It was goodbye to the reigning Olympic all-around champion and hello to the new faces of women’s gymnastics at the HP Pavilion in San Jose on Sunday night. And on both counts there were plenty of tears.
Gabrielle Douglas, of Virginia Beach, Va., won the Olympic Trials and guaranteed her spot on the US women’s team heading to London. Just one tenth of a point behind her, the current all-around world champion, Jordyn Wieber of DeWitt, Mich., was also named to the squad after a 10 minute meeting at which the USA Gymnastics selection committee determined the remaining four women to represent the US. Joining Douglas and Wieber will be McKayla Maroney, of Long Beach, Cal., Alexandra Raisman of Needham, Mass. and Kyla Ross of Aliso Viejo, Cal. It’s the first Olympics for all five women. The emotional roller coaster of the intensive training, along with the injuries they have overcome — including a concussion and a fractured nose for Maroney just two weeks ago — over the past four years, plus the pressure of the two-day Trials, spilled out in uncontrolled tears as the team got the news in the locker room deep inside the Pavilion.
The evening was bittersweet for gymnastics fans. They welcomed five new Olympians but watched the reigning Olympic all-around champion, Nastia Liukin, say goodbye to her competitive career. Liukin had been attempting a comeback for London, and was hopeful that she could recreate some of the magic moves that had earned her the team silver medal and four individual medals in Beijing, matching the highest medal count of any US women’s gymnast at a single Olympics. For Liukin, it wasn’t about winning more medals for herself; in London, she wanted to help the US women’s team earn its first team gold since 1996.
But it wasn’t to be. On the event that she dominated in Beijing, the uneven bars, Liukin struggled on both days of the Trials, losing strength during her routine and falling on the dismount on the first day, and missing a release move that landed her flat on her stomach during the second round. She regained her hallmark grace on the balance beam, ending her career with a standing ovation from the crowd.
“I knew that I had no doubt in my mind I was going to come out here and finish and walk out of here on my terms, not because somebody wanted me to be done,” Liukin said. “To come full circle, I don’t regret a thing.”
In the years leading up to these Trials, Liukin had said that she would have been “haunted” by the question of whether or not she would have been able to make this squad, and help the US earn that team gold, had she not tried. But a shoulder injury, and the constant pressure from younger gymnasts such as the quintet headed for London made that impossible. Now she knows, and the haunting can stop. She walks away from competitive gymnastics with the same grace and dedication to the sport that she always demonstrated as an athlete.
That’s a lesson that the newest US women’s Olympic team will likely remember as they head to one more training camp at the National Training Center outside Houston, Tex., under national coordinator Martha Karolyi’s watchful eye, before leaving for London. While four of the five members are part of the squad that won the team gold at the world championships last year, Karolyi will likely demand more, in the form of stabler routines without the minor bobbles that littered the performances at Trials. Douglas is strong on the uneven bars, where her high-flying release moves earn her high scores, but struggles on beam, and Wieber, who is always intense when competing, could impress the international judges by competing with more flair. Maroney, the current world champion on vault, will undoubtedly wow with her soaring tumble through the air on that event, but can become more consistent on the uneven bars and floor. And Raisman and Ross, both consistent, solid competitors, just need to keep their thoughts from straying to the enormity of being first-time Olympians and focused on completing their crowd-pleasing — and high-scoring — routines.