The Balance Beam Situation

Because gymnastics is a comedy, not a drama

Olympic Preview — Team USA

I feel like I’ve been missing something in these previews. It’s nagging at me. Some fun underdog I’m ignoring, some minor outside medal contender that probably doesn’t have a shot but deserves at least a pity mention.

Oh that’s right. The US.

Previewing the US is an altogether different prospect than previewing the other teams because, in addressing the US medal prospects, it’s no longer about “potentially maybe could.” The US will win the team final, and Biles will win the all-around. Trying to create a scenario where either of those things doesn’t happen requires so many “what if” contortions and imagined mistakes that it’s not even worth going into. It’s still sports and anything can happen, but come on. It’s all about likelihood, and the likelihood of both these wins is offensively high.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t still things to talk about. Like, say, the qualification lineups. Buckle up.

Team
Simone Biles – Reigning Simone Biles 2013-2015
Gabby Douglas – Probably hasn’t accomplished anything, at least that I can remember, who is she?
Laurie Hernandez – Nicknamed “the human Shakira,” really needs to work on her shyness
Madison Kocian – Like…bars?, her leg fell off in February but she’s fine
Aly Raisman – Team great-grandmother, apparently turning 98, wheeled around the nursing home under a quilt because Nana gets cold

Projected Olympic Lineups
Vault – (Hernandez) Douglas, Raisman, Biles
Bars – (Raisman) Biles, Douglas, Kocian (+ possible Hernandez TF)
Beam – (Douglas) Raisman, Hernandez, Biles
Floor – (Douglas) Hernandez, Raisman, Biles

Calm down. I’m not saying I like it. I’m saying I believe it’s the most likely outcome at this point. We won’t actually know anything for sure until podium training

Let’s dispense with the Gabby all-around issue first. That conversation pretty much ended when Martha told the conference call that there’s a “strong possibility” Gabby would do the all-around. That means yes. Martha doesn’t just say random things. She’s not me.

That decision is probably based less on how they’re looking in the all-around than on simple lineup logistics and roles. With Kocian the relatively easy choice to sit on the other pieces, all decisions revolve around the bars lineup. As Martha stated at trials, Douglas was selected for the team because of bars. Someone selected for bars doesn’t get left off bars, especially someone with the second-best routine on the team and at least a shot at the bars final.

When faced with a similar dilemma in 2015, Martha could have benched Dowell on bars in qualification and let the whole gang do the AA, but Dowell was there for bars, so she was going to do bars. Otherwise, what was her role? Douglas is here for bars. Ergo, she’s here for the all-around. Her specific strengths get her into the AA, even if she still looks like the #4.

I’ll also add that because Douglas has looked scrappy this summer, I wouldn’t want her first bars routine at the Olympics to be the team final. I’d want a test run. But problematically, that’s even more true for Hernandez than it is for Douglas. Would you want Hernandez’s first bars routine at the Olympics to be the team final? I wouldn’t really. (It’s ironic that the best argument to get Hernandez into the qualification bars lineup may be that she’s inconsistent on bars.)

This is why my “If I were Martha” lineup would be (Biles) Hernandez, Douglas, Kocian. Base it on simple routine quality, test your question marks, get them set for the team final, nothing fancy, done and done.

There are two counterpoints to that. The first, and most compelling, is precedent. In 2015, Nichols finished ahead of Raisman at nationals (just like Hernandez did at trials), but Martha felt that Raisman’s AA potential was higher at worlds, so Raisman got into the all-around. It’s quite likely that the exact same thing will happen this year, although it is incumbent upon Raisman to prove in training that her AA prowess warrants a place over a better bars worker because the default bars lineup would exclude her.

The other complication is Hernandez’s bars performance at trials, where she was erratic and finished behind not only Douglas but also Biles. If the US starts to feel more comfortable using Biles on bars in the team final over Hernandez, even with her lower difficulty, that makes it so much easier to leave Hernandez off bars in qualification as well.

