SAN JOSE, Calif.—The succession of a new generation, which always happens quickly and mercilessly in the teen sport of women’s gymnastics, was on raw display Sunday at the U.S. Olympic trials.
Nastia Liukin, divine all-around gold medalist in Beijing, fell flat on her face in the event she once ruled, the uneven bars, and her comeback was over. Shawn Johnson, silver medalist in 2008, had withdrawn from the trials, unable to overcome an old skiing injury.
In their place, two 16-year-olds made their case to be favorites for Olympic gold, just as Liukin and Johnson did four years ago. Jordyn Wieber and Gabby Douglas matched each other flip for flip throughout the evening with Douglas emerging as trials champion by one tenth of a point.
Douglas and Wieber will lead the five-woman U.S. team in one of the glamour events at the July 27-Aug. 12 London Olympics.
Their scores may be close – and they both wore deep purple uniforms in a nod to the purple ribbons that will be attached to Olympic medals -- but their personalities couldn’t be more different. Wieber, the 2011 all-around world champion from DeWitt, Mich., reminds many of Shannon Miller because of her consistency and poker face.
Douglas, bubbling over with joyous pep, was the crowd favorite. She’s from Virginia Beach, Va., but at 14 made the difficult decision to leave home and train with Johnson’s coach, Liang Chow, in West Des Moines, Iowa. She talks at 70 mph and describes herself as “hyper.” Team coordinator Martha Karolyi has nicknamed her the “Flying Squirrel” because of her height on bars. Douglas became the first African-American to make the women’s team since Dominique Dawes.
Douglas held a narrow lead through all four rotations and went into the final apparatus with a .6 lead. She scored 15.3 on floor to Wieber’s 15.8 on vault.
“I looked up, saw my score and someone in the crowd said, ‘Gabby, you’re the winner,’” Douglas said. “Going through so many brutal years and being the underdog and rising up at the right time – oh, my gosh, it’s amazing.”
The tiny difference came down to a bobble and missed connection on beam by Wieber, who scored 14.9. Douglas also had unbalanced wobbles on beam and had to correct what she said could have been “a catastrophe” when her hand slipped on bars. She outscored Wieber on all but floor. It was the first time Douglas has beaten Wieber.
“Jordyn is a powerhouse who reminds me of Nadia [Comaneci], like a machine with a sturdy body,” said Bela Karolyi, former U.S. coach. “Gabby is still young but she has amazing agility and a light body, and she reminds me of Dominique.”
Competition for the other three spots was intense, and athletes and fans inside the HP Pavilion had to wait a tense 15 minutes for the selection committee headed by Martha Karolyi to decide the Olympic roster.
Once the names were announced, the gymnasts – who had been waiting together in the same room -- walked to the center of the floor, all in tears. They made a circle with the men’s team and jumped up and down as red, white and blue confetti rained from the rafters.
Steady Aly Raisman of Needham, Mass., one of the members of the U.S. team that won the world title in Tokyo, was an easy choice.
Californian Kyla Ross, the only gymnast to score more than 15 points on both balance beam and uneven bars Sunday, will be specialist in those two events.
The elegant McKayla Maroney, who missed a week of practice before trials after suffering a concussion and nasal fracture on a fall at the national championships, proved she was still sharp even though she finished seventh at trials.
“For quite a while I was thinking this is the ideal team but they had to prove themselves with all the lights and noise and cameras,” Martha said. “We had to test their nerves.”
Three alternates were named: Elizabeth Price, Sarah Finnegan and Anna Li.
Alicia Sacramone, the oldest competitor, fought hard for a berth in vault and balance beam. Sacramone was lauded for her poise in 2008 after her mistakes on vault contributed to the U.S. team’s loss to China.
Rebecca Bross, projected to be the big star of the 2012 Olympiad, saw her potential blighted by a serious knee injury two years ago. Her trials did not go as planned, either. She hit the floor twice on parallel bars, then after restarting twice, she ended her routine abruptly with another slipup for a score of 10.55.
Following Sacramone’s beam routine, fellow 2008 Olympian Liukin went up on uneven bars. She fell hard from the top bar, collected herself, loosened her neck, spit on her palms and resumed.
After she stuck her landing, she got a hug from father and coach, Valery Liukin, and a standing ovation from spectators. She flashed a smile of resignation.
The remaining three members of the men’s team were announced Sunday. Joining Miami’s Danell Leyva and new York’s John Orozco are Jonathan Horton (double medalist in Beijing), Jake Dalton and Sam Mikulak, who petitioned his way onto the roster after a sprained ankle limited him to one event (pommel horse) on Saturday.