The group of American women contending to make this year’s U.S. Olympic gymnastics team is, in a word, stacked.
Among those competing for five spots at the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympic Games are two double-Olympic-gold medalists, the three-time reigning world all-around champion, and at least two of those well-hyped phenoms who always seem to find their way to the Olympic team in their first year of senior eligibility.
So one could be forgiven for viewing Madison Kocian as somewhat of an afterthought heading into the Olympic summer.
After all, even her most impressive feat — a 2015 world title in uneven bars — saw her standing not alone above her competition but on the same top podium step as three other gymnasts as part of an unprecedented four-way tie.
If you call Kocian an underdog leading up to the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, though, she’ll be quick to correct you.
“I don't think I’m really under the radar,” she said. “I think Martha is looking at a lot of people right now, but it definitely gave me a lot of experience to be on the 2014 and ‘15 world teams, and to come away last world championships really successful, I think that really helped me coming into this year.”
The Martha who Kocian speaks of is Martha Karolyi, the U.S. women’s national team coordinator. And the evaluation process Kocian speaks of is the one that sometimes gets lost in the hype machine.
While world champion Simone Biles and Olympic champions Gabby Douglas and Aly Raisman dominate the headlines, and little-known senior debutants such as Laurie Hernandez and Jazmyn Foberg dominate the intrigue, