(L-R) Laurie Hernandez, Simone Biles, Madison Kocian, Aly Raisman and Gabby Douglas pose for a photo at podium training in Rio Olympic Arena on Aug. 4, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro.
RIO DE JANEIRO – Even the best women’s gymnastics team in the world gets starstruck at the Olympics.
When Usain Bolt made his way into the athlete cafeteria as the U.S. women ate their lunch, Aly Raisman and Gabby Douglas couldn’t help themselves – they completely freaked out.
Their teammates – newcomers Simone Biles, Laurie Hernandez and Madison Kocian – sat stone-faced in their seats. “Play it cool,” was the message they were trying to pass on. Raisman and Douglas, Olympic veterans and multiple gold medalists from 2012, didn’t care.
“I didn’t play it cool,” laughed Raisman, the 22-year-old captain of this squad. “Me and Gabby got up so fast. We freaked out. The other three were watching us and the U.S. rowing team was just laughing at us.”
No one, however, was laughing Thursday when the Americans made their way through podium training inside Rio Olympic Arena, their first of these Games ahead of Sunday’s women’s qualification. They went 20-for-20 on routines and drew the eyes of nearly every individual in the arena. Some routines even garnered cheers from lookers-on in the stands, rare for podium training.
This was loud and clear: Team USA has arrived.
This is a team that is expected to run away with the gold medal on Tuesday, in the team final, as reigning Olympic champion from 2012 and three-time reigning world champion. The debate is more of how much the U.S. will win by, not if it will win at all.
Yet that isn’t what is stressed on the floor by head coach Aimee Boorman and national team coordinator Martha Karolyi, the omnipresent figure in this sport who is helming her final Olympic squad.
“We talk about everything being normal,” said Boorman, who coaches Biles, the three-time all-around world champion, year-round. “They do these routines thousands of times and these skills over and over again, so I feel like my job is just to keep them focused on what they have been doing and keep them in a positive frame of mind.”
The frame of mind – remember Raisman’s Bolt tale – is a relaxed one, however. Biles is ever-smiling on the competition floor and Hernandez, the youngest at 16, has infused a kind of youthful exuberance in all of them. Kocian is a 19-year-old uneven bars specialist from Texas and rounds out this five, a team that has yet to pick its sure-to-go-viral name.
To Douglas, the reigning Olympic all-around champion, and London teammate Raisman, Rio has a déjà vu feeling from four years ago. Friday they will have an entire day off and Saturday two training sessions ahead of Sunday’s qualifying. Raisman said the day of rest rewarded to them by Karolyi means the legendary coach feels they are in a strong position.
“Everything feels the same as it did four years ago, so it feels like we’re headed in the same direction,” Raisman said, a nod to her accomplishments as part of the Fierce Five.
Could this team be even better than the Fierce Five? They’re expected to win gold in the team event, Biles being the odds-on favorite for the individual all-around, and medals could be won in all four events, each athlete with a shot to land on the podium somewhere, somehow. Raisman captured floor exercise gold in London, as well as bronze on the balance beam.
The beam was where Douglas, now 20, struggled at U.S. Olympic Team Trials a few weeks ago in San Jose, California, falling on both nights of the competition and finishing seventh in the all around, a result that left her on the bubble for this team.
But Karolyi and the selection committee put her on the team partly because of her ability to peak at the right time, and Thursday she was rock solid around the gym, but most notably on beam, smooth on her turns and strong on a double-pike dismount.
“The biggest accomplishment has been beam for her,” Karolyi said, noting Douglas’ improvement in the last two-plus weeks. “I have known for Gabby for a number of years and… she is somehow (able to) peak when she needs to. We were able to do good improvements and I feel like she is ready to compete.”
Douglas agreed, having spent ten days at Olympic training camp at the famous Karolyi Ranch in Texas in late July. She had switched competition coaches between the P&G Championships in late June and trials, which – from the outside looking in – created a sense of upheaval around her.
Karolyi is the one who has taken charge since, however, working in tandem with Douglas’ coach Christian Gallardo to guide her back to the magical greatness she exhibited in 2012, as well as last year at worlds, where she won silver behind Biles in the all-around. She is the first reigning all-around gold medalist to return to the Olympics since – you’ll know this name – Nadia Comaneci, in 1980.
“I really feel like I’ve improved on the mental game a lot,” said Douglas, who was mobbed by microphones after podium training Thursday. “I’m really thankful for Martha to push the best out of me. She believes in me and that motivates me a lot.
I’m excited for the journey to come.”
That journey has been one of steadied success for Biles, who admitted that it felt like she had been waiting for the Olympics to arrive for a long, long time. She and Hernandez – her roommate here – wake up each morning wanting someone to pinch them.
“Are we being punked?” she asked, smiling ear to ear.
But if anyone is doing the punking it’s Biles, who has 14 world championship medals to her name, including 10 golds. Many have already called her the greatest gymnast of all time – and she is yet to make her Olympic debut.
“We’re just so well prepared,” she said. “We know exactly what to expect of ourselves. Once we go out there on the competition floor, nothing can really wow me. This is what I expect. It’s the Olympics… but if you think about it (too much), your brain is going to fall out, you’re going to freak out.”
You would think Biles’ brain would fall out by some of the gymnastics elements that she’s able to do, but the freaking out part? That was left to Raisman and Douglas over Bolt, two leaders on a team that is taking an approach of relaxed focus.
This is the Olympics, after all, a dream come true for all of them. Having a little fun, as well? That’s allowed. Particularly when it translates to sky-high gymnastics.
“We’ve been pretty hyper,” admitted Raisman. “I haven’t been this hyper in a while, but being around Simone and Laurie, it’s been so much fun. I can’t remember the last time I had this much fun because at home I train pretty much by myself. We bring out the best in each other. That’s why we make such a great team: It’s because we’re having so much fun.”