By Jo-Ann Barnas, Special contributor
RIO – Well, they won the warm up – that’s for sure.
It was only podium training – their first time on the competition floor – but the U.S. Olympic women’s gymnastics team put on such a thoroughly grand performance Thursday at the Rio Olympic Arena they certainly looked the part of repeat Olympic gold medalists.
How good were they?
Try 20 for 20.
That’s right. Twenty routines up, 20 routines hit. No falls. No major errors.
Wearing their sparkling red patriotic leotards, it began with Gabby Douglas, the defending Olympic all-around champion and one of two London 2012 vets (Aly Raisman is the other), on floor and ended with Madison Kocian’s solid effort on balance beam.
And don’t forget lots of great stuff in between, from three-time World champion Simone Biles to Laurie Hernandez and Raisman.
“To be honest, the way we train, we would expect them to hit 20,” said U.S. Olympic women’s team coach Aimee Boorman, who’s also the personal coach of Biles.
With team qualification looming on Sunday – team finals are Tuesday – there’s no question that U.S. women’s national team coordinator Martha Karolyi has her group getting ready to peak at just the right moment. For certain, she has managed to keep the U.S. women’s program on a dominate path since London, winning medal count at each of the three World Championships leading up to Rio.
“I’m pleased – I think the girls showed consistency,” Karolyi said. “Nobody had any falls or major mistakes. Certainly, we can make a few little fine-tuning things; we’re still in search of perfection. But I think the girls showed that they feel prepared and they’re confident they can keep (this up) under difficult conditions.”
Although Karolyi, Boorman or Rhonda Faehn – USA Gymanstics’ senior vice president of the women’s program – wouldn’t confirm Sunday’s lineup, here’s the order that was presented during podium training Thursday (keep in mind that four, not five, gymnasts compete in team qualifying):
- Floor exercise: Douglas, Hernandez, Biles, Raisman (Kocian)
- Vault: Hernandez, Douglas, Raisman, Biles (Kocian)
- Uneven bars: Raisman, Biles, Douglas, Kocian (Hernandez)
- Balance beam: Douglas, Raisman, Hernandez, Biles (Kocian)
“We’ll still have lineup meetings because nothing’s been finalized yet,” Boorman said.
Boorman said it was important for the team to take what they’ve been doing in camp and take it into the competition arena during podium training. She said that since trials, she has seen the most improvement in Douglas, who struggled at nationals but was impressive enough at trials to get the nod for Rio by the selection committee.
“We talk about everything being normal,” said Boorman, who’s also trying to help Biles, 19, become the first woman to win as many as five golds out of six at one Olympics. “They’ve done these routines thousands of times, these skills over and over. So I feel like my job right now is to keep them focused on what they’ve been doing in a positive frame of mind. They all have, like, one thing that makes them click to hit a routine and so I try to pick up those things in training, the things their coaches say to them because if I’m up on the podium and their personal coach isn’t, I have to do what’s best for them to get them to perform at their best.”
Karolyi knows she has helped produce perhaps her most-balanced team ever. Sure, Biles is the most dominate and most captivating to watch, but she’s joined on the Rio squad by two teammates who have at least one individual World Championship medal in the past Olympic quad: Douglas, the 2012 Olympic all-around gold medalist and 2015 world all-around silver medalist, and Kocian, 2015 World gold medalist on uneven bars.
Raisman said that Karolyi has been so satisfied with their training that she has given the gymnasts the day off on Friday.
“She knows we’re really ready,” said Raisman, the U.S. team captain.
Biles said: “Yes, it was a very good session for us to all come out and hit our routines. So we’re very excited.”