Breathe easy, gymnastics fans: Your time has come. Over the next three weeks the two U.S. artistic gymnastics teams will be chosen – five men and five women – for the Olympic Games in Rio, marking the first time the events are taking place separately since 1976.
We’ve employed the knowledge of Olympians Nastia Liukin and Jonathan Horton to help us better understand the weight that is set to fall on the shoulders of Team USA gymnasts over the coming days with the Games looming.
This coming weekend five tickets will be punched for the men’s team, which Horton was a part of in both 2008 and 2012. On Thursday, the men descend on Chaifetz Arena in St. Louis for the U.S. Olympic Trials, while Friday the women begin the P&G Gymnastics Championships ahead of their July 8-10 trials in San Jose.
USA Gymnastics sat down with both Horton and Liukin ahead of St. Louis to discuss what to expect there, who they have their eyes on, what sets this meet (and this summer as a whole) apart and much, much more.
USA Gymnastics: Nastia, the U.S. women are coming off gold in London in 2012 and back-to-back World Championship gold medals, so should people expect the same level from them in 2016?
Liukin: The expectation for this team going into Rio is higher than anything I can remember to be honest. The expectation was high for us in 2008 and then for the girls in 2012, but, with this group, how can you not have the expectation of gold? It’s impossible not to expect that out of these girls.
USA Gym: And what about on the guys’ side, Jon?
Horton: I’m most looking forward to who is going to show up. I don’t mean that to sound bad, but we’ve had a lot of inconsistencies in the team in the last few years. I would like to see everyone be on his game. People will be nervous with the pressure. Who is going to want this the most? (The Olympics in) 2012 didn’t turn out in our favor ; we had a bad day. We still have that same talent and ability and we have new guys who make us better. It’s a team loaded up with veterans, and those veterans are not happy with what happened before.
USA Gym: Jon, at the P&G Championships in Hartford a few weeks ago, one of those veterans – Sam Mikulak – won his fourth consecutive national title, while there were a few surprises in the field. How do the veterans handle the pressure vs. the newcomers?
Horton: At the Olympic trials, there’s more pressure there than at the Olympics, I think. I wanted to make the Olympic team so bad; I was so nervous! It’s only five guys that get to go. Those guys that have already gone to the Olympics, they shouldn’t be quite so nervous. Those nerves will come in Rio. I think as a rookie, someone who has never been there, that can weigh on them.
USA Gym: Nastia, how do we contextualize what Simone Biles – who herself is going for a fourth straight P&G Championships title – is doing right now? She’s also the reigning three-time world all around champion.
Liukin: I feel like in turning senior the year right after the Olympics, she has only continued to get better and better and just upgraded her gymnastics. I mean; her level! It has improved so much, even since 2013, particularly in her execution. Looking back at 2013 versus 2016 and her confidence… it’s really hard to compare. What she has been able to do has been incredible.
I think she’s the best story of the quad. As a first-time senior, she wins Nationals, wins Worlds and then after that she just starts booming. What she has been able to be able to do has been incredible. Simone has been on a level of her own. It stands out so much. There has been a lot of talent that has come through these years, and Simone remains the standard-bearer.
USA Gym: Jon is there any doubt in your mind that Mikulak doesn’t carry this team to Rio? He looked so solid in Hartford.
Horton: Sam, in my opinion, is 99 percent on the team. He’s almost lock. He’s a leader and he has intangibles, he’s a competitor. He’s very mature in everything he’s doing, and yet, I don’t think he has peaked. He makes weird mistakes here and there, so I want to see him put it all together.
USA Gym: Nastia two names that U.S. fans are so familiar with are Gabby Douglas and Aly Raisman, the remaining members of The Fierce Five from the 2012 Olympics. What challenge do they face in trying to get onto this 2016 team?
Liukin: I have been in the shoes of Gabby and Aly, trying to make an Olympic team for a second cycle (in 2012). They have made it look so easy, but it’s so hard to do! I give them both so much credit. They’re right there.
