ST. LOUIS -- Jordyn Wieber still has victories in all but one all-around gymnastics competition since the start of the 2008 season. Gabby Douglas is coming awful close to making that two.
The 16-year-old Douglas finished just two-tenths of a point behind the reigning U.S. and world champion Wieber at the Visa Championships Sunday in St. Louis, with the difference likely coming when Douglas fell off the balance beam during her first rotation.
Just like the men’s competition one day earlier, it still came down to the very end. But with all eyes on Douglas’ meet-ending uneven bars routine, the Virginia Beach, Va., native’s 15.850 was good enough to claim the event title, but fell just short of Wieber’s 121.900 score in the all-around.
“I think I just smiled and (let out) a sigh of relief,” Wieber said of her reaction upon seeing Douglas’ score. “Just to know that all of my hard work and all the training that I’ve put in these past few weeks and months after worlds has really paid off.”
Wieber has another opportunity to extend her sterling all-around record at the U.S. Olympic Trials three weeks from now in San Jose, Calif. The ultimate test will come four-and-a-half weeks after that, on Aug. 2, when the Olympic all-around champion is crowned in London.
But while the 16-year-old from DeWitt, Mich., remains a favorite to win both, Douglas showed this weekend that she is going to be neck-and-neck with Wieber the whole way.
“If you put yourself behind, I’m telling you, you’ve already lost the game,” said Douglas, showing no intimidation by her teammate and friend. “And if you think that way, you’re like, ‘You know what, I’m not going to win, she’s already got this in the bag,’ you’re going to tear yourself up. You’ve already lost the game if you think that way.”
The bar for Wieber and Johnson is set high. Four years ago in Beijing, Team USA’s dynamic 1-2 punch of Nastia Liukin and Shawn Johnson wound up taking gold and silver in the Olympic all-around competition. The U.S. women’s team, which won the world championship last year, is also considered a favorite to win the United States’ first Olympic team gold medal since the Magnificent Seven did so in 1996.
An injured Douglas was hardly a factor at the 2011 Visa Championships, finishing seventh in the all-around and tied for third in the uneven bars. But ever since, she has been inching closer to catching Wieber — the current standard-bearer in U.S. and international gymnastics.
The journey for Douglas began when she moved from Virginia Beach to Des Moines, Iowa, in 2010 to train with Liang Chow, famous for coaching Johnson to four Olympic medals, including one gold, in Beijing. Then at the 2011 World Championships in Tokyo, Douglas made her first major statement. Individually, Douglas placed fifth on uneven bars. But in the team competition, Douglas and her teammates finished first.
That, Douglas said, is when she truly felt like she belonged.
“I have accepted this, world champion, I’m a world champion,” Douglas said.
She has been a different gymnast ever since. Douglas commands attention with her bright smile — think Johnson — and acrobatic routines; she gets so much air on her uneven bars routine that national team coordinator Martha Karolyi nicknamed her the “Flying Squirrel.”
“I think she has more confidence in herself, and that shows in her gymnastics,” said 2008 Olympian Alicia Sacramone, 24, the matriarch of the 2011 world team who has known Douglas for around eight years. “I think before she was a little more timid about going 100 percent, and now she is going full-force.”
The new-look Douglas debuted in March by earning the highest all-around score at the American Cup in New York City — even surpassing Wieber. But because Douglas was competing as an alternate, her score did not count and Wieber took the title.
After that, the question was whether Douglas could live up to the hype when in the spotlight.
And for the most part, she has. Douglas won the uneven bars and helped the United States to the team title a few weeks later at the Pacific Rim Championships in Washington. Then she had another strong performance at the Secret U.S. Classic on May 26 in Chicago, winning the uneven bars and tying for third in the floor exercise.
The latest passed test was this weekend in St. Louis. After the fall on the balance beam, Douglas regrouped and showed poise while cruising through the final three events — including the high-pressure final bars routine in front of all 9,793 fans.
“It just shows that she could be ranked No. 1 without that fall,” Karolyi said. “So she is very much in the run for the (top) position. It’s up to her how consistent she can be.”
Though Wieber, the proven and consistent reigning No. 1, isn’t giving up her spot without a fight.
“Having strong competition really helps me,” she said. “It also motivates me to try to keep up the same all-around score at every competition.”
None of the three returning 2008 Olympians were among the automatic qualifiers for the U.S. Olympic Trials, but all of them — Liukin, Sacramone and Bridget Sloan — are still going to compete in San Jose.
The top eight all-around finishers at Visa Championships automatically moved on to the trials. Sloan, who finished 10th in the all-around, as well as Liukin and Sacramone, who each competed just two events, were among seven gymnasts added by a selection committee. Also moving on is Rebecca Bross, the 2010 U.S. all-around champion who also competed in two events this weekend.
The 15 members of the senior women’s team and the field for the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials are: Wieber, Douglas, Aly Raisman, Kyla Ross, Elizabeth Price, Sarah Finnegan Sabrina Vega, Kennedy Baker, Brenna Dowell, Sloan, McKayla Maroney, Sacramone, Bross, Anna Li and Liukin.
Maroney, the reigning world vault champion, suffered a small nasal fracture and minor concussion while warming up Sunday. She successfully petitioned to compete in the U.S. Olympic Trials.