SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Martha Karolyi has one of the most challenging jobs in the sports world this week, but also one of the most rewarding. The women’s national team coordinator is at the head of choosing which five women’s artistic gymnasts will head to the Rio 2016 Olympic Games in hopes of defending Team USA’s Olympic gold medal.
Karolyi, director of elite athlete programs Steve Rybacki and 2004 Olympic medalist Terin Humphrey (the athlete representative on the committee) will decide the fate of the 14-woman field at the close of the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Women’s Gymnastics Sunday night.
As three-time all-around world champion Simone Biles said, “the U.S. is so deep, it could field two Olympic teams and they would both land on the podium.”
The committee will choose from a field that includes Biles, often considered the greatest of all time; Olympic champions Gabby Douglas and Aly Raisman; first-year senior standout Laurie Hernandez; Maggie Nichols, who was second to Biles at last year’s nationals but is still struggling to overcome an injury this year; Madison Kocian and Ashton Locklear, who appear to be competing for one spot as both shine on Team USA’s weakest event, uneven bars; and 2015 team world champions Brenna Dowell and MyKayla Skinner.
Karolyi spoke to members of the media on Thursday in San Jose, California, and analyzed the athletes to watch at this weekend’s Olympic Trials.
Is there anything Simone can do here that would not put her on the team?
I don’t think so. She has a fantastic past. Certainly, if she would have a bad day, we will go back and analyze what she did before and compare with the other contenders. So I really don’t think so.
Simone has been so much better than the rest of the world for the past few years. How good of a job have Simone and (coach Aimee Boorman) done in keeping her motivated?
One thing we educate everybody is that you never take it for granted. You cannot assume she will be a winner. It’s several days of competition and several days leading up to the competitions; you have to keep your perseverance and you have to keep your patience level and you have to keep yourself disciplined to give all that you have. No one easily becomes a world or Olympic champion.
Were you disappointed in Gabby’s performance at nationals?
I think she performed under my expectations, and I think under her personal expectations. The good thing is she wasn’t pleased with it and I’m hoping that she really will be eager to prove herself in this competition.
Have you watched her in training, and do you feel like she’s looking better coming into this meet?
Sometimes she trains a little bit up and down. Usually she is a very good competitor, so I’m looking forward to seeing what she can present tomorrow.
Has anything about Aly’s return to form after a break surprised you?
Not surprise, no. She’s always been a hard worker. Last year, I think she had so much excitement about returning after her retirement that maybe it was too much excitement, which drove her out of the control, so it backfired. Right now, she’s in a very good place. She’s trusting her strengths and not trying to do anything earthshaking, just do the routines she’s prepared for, and I am very pleased with how she looks through the training sessions.
How impressive has Laurie been, contending with the rest of the field in her first year as a senior?
Laurie grew up basically in our system. She was at TOPs (Talent Opportunity Program); she was in developmentals; she was in national team as junior for long time, training alongside these girls. So I don’t think for her it’s intimidating in this environment. She handles herself very well. She feels confident about her strength. I think she in a very right place.
How is Maggie looking? Has she made progress since nationals?
Yes, at nationals she performed two events and right now she’s training all four and will be competing all four. She’s coming back very nicely. We have to see how well she performs because she hasn’t performed this year since February.
What would you have to see from Maggie here for her to earn a spot on the Olympic team?
She needs to do her routines with the difficulty level, and she needs to show confidence and consistency.
Why has bars been a challenge for U.S. gymnasts? And how important is it to identify someone very good at bars in filling that fourth or fifth spot?
Sometimes some body types are not exactly the best for the bars, but I think our contestants are in a good position this time. We definitely will use somebody who is particularly good on that event.
Can you compare and contrast Kocian and Locklear on bars?
Both of them are extremely good bars workers. Kocian’s start value is two-tenths higher than Locklear’s for the difficulty score, but sometimes Locklear’s execution scores are a little bit higher. So they’re pretty much neck and neck. The decision maker probably will be who functions better… and who can give something else to the team besides a bar routine.
Is it exciting to have Kocian and Locklear neck and neck and have it come down to this meet?
It’s quite exciting. I think the girls know and they work hard, and each of them wants to prove themselves.
The reports say you’ve already picked your team. How important are these trials?
We didn’t pick the team. We always have in our mind the ideal composition, but we never pick the team before. This competition is extremely important. They need to prove themselves. They need to show that they’re able to handle the stress and their routines are very consistent.