SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Looking back on the past two years since she returned to gymnastics competition, Gabby Douglas paused 24 seconds to consider a question about the low point in her comeback.
“It’s been a little bit challenging to me that every single turn counts,” the defending Olympic all-around gold medalist said, finally, “not letting it slip away and just saying, ‘It’s just practice, I’ll just do it in competition.’ I really have to just focus in and make every turn count.”
That lesson was delivered the hard way this weekend at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials in San Jose, California. Douglas, now 20, fell off the balance beam both nights and finished seventh in the all-around over two days at the SAP Center in San Jose, California. Her only top-five result came on the uneven bars, where she finished third.
It wasn’t the bounce-back meet she wanted after finishing a disappointing fourth at the P&G Gymnastics Championships two weeks ago in St. Louis. But it was just enough.
Douglas was one of five women’s gymnasts named to the Olympic team after the competition Sunday night, joining Simone Biles, Laurie Hernandez, Madison Kocian and Aly Raisman, In doing so, she and Raisman became the first U.S. women’s gymnasts to make back-to-back Games since Amy Chow and Dominique Dawes in 2000, and Douglas became the first defending all-around champion to return to the next Games since Nadia Comaneci did so in 1980.
But as national team coordinator Martha Karolyi pointed out afterward, the decision on Douglas could have gone another way.
“We had the four names down, and we debated between Gabby and Ashton Locklear,” Karolyi said.
Both gymnasts were targeted for their potential on the uneven bars, which is Team USA’s weakest event. And although Locklear, the defending U.S. bars champion, has averaged more than a half-point more than Douglas on the event this year, Douglas ultimately got the nod.
In the all-important Olympic team final, three gymnasts compete on each apparatus and all three scores count. Karolyi and the selection committee opted for Douglas because of safety net she provides as an all-arounder, whereas Locklear offered higher scoring potential but no room for error as she only competes on bars and beam.
“Gabby can do the other events,” Karolyi explained, “and Ashton can do only the two.”
It’s a sobering justification for taking Douglas to Rio.
Beneath that pragmatic reasoning, however, is optimism.
Douglas, who is more muscular and less giddy than she was in 2012, is a visibly different gymnast than she was in 2012. But underneath her recent struggles remains a boatload of potential.
After all, this is a gymnast who finished second in the world all-around race just last year — trailing only Biles, who ran away with her third world title in a row. And only four months ago Douglas put up a competitive score of 60.165 in winning the AT&T American Cup, a prestigious invitational world cup meet.
Those performances highlighted her capabilities, and importantly her world championships silver medal came just weeks after she finished fourth in her first national championships since 2012.
So while recent results suggest that Douglas could be limited to just bars in the Olympic team final and left out of the all-around competition altogether, Karolyi sees an opportunity. Douglas’ life has been filled with distractions since winning Olympic gold in London, the latest being this weekend when she unexpectedly changed which one of her coaches is with her on the floor at competitions.
A nine-day pre-Olympic training camp at Karolyi’s ranch in Texas could be just what Douglas needs.
“I feel like if we put Gabby in a regimented training with daily planning and daily assignments and training plans, then she will see improvement just like we did last year before world championships,” Karolyi said.
Despite the long odds of even making the Olympic all-around final, where only the top two per country can qualify, Douglas said she hasn’t given up hope of defending her gold medal.
“I’m dreaming big,” she said with a playful giggle. “I always want to see myself in each competition and each event finals, and I know that I had a lot more mistakes here and at P&Gs, but I will tell you that I will be as sharp and even better than before.”
Karolyi, when asked whether she still viewed Douglas as a legitimate contender for an all-around medal or whether the gymnast is more of a specialist who can also compete all four events, also refused to write off the defending champ.
“You never know with Gabby,” she said. “I don’t want to go that far, I just want to make sure that she is putting in a good effort to have a contribution to the team effort, which is always number one, and certainly hopefully that will be enough good that she is possibly able to come in all-around. But you never know.”
Having barely avoided a premature end to her Olympic comeback, Douglas says she is ready to embrace every set between now an Rio.
“I’m willing to put everything into it, and I’m really excited to go back and clean up those details, add a few extra tenths (of a point) here and there, and really just push myself,” she said. “I’m really excited.”
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.