Are there other things happening at the Olympics, or just this?

The only other minor lineup issue may be who does a DTY in the team final, which could go either way and doesn’t really matter at all.

Team Final
The US is going to win. The end.

I used up all my energy trying to sort through the qualification lineups.

We know the US can fall a bunch and still win, though the streak of no team final falls since 2010 is very impressive, and it would be a shame to see it end.

Let’s see, how else can we make this interesting?

Even during this run of dominance, the US has never won all four events in the team final. Last year was the closest, 1st on vault, beam, and floor, 2nd on bars. That’s the most likely stumbling block again this time, with a hit China bars rotation able to outscore what the US is bringing.

For reference, here are the US margins of victory during the run.

2015 – 5.174
2014 – 6.693
2012 – 5.066
2011 – 4.112

If China does what China can do, this should be more of a 2011 year than a 2014 year. Let’s hope so, at least. Give us something.

All-Around
Simone is going to win. The end.

This is less of a sure thing than the team because it’s just one person who has to have a bad day to change things, not three. Plus, Simone is only maybe two falls better than her teammates right now, rather than four. That’s all I can do for you. She’s kind of good.

Whoever qualifies into the final with Biles will be the favorite for silver. I’d expect something around mid-59 for a regular hit, while for anyone else in the competition, mid-59 would be a career highlight, best-routines-of-your-life moment.

It’s not a Biles-level advantage, though. There are several gymnasts who will expect a solidly 58 score, so one fall would endanger the silver medal for Insert Gymnast Name. Barring that fall, the field just isn’t dangerous enough this year to challenge. There’s no Iordache. There’s no Komova. There’s no Yao. Mustafina is still kicking but probably doesn’t have the floor routine right now to get an all-time Mustafina score. Melnikova is watering down. They’re not putting enough pressure on the US.

Events
Vault – Now that Biles has upgraded to the long-anticipated Cheng, she becomes the favorite for vault gold. The Cheng is still not at the level of the Amanar as she has a tendency to land a bit short, but her overall execution will be more than enough to keep her in control of the event.

Paseka’s back injury probably makes her less of a contender even if she’s able to go (opening up the bronze race), so really Biles’ only challenger will be Hong Un Jong. She’s an eternal mystery, but we know a few things. We know she’ll be good enough to force Biles to have to land under control to win gold, and we know she’ll submit the TTY for evaluation and then not compete it.

Bars – In spite of the tough bars field, Kocian should qualify to the final with her 6.7 routine. Douglas can also make it if she does her full 6.5 difficulty and performs it as well as she did at the classic, but she’ll also be subject to how many Germans, Russians, and Chinese hit their qualification routines since they could knock her out.

Kocian is among the gold-medal contenders, though I wouldn’t say she’s the favorite. If gymnasts like Fan, Spiridonova, and Downie hit, they could pass Kocian even if Kocian replicates her peak trials routines. She’s clearly in the mix for the medals, though, and should be considered a favorite for some color medal.

Beam – In the quest to give Simone FIVE AUTOMATIC GOLDS that NBC has been undertaking for the last few months, they seem to have forgotten that beam is a thing. Yes, Simone has the most difficulty in the field and will win as long as she stays on and doesn’t have another gale-force wolf turn, but it’s also beam. Things happen.

Raisman can also get into the final here, but the most likely second American is Hernandez, who has very competitive difficulty, tremendous overall execution, and has displayed remarkable steadiness this year. If she does what she’s capable of, she’s another likely medalist.

Floor – Floor should be the domain of Biles and Raisman. Biles remains worlds ahead of the rest of the field on floor, as she has been all quad, and Raisman is the next most likely gymnast in the competition to score in the 15s. They may just breeze through this thing to the top two spots.

Raisman was also the silver-medal favorite last year until she flew away in qualification, and if that were to happen again, Hernandez would be right there as a medal contender as well.

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