SAN JOSE — At an Olympic gymnastics trials that promised limited drama, there might just be some after all. Gabby Douglas looks as if she could be in trouble. The reigning Olympic all-around champion and world all-around silver medalist in 2015, Douglas was a presumed shoe-in to make the Olympic team in 2016. But after a sudden coaching adjustment that Douglas refused to label a “change” shortly before the meet, then a fall off the balance beam on a relatively easy skill Friday night, the darling of the London Games was left to explain the performance that left her seventh overall after the first night of trials. In stark contrast, teammates Simone Biles, Laurie Hernandez and Aly Raisman each solidified their likely Olympic selection Sunday night with strong performances.
“I just haven’t felt the same passion,” Douglas said after the meet. “I’m not giving up, but I know by Sunday that something needs to change.”
Douglas made one sudden change upon her arrival in San Jose. After a workmanlike, but uninspired, showing at the U.S. Nationals in St. Louis in June, she decided to have a different coach with her on the floor during competition. Christian Gallardo has worked with Douglas throughout her comeback at Buckeye Gymnastics in Columbus, but Buckeye’s Kittia Carpenter had been the one with her on the floor at each of her meets since her return last year. In San Jose, it was Gallardo, not Carpenter, on the floor. Speaking for the first time about the switch, Douglas said after the meet that Gallardo was better qualified to spot her on competition floor.
“Christian has been coaching me the whole time,” she insisted. “It was better to have a male out there to help out with spotting. It isn’t a change.”
The adjustment isn’t new for Douglas. Liang Chow guided her during her run to the London Olympics, but Douglas left Chow’s gym after two aborted post-London returns. Chow reportedly was not pleased with the out-of-gym commitments that put Douglas on magazine covers and even landed her a movie and a reality TV show.
Martha Karolyi, the U.S. team’s program director, used different language to discuss the situation. “Gabby told me about this change,” she said. “I would not have done it, but if there is not good chemistry with the coach, then it is the gymnast’s decision.” Still, although Karolyi pulled Douglas aside for a pep-talk after the competition, she seemed to defend Douglas’s likely place on the team. The five-woman squad is determined not exclusively by point accumulation at the nationals and trials, but rather by how individual gymnasts can contribute to the team final that the U.S. is favored to win. With three gymnasts allowed on each apparatus, the composition of the team is a puzzle of pieces that must fit together so the team has three strong competitors on each event with a Plan B handy if someone is hurt. Douglas is strongest on bars, where the team is weakest. As it is, the team will probably select one bars specialist for the fifth spot on the team. That would leave them short if Douglas is off the squad. Additionally, Douglas has a history of rallying for good competitions after less-than-stellar training camps.
“She is not one to peak too early,” Karolyi said. “We have seen this before and I am not surprised by it, even if I am not pleased by it.”
On Friday, Douglas fell on the same turn on beam that she has done flawlessly many times. She received a mere 13.700 for the performance.
Asked bluntly if Douglas’s recent slump would change her view of the team that would be chosen on Sunday, Karolyi responded, “For me, no.” So Douglas may still be okay. Karolyi is one member of the three-person selection committee that will choose the team, but the running joke is that Karolyi’s opinion counts for three votes that essentially trump the other two. Steve Rybacki, the Director of Elite Athlete Programs, and athlete representative Terin Humphrey are the other members.
At this point, Biles, the three-time world all-around champ, Raisman, the Olympic champion on floor, and Hernandez, the fearless 2015 U.S. junior champion who has continued to improve; seem like locks. If Douglas is on the squad, that leaves an opening for Madison Kocian, a bars specialist, to fill out the squad. Kocian performed bars superbly in San Jose and received 15.700 on the event, a score that would not only help the team, but also allow her to contend for an individual medal on bars. Ashton Locklear, another bars ace, actually received a higher score than Kocian on bars at 15.750, but Kocian could also perform on beam in a pinch in Rio. Locklear is essentially a one-event gymnast.
Even if Douglas slides by and goes to Rio, it isn’t the way she hoped to get there.
“No, I want to finish strong,” she said. “I don’t want people to remember me just going up there and doing it. I think maybe I let myself get away from that passion. Now I need to get it back. Fast.”