SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Ashton Locklear’s knees began going numb. Madison Kocian started off her night “a little jumpy.” Simone Biles worried she might pass out in the middle of her floor routine.
The 12 gymnasts who competed in their first U.S. Olympic Team Trials on Friday night and the two returning Olympians tried to treat the event like any other competition. Ever-present signage and an energetic, sold-out crowd at the SAP Center made that difficult.
“The energy in the arena was, like, ridiculous,” said Biles, the three-time defending world all-around champion. “There’s nothing you can compare it to; even worlds are not as hyped as that.”
For Biles, whose score of 61.85 outpaced the first night of competition by a point, the key was a pep talk to herself before her floor exercise routine.
“I was like, ‘If I don’t slow my adrenaline down I’m probably going to pass out in the middle of this routine,’” she said.
The message, she said, was private. But it worked. Her floor score of 15.7 was the best of the night, and she also had the top vault score and the second-best balance beam score — despite a sloppy landing on vault and nearly falling off the balance beam during a routine spin.
“I tried to calm myself down as best as possible and tell myself I’ve done this so many times, and its just another meet,” she said, “even though it’s the Olympic Trials, like the words are everywhere.”
Biles, second-place Laurie Hernandez (60.85) and third-place Aly Raisman (59.95) came into the trials as favorites to make the five-person Olympic team, which will be named at the conclusion of the competition on Sunday night. Gabby Douglas, the defending Olympic all-around champion, was a heavy favorite too, although that standing might have slipped after a late fall on balance beam dropped her to seventh place on the night.
A focus coming into the trials was on the expected battle for the fifth Olympic spot, with uneven bars standouts Madison Kocian and Ashton Locklear the most likely contenders.
The adrenaline hit Locklear hardest before the pre-meet introductions, when each gymnast ran through a cloud of smoke to the screams of 17,904 fans.
“I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, is this it?’” she said. “It was crazy.”
Locklear, who only competes on bars and beam, found herself looking at “U.S. Olympic Team Trials” signs all around the arena and had to remind herself to calm down and focus.
For Kocian, that excitement from introductions carried into the first rotation, when she stepped out of bounds on a floor routine pass.
“I tried to take deep breaths before each routine to slow down your breathing, slow down your nerves and everything,” she said. “And I think that helped me.”
Both were ready for their marquee event.
Locklear, competing uneven bars in the second rotation, glided through her routine with her characteristic grace and elegance before sticking the dismount. Her score of 15.75 surpassed the two she posted last month when claiming the U.S. title at the P&G Gymnastics Championships in St. Louis.
The bar was set, and Kocian — a 2015 world champion in the event — matched it exactly in the third rotation. The 15.75 score was her highest of 2016.
Now their battle continues with the stakes even higher on Sunday.
“I think that the energy of the crowd helped me a lot,” Locklear said, “and I’m ready for Day 2.”
One gymnast who claimed to be unfazed by the gravity of the moment was Hernandez, who at age 16 is competing in her first season on the senior level.
Did she notice the attention?
“Ehhh, kind of, not really,” she said.
There was one instance just before performing on the balance beam when the moment did start to get to her, she admitted. Though, in retrospect, she noted that it was her coach Maggie Haney who noticed it.
“I do this thing where I guess I roll my ankles a lot, and she was just like, ‘Stop moving, just breathe,’” Hernandez said. “And as soon as I did that, it was this whole calmness in my body.”
Hernandez went on to post the highest beam score on the night at 15.5.
With one competition left for gymnasts to prove themselves to national team coordinator Martha Karolyi, Hernandez is where she wants to be. Biles and Raisman can say the same thing.
As Douglas works to regain her top form and prove she still belongs on the Olympic team — and does so after switching which one of her coaches works with her on the podium at trials — MyKayla Skinner is making a late push. She jumped to fourth place after finishing 10th in St. Louis, and is one of the United States’ top scorers on vault and the only one, aside from Biles, who competes two vaults.
Kocian and Locklear are as competitive as ever, too, and both represent a big step up from the next best American on the uneven bars.
The door could be closing on Maggie Nichols, however. Competing in her first all-around since arthroscopic knee surgery in April, Nichols, last year’s U.S. all-around runner up, fell off the balance beam in the third rotation and ended up in eighth place.
Nothing is official until Sunday night, though. And with the stakes higher than ever, Hernandez said the key will be to ignore them.
“Me and all the girls, we were talking about, lets just pretend it’s the P&Gs, that’s it, and you know it’s just another meet,” Hernandez said. “This will not change anything, you’ve just got to go out there and you’ve got to give it your all.”
Chrös McDougall has covered the Olympic movement for TeamUSA.org since 2009, including the gymnastics national championships and Olympic Trials every year since 2011, on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc. He is based in Minneapolis-St. Paul.