SI.com's writers will preview each event from the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. Here, Brian Cazeneuve looks ahead to women's gymnastics.
Gabby Douglas, U.S.: After competing on the back end of the U.S. women's squad that won the team gold medal at the world championships in Tokyo last fall, the Virginia native burst onto the scene this year as a threat to win the all-around title.
SPORTS EXPLAINERS: GYMNASTICS
Douglas performed as an exhibition-only gymnast at the American Cup invitational event in New York in March and performed routines that might have won her the competition had they been judged. Her ascent continued at the national championships in June, where she placed second all-around, and then at the U.S. trials in San Jose, Calif., where held off celebrated teammate Jordyn Wieber for first place. Douglas is a crowd favorite, with an effusive personality and seeming capacity to fly across the gym. Bars are her best event, and in addition to being one of the favorites in the all-around competition, the gymnast known as The Flying Squirrel should contend for gold there, too. At 16, she is still relatively unproven internationally and would be trying to win her first international all-around crown.
Jordyn Wieber, U.S.: The Michigan teen won the world all-around title last year, making her the favorite to do the same in London. It has been a remarkable four-year run for the 17-year-old who won the American Cup event in 2005 as a 13-year-old and then captured the national all-around crown in 2011 by a whopping six points. Wieber finished .3 ahead of Douglas at nationals this year, before barely finishing second to her at trials in San Jose. Wieber is a solid, secure and explosive gymnast, who doesn't often make mistakes. She has also worked hard to become more aesthetic in the past few years. Though her weakest event has been bars, she upgraded her start value with a more difficult dismount she hit twice at trials. She now has to decide whether to keep the difficult repertoire they have added to her beam routine at recent competitions.
Alina Mustafina, Russia: The Russian stole the show at the world championships in 2010. She snared the all-around crown there, reaching the event finals on all four events and winning silver medals on three of them (vault, bars and floor). She had seemingly positioned herself perfectly for the London Olympics when she will be just shy of her 18th birthday. Then at the European championships in Berlin last year, she landed awkwardly on her Amanar vault -- a round-off back flip with 2 1/2 twists -- and tore both her MCL and ACL in her left knee, knocking her out for the season. She didn't return until March of this year when she won the all-around title at the Russian nationals.
Viktoria Komova, Russia: With Mustafina out of the world championships, Komova emerged as the top Russian gymnast and had a chance to win the all-around crown in 2011. She led Wieber going into the final event, but stumbled on the floor exercise and finished with silver. She then burst into tears beside the apparatus. Two days later, Komova rebounded to win gold on the uneven bars with a routine that combined grace and difficulty. It was a remarkable feat for Komova, who earlier in the year suffered a freak ankle injury when she tripped over some gym mats. She needed surgery and had to downgrade her vault difficulty in Tokyo, an adjustment that may have cost her an all-around title.
This is the strongest women's gymnastics team the United States has ever sent to an Olympics. Consider this: The U.S. team could walk away with gold medals in two individual apparatus events that Douglas and Wieber won't even compete in. The world champion on vault, McKayla Maroney is a favorite to win that event again in London. Vault finalists must actually throw two different vaults in the events finals and Maroney is one of the few who can stick a pair of vaults that score in the 16s with regularity. In addition, Brazil's Jade Barbosa, one of the likely contenders for a vault medal, was left off her Olympic team because of a sponsor controversy. After winning a bronze at the Tokyo worlds, Aly Raisman has upgraded her rock-solid tumbling and will be among the favorites to win the floor exercise event in London.
The U.S. and Russian gymnasts will likely fight for the top places in both the team and all-around competitions, leaving traditionally strong teams from Romania and China fighting to earn their share of the spoils. All-around bronze medalist Yao Jinnan and Sui Lu, the world champ on the balance beam, highlight China's team. Catalina Ponor and Larisa Lordache lead the Romanians.
Consider measuring the ages of gymnasts in puppy or kitten years. An 18-year-old woman is probably a seasoned veteran with some national titles, a trip to regional and world championships and more than her share of bumps and bruises behind her. A 20-year-old might as well start collecting social security, given the accelerated timeframe and toll the sport takes on a young body. Now imagine a woman twice the age of her rivals challenging for a medal. Impossible? Not if you're Oksana Chusovitina, the Soviet-born, Uzbek-reared German who enters the Olympics as the reigning silver medalist on the vault competition. She is 37-years-old. No, it's not a misprint. Thirty-seven. When she won her first world title on floor in 1991, most of her competitors weren't even born. Chusovitina changed citizenship and began representing Germany in 2006, having moved there to obtain medical treatment for her son, who has leukemia.
Remember the sight of U.S. coach Bela Karolyi carrying an injured Kerri Strug up to the medal podium at the Atlanta Games in 1996? That was the last year the U.S. women, known then as the Mag 7, won team gold at an Olympics. That cannot happen again this year. Why? The roster of gymnasts competing on each team was systematically trimmed down to six and now five. Each team may use three gymnasts on each apparatus in the team final. When coaches select their Olympic teams, they are likely to combine all-arounders who are good on all events with specialists who can boost the team score on weaker events and may even be good enough in their specialties to contend for apparatus medals.
July 31: Team
Aug. 2: All-Around
Aug. 5: Vault
Aug. 6: Uneven Bars
Aug. 7: Balance Beam, Floor Exercise