SAN JOSE — The morning after narrowly making the Olympic gymnastics team following a shaky performance at the U.S. trials, Gabby Douglas acknowledged that she’d lost her bearings for stretches during her quest to become a two-time Olympian.
Her mother, Natalie Hawkins, who accompanied her daughter on the rounds of interviews and photo shoots scheduled for the newly minted Olympians on Monday morning, elaborated on the difficulties.
For one, Hawkins disclosed for the first time that a 2015 knee injury, suffered on the eve of the 2015 world championships but not diagnosed until afterward, meant her daughter had to be on crutches for three months but did not require surgery. Douglas won silver in the all-around at that event, an impressive result nonetheless.
Hawkins also acknowledged that the two coaching changes following Douglas’s gold medal triumph at the 2012 London Olympics had been a source of stress. On the counsel of contract lawyers, Hawkins said, Douglas parted with longtime coach Liang Chow soon after resuming training following a 2½ -year hiatus in 2014. Then, on the eve of the Olympic trials, Douglas switched from Kittia Carpenter, who’d been her primary coach at Buckeye Gymnastics in Ohio, to a male co-coach she felt more comfortable with, according to her mother.
“She definitely had to overcome many obstacles,” Hawkins said. “We haven’t spoken about them publicly because we wanted to give her that opportunity to focus.”
Asked whether the six-part Oxygen reality series chronicling Douglas’s Rio pursuit, “Douglas Family Gold,” had been a distraction, Hawkins said not, noting that filming had wrapped up in 2015 and explaining that the segments had been a welcome occasion for Douglas and her three siblings to get together.
Douglas, 20, acknowledged that going through the Olympic trials this year had been far more stressful than it was as a 16-year-old unknown from Virginia Beach. Douglas placed seventh Sunday among the 14 gymnasts vying for five Olympic spots at the two-day Olympic trials, falling off the balance beam both nights.
“A lot of people have so much expectations because being the reigning all-around Olympic champion, everyone is expecting you to go out and do even better than before — which I will,” Douglas said.
While Douglas’s selection to the Rio Olympic squad was touch and go, her marketing team was in go-mode, with her agent, publicist, hair-and-makeup assistant, and a Nike representative accompanying her on the media rounds Monday. Douglas tweeted a link to a new Mattel “Shero” (short for “super hero”) Barbie doll that bears her likeness, with the hashtags #YouCanBeAnything#Shero.
For many who watched the U.S. Olympic trials at San Jose’s SAP Center, both ardent gymnastics fans and casual viewers alike, the team selections were puzzling.
After a tortuous 20-minute wait, in which the 14 gymnasts tried keeping the chatter light as their stomachs knotted, Marta Karolyi emerged from a closed-door meeting to announce a five-woman squad composed of the event’s first-, second-, third-, seventh- and eighth-place finishers.
For this Olympic cycle, as well as the previous under the exacting national team director of U.S. women’s gymnastics, the squad was never going to be based on strict adherence to the Olympic trials, which represent the final competition before the Summer Games.
Karolyi chose the squad with the goal of winning the team gold medal — the sport’s most prestigious prize — which means game-planning for its peculiar requirements. In the team final, which the U.S. women won in 1996 and 2012, each country must choose three athletes to compete on the four apparatuses. All three gymnasts’ scores count, so any weak link on an event is costly.
For Karolyi, three of the five selections were obvious.
Simone Biles, the 19-year-old regarded as the greatest gymnast the sport has produced, clinched her spot by winning the all-around championship. And she did so in typically commanding fashion (more than a two-point margin), finishing first on vault, dazzling with an Amanar that was as close to perfection as humanly possible, and first with her show-stopping floor routine.
Next was 16-year-old Lauren Hernandez, a delightful performer who had the crowd clapping along to her sassy floor routine and finished first on beam.
Then came 22-year-old Aly Raisman, the most decorated U.S. gymnast at the 2012 London Olympics, who earned her spot through the reliability and general excellence of her routines, highlighted by a second-place finish on floor.
At this point, Karolyi had two spots to fill. And at this point, it was time to take stock of her three core performers and evaluate where their strengths duplicated one another’s (floor exercise) and where they needed help (uneven bars).
With Biles, Hernandez and Raisman strong on three of the four events, the squad didn’t necessarily need to add the country’s fourth- or fifth-best all-around gymnast. It needed two with a track record of excelling on the uneven bars.
That meant Madison Kocian, 19, the eighth-place finisher at the trials, who won the 2015 world title on bars in a four-way tie and edged fellow bars specialist Ashton Locklear by two-tenths of a point for gold on bars at the trials.
The final spot, then, came down to Locklear and Douglas, who finished third on uneven bars. In Karolyi’s view, Douglas was the better choice for a few reasons. As the 2012 Olympic all-around champion and 2015 world silver medalist in the all-around, Douglas has broader-based skills than Locklear, who competes only on bars and beam.
That said, Douglas has looked far from polished in the run-up to Rio. Her falls from the beam on both nights of the Olympic trials weren’t the only concern; her powerful routine isn’t nearly as crisp and precise as judges like.
But if there’s one thing Karolyi is expert at, it’s putting young gymnasts through rigorous training regimens that elevate their skill, provided they can stand the pressure. And Douglas has stood up to pressure before.
The question is: Will the nine-day training camp that Karolyi has in store for the Rio-bound team be long enough for Douglas to reclaim her world-class form?
Douglas believes it is and said she’s ready to go to work.
“I just really want to focus on being consistent in every event and hitting every single turn and pretty much having no mistakes, no falls and hitting more than I miss,” she said.