi said, this year being her last at the helm. Then, she added: “I was emotional, probably for the first time.”

The entire American contingent has appreciated Karolyi’s contribution to their gymnastics, Team USA building the strongest program internationally, having won Olympic team gold in 2012, and World Championship team golds in 2011, 2014 and 2015.

“She has meant the world to me,” Biles said of Karolyi. “She always gets that extra 10 percent out of you. I hope we make some good memories for her in Rio, too.”

Biles, expected to win all-around gold in Rio, as well, will go into the next four weeks of training with a chip on her shoulder. Like at the P&G Gymnastics Championships a few weeks ago, she ended her meet with a mistake on beam.

“I guess I’m human,” she said, dejected but grinning. “But, it happens.”

“You don’t want to end your Olympic trials with a fall on your last event,” Nastia Liukin noted on NBC, saying Biles will want to be near-perfect in Rio.

It was a near-perfect night for the fans inside SAP Center, some 17,000-plus packed in for the second of two competition nights this weekend. As the team hugged and huddled following Hernandez’s beam routine, the arena broke out into “USA! USA!” chants.

“I’m glad it’s over,” said Raisman, the TV cameras picking up her audio. She was exhausted and relieved.

Hernandez, the youngest of the group by some three years, said that a year ago the gymnast who won the U.S. junior title would be in awe of what she accomplished this weekend.

“I think I would go and high-five myself, past Laurie high-fiving future Laurie,” she said, smiling. “She would say, ‘Thanks for moving forward and not stopping.’”

The next stop for Hernandez and her teammates, however? Rio. We’ve got less than a month to come up with that nickname…