Personally, I have gotten a little closer to Aly recently. Aly’s journey has been so incredible to see how far she has come. She was amazing in 2012, but now to be able to watch her floor routine, her confidence level; she and Gabby both belong! They’re right there. The fact that they’re out there and competing to try and be a part of this team again is inspiring to me. (Editor’s note: Raisman won the U.S. Secret Classic in early June.)
USA Gym: Who else have you been keeping your eye on for the women’s team?
Liukin: I have loved watching Maggie Nichols this season. She has so much passion and fire in her eyes. She had a knee injury in April, but I’m cheering for her and she’ll be vying for a spot on the team.
I feel strongly that either one of Ashton Locklear and Madison Kocian can make the Olympic team because of their uneven bar routine. They should be ones to look out for. Madison is a World champion on that event now, and Ashton is right up there with her. It’s not going to come down to their unevens because they’ve proven themselves there, it’s going to come down to how they perform elsewhere. You can’t take one girl for one event. What if someone gets hurt?
For me, Laurie Hernandez, Bailie Key and Ragan Smith, they are right there as well.
USA Gym: Jon who are the other guys that we should be making note of in St. Louis?
Horton: Jake (Dalton) is doing what he’s always done: He’s a rock-solid competitor. He’s proven to me that he’s ready to go back to the Olympic Games and looked good by winning the bronze medal in Hartford.
You have to note Paul Ruggeri because he and Jake in my opinion are somewhat equals: Do we need a ring routine or a high bar routine? They went back and forth on floor and vault, but then a big ring score for Jake and a huge high bar score for Paul. Jake has the experience at the Olympics, but Paul was on the Worlds team last year, too.
(John) Orozco did better on day two after starting poorly (in Hartford). Day one in St. Louis is a big day to me. The selection committee has to have their team pretty much picked with stipulations after day one, so you want your name on that piece of paper going into day two.
Chris Brooks (silver medal) and Akash Modi (fourth place) also made strong pushes in Hartford, however. To me, this is Brooks’ time. He has had a heck of a career and he is finally peaking at the perfect moment. If he can go into day one of the Olympic Trials and score over a 14.5 on pommel horse, it’s hard to deny him his Olympic spot. They need his leadership and his passion; there is no one who is more passionate than Chris.
USA Gym: What is special about St. Louis and San Jose as events for the fans?
Liukin: These are amazing events for the fans. If you’re an American fan and don’t have the chance to go to the Olympics, to go to Beijing or London or Rio, this is your chance to see these guys and girls compete at an Olympic level – live! It’s all about this moment. You see these athletes achieving their dreams right before your eyes. It’s amazing.
USA Gym: Jon the U.S. guys will get a little extra rest vs. the girls. How does that help the men’s team in your opinion?
Horton: In terms of the rest, I think it’s imperative; it lets the whole thing sink in. I remember qualifying and then thinking, ‘Oh man! I’m on the Olympic team!’ I was freaking out a little bit. The whole time, I was shaking in my boots because you don’t know what to expect. I would have liked to have a nice workout or two and just breathe, so I think the extra time is great.
USA Gym: Looking at St. Louis and San Jose, can you talk about the different pressure that the athletes face vs. a normal competition they take part in?
Liukin: They’re definitely the hardest events out there. I always say it’s almost more nerve-racking and a harder challenge to make the Olympic team versus actually being in the Olympics. You can’t relax at the Olympics, per se, but at that point, it’s just about doing your job. The entire team is named at the trials; It’s just that the pressure is so enormous; it’s so high for these girls. They don’t get another chance.
USA Gym: Martha Karolyi has been a constant force as the national team coordinator for the women since 2001. Nastia, can you discuss how special she is? This is her last season coaching.
Liukin: I have nothing but the utmost respect for her. She has always been fair. I think that’s huge. For me, I remember there were times I wasn’t my best, but she believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself. Everyone said in 2008 said I should become a specialist and just do bars and beam, but she was pushing me to do all-around. She’s so smart. The pressure that she’s under, year after year, to create these gold-medal winning teams; can you imagine? She is the one who has to put that puzzle together, and I think she has done an incredible job. It’s been really cool to watch.