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Olympic Trials in Review


Back from Olympic Trials!

If you want all the details on what went down on the floor, in the arena, in the mixed zone, and on various random street corners outside the venue at trials, be sure to listen to our GymCastic recaps of night one and night two, featuring a full breakdown of that time John Macready blindfolded those girls and made them crawl on their hands and knees to find his treats, along with a very heated, very confusing argument about whether Aly Raisman should do the AA at the Olympics.

If you weren’t at the meet, you missed out on……like not that much. You’re fine. Although you were denied a lot of marching, and waving, and hugging, and more marching, and more hugging, and Amelia Hundley, and more Amelia Hundley, and Christina Desiderio almost dying on bars while Bill Strauss was like, “I can’t,” and John Orozco’s falsetto, and Aly Raisman nearly falling backwards off the podium and landing on her head right before beam. Plus, you missed out on your complimentary post-competition trash bag full of cereal, presented by Kellogg’s. Kellogg’s: Here’s a trash bag.

The absolute highlight of the whole competition was seeing thousands of little kids excitedly grab their free bags of mystery swag after the meet only to realize that it was just cereal. It was like watching MyKayla Skinner walk out for the team announcement all over again, but a thousand times in a row.

MyKayla was not happy with her cereal, you guys.

But then again, you got Trautwig instead, so you entire life is a nightmare. I can’t wait to watch and recap the NBC broadcasts. Don’t worry. It’s coming.

Mostly what we learned inside the venue is that the team is Laurie Hernandez and literally nobody else. The audience basically chanted her name every time she coughed, stepped, or sparkled. Surprisingly, it was all very Simone Who, especially on the second day. There has been a lot of discussion about what this year’s Fierce Five nickname is going to be (because life is garbage), but based on the audience’s behavior at trials, the nickname is Laurie.

There was momentary twitter excitement at the fact that their first initials spell out GLAMS (which is not a word), but then I figured out that their last initials spell out BRKDH. So, nickname achieved.

Now I’m getting a jump on the catchy nickname for 2020. How about Fierce Four And Also Then Two Other Random People? Rolls right off the tongue.

Laurie definitely got the most name-chanting of anyone. There was a little Gabby chanting as well for emotional support, and then there was a really sad moment when Maggie’s family tried to get a Maggie chant going and the rest of the crowd was having exactly zero of it, once again reinforcing the None for Maggie Nichols theme of the summer. Poor Maggie.

As for the Olympic team itself, I suppose I should have thoughts other than “inevitable team is inevitable,” but that’s sort of where we are. Although, if you want a good laugh, you should read all the sports reporters presenting some serious hot takes about the unfair Olympic team selection process in their first-ever articles about gymnastics. Reading people who don’t know anything about gymnastics trying to explain gymnastics to other people who don’t know anything about gymnastics is a real treat. It’s like playing a game of telephone at a school for the deaf.

Nothing that happened at Olympic Trials changed anyone’s mind, other than perhaps ensuring that Skinner and Smith got alternate spots over Nichols, which I didn’t peg coming in. I thought Nichols was going to finish higher in the all-around, but what became clear from trials is that without an Amanar, Nichols is simply in the pack and not ahead of the pack.

Now, let’s get to Drama Gabby, because that seems to be what all the hubbub is about. It’s fascinating to be separated from the narrative in a case like this. During the weekend, I wasn’t really checking twitter or reading what anyone had to say or hearing the commentary, viewing the competition with my own mind as the sole narrative force, so my main takeaway from Gabby’s performance at trials was not SHE’S FALLING APART. It was that she hit her necessary routines. She hit bars, beating Simone by an average of 2-3 tenths, and proved a viable enough backup on vault and floor.

It’s certainly not the expectation we had for her coming into the summer, as the #2 AAer in the country, but at trials she hit the minimum standard necessary to retain her place. That’s about as complimentary as I can be for her performance, which was not particularly good, but she wasn’t losing that spot unless she melted down on bars. Which she didn’t.

Starting with classic, it became quite clear that the US’s three beamers will be Biles, Hernandez, and Raisman, so Douglas falling on beam twice was a blow to her individual goals but was of only moderate importance to the team, just one notch more significant than Kocian falling on beam.

Only after leaving the competition was I informed that Gabby falling on beam was the biggest deal in the whole wide world.

The team that was ultimately selected is not the highest-scoring team based on nationals and trials, but it is the team I would have selected if I were in charge. It is also the Marthaiest possible team, one based on two primary defining factors, depth and potential.

We know a few things about Martha’s decision making. She likes having at least four TF options on each event, and she doesn’t change her mind at nationals or trials (hence having decided on this team in April and shouting it from the rafters to everyone who would listen). Martha does, however, tend to change her mind at the major competition itself based on training and qualification. Which, beyond the possibility for injury, is why TF depth is exceptionally important to her in terms of selection.

Take 2012, when Wieber was expected to do beam in the team final but was removed from the lineup after the judges adequately evaluated her Hate Sandwich in qualification, or 2015, when Raisman would have vaulted in the team final but was removed in favor of Douglas after Raisman triple-jumped her landing in qualification. The luxury of being able to swap someone out at the last minute (usually for Gabby) has been a defining characteristic of US teams, which is the counterpoint to the quite valid argument of “if you’re taking Gabby for bars, why not take Locklear?” Locklear is not a backup. Douglas could be. In case Raisman’s vault looks wonky again. In case things change on beam. In case someone melts down in qualification. In case. In case. In case. Douglas will be right there.

I would have been more inclined to at least consider Locklear to go along with Kocian because of that high scoring potential, but that team has minimal backup depth and is highly un-Martha. Even though Gabby had a weak meet, at her weakest, she still provides critical safety and reinforcements on a team of five.

A similar argument can be made with regard to Skinner. She’s not a backup on her non-good events, but Skinner’s omission likely has more to do with the second critical characteristic of this team, betting on potential.

The “controversy” over taking Douglas instead of Skinner is a vague macrocosm of the scenario with the Romanian spot, except with the opposite decision made. Rather than take the one who looked stronger at trials, Martha is taking the gymnast with the bigger upside and betting on things to come into line over the next four weeks (much how I would have preferred Romania to view Iordache). Skinner hit her absolute peak at trials. Douglas certainly didn’t, but her absolute peak is much higher than Skinner’s.

The US has the luxury of thinking this way because even if Douglas repeats her trials routines at the Olympics, the team is still in a very comfortable position with the other four. A team of just Biles, Raisman, Hernandez, and Kocian would still win. But, if Gabby does return to Gabby level by the Olympics, then it’s a huge bonus and the US will suddenly be bringing its most talented possible team. So, why not bet on that possibility when you have a safety net that can do the heavy lifting if Gabby does end up having another bad one?

I do think that part of the trouble being caused by this team selection is the oft-repeated US WAG lie of “it’s not what you’ve done in the past; it’s what you do right now.” That’s false. It has always been false. And of course it’s false. What you’ve done in the past is taken into account, it does matter, and it should matter. Not to take Douglas’s past accomplishments, demonstrated talent, and typical season trajectory into account would be to unnecessarily disable the team and inhibit it from the heights it could reach.

That’s why, when Martha Karolyi, Terin Karolyi, Tatiana Karolyi, and Rhonda Karolyi took their unnecessarily long walk of fame around the arena (I can’t believe you think I like attention!) and into the selection dungeon, my only real question was whether Macready was going to hit them with a t-shirt gun on the way out.

No luck.

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