SAN JOSE – Surrounded by journalists at the conclusion of the P&G Gymnastics Championships two weeks ago in St. Louis, Simone Biles started to talk about how the Olympic process is a long one, and that the women looking for a spot on Team USA have plenty of time.
Then, she caught herself: “Gosh, I guess it’s here,” she said, realizing U.S. Olympic Trials in San Jose were indeed next. “There’s no other step aside from getting to Trials and making the team.”
That’s what will be on the mind of Biles and her adversaries inside a sold out SAP Center Friday and Sunday nights, the second in which five gymnasts will be named to the team to represent the U.S. in Rio starting next month.
“Girls get into this sport because you want to go to the Olympics, you want to be an Olympian,” said Sam Peszek, a member of the 2008 Beijing team. “At trials, it’s all about how you handle the pressure.”
That pressure will be on the shoulders of Biles in a different way, who is all but assured her spot on the U.S. team having three consecutive World Championships to her name and a record fourth U.S. title two weeks ago.
Though Biles won in St. Louis going away (she was first by nearly four points), she had a couple of bobbles on the balance beam, her last event of the weekend. She walked away frustrated with herself, but Peszek sees that as a good thing.
“I think it was great that she had a mistake,” Peszek said. “She’s so talented and has so much power, so a mistake is good and it gets her excited to get back in the gym and work hard. It was another P&Gs that she won, but for her to be disappointed, that shows how much of a champion she is.”
Aly Raisman and Gabby Douglas are the lone returners to the trials scene, having been a part of the gold-winning Fierce Five team in 2012. Raisman was second at Nationals while Douglas, the reigning Olympic all around champion, finished fourth behind Biles, Raisman and 16-year-old breakout star Laurie Hernandez.
“If I was picking the team, Aly would be on it because she has been there before, she’s a veteran and she’s a team leader,” Peszek explained. “Gabby is still very talented, but she didn’t look as polished or as sharp as she normally does in St. Louis. I would like to see her focus in on the details a little bit more. I think it might be good that she’s getting mistakes out of the way, but it’s an Olympic year and only five gymnasts are being put on the team. You want a rock-solid team.”
And Martha Karolyi – in her final year as women’s national team coordinator – has quite the crew to choose from. Not just Biles, Raisman, Douglas and Hernandez, but Maggie Nichols, Madison Kocian, Ashton Locklear, Brenna Dowell, Ragan Smith and MyKayla Skinner still look to factor into the Rio conversation, among others.
Alyssa Baumann (seventh in St. Louis) withdrew from the competition last week, after sustaining an elbow injury in training.
“It’s good to have this problem,” Peszek said of the depth of the U.S. women. “We could fill up three Olympic teams.”
All eyes will be focused on the uneven bars, where Kocian (World champion in 2015) and Locklear (World finalist in 2014) will wage a fierce battle. If there are any cracks in the U.S. women’s gymnastics dynasty, it is on bars, and Kocian and Locklear are rather rock solid there. Ashton edged Madison by less than two tenths for the title in St. Louis.
“I don’t know how you choose,” Peszek said should the pick come down to Kocian or Locklear. “They both have flawless routines.”
Peszek sees Nichols as needing a strong two days in San Jose after she only competed on bars and beam in St. Louis, her knee injury from this spring still lingering. Peszek recalled a similar situation in 2008 that plays in Maggie’s benefit, however.
“In 2008, when I on the Olympic team, Bridget Sloan was going through the same injury situation and she ended up being the healthiest of all of us at the Olympics,” she said. “She was so strong at Worlds last year, (but) she needs a breakout trials.”
Peszek wants to see much the same in San Jose as she did in St. Louis from the buoyant and confident Hernandez, who pressed Raisman for all-around silver and was especially electric on the floor exercise. She was junior champion in 2015, and is proving that she can handle the pressure on the senior level when she needs to most.
“She thrived in St. Louis,” Peszek exclaimed.
Peszek says for fans to keep their eyes on Biles (well, you don’t have to ask twice!) not just during her events, but before and after, too, which she explained is the most enlightening part of the Simone process to her.
“For me, I love watching her during a meet because even though her gymnastics can seem automatic because she is so, so good, she is realistic and very human between events,” she said. “She is bummed or celebrating or cheering for the other girls. To me, that’s what makes her so likable and her personality shines through. You can see her as a human.”
That human experience – the pressure, excitement, nerves and performance – is what shines through the most in San Jose as the Olympics loom. Who handles it all the best? Which five gymnasts make up Team USA?
“There is soooo much pressure,” Peszek said, not holding back. “I would say that Gabby and Aly have more pressure because they are expected to be on this team, they’ve done this before. For the other girls, this is their shining moment. Can they handle it? Do they rise to the occasion? When you get to the Olympics, the entire world is watching you and you’re competing for your country. This meet will speak volumes on what we will see there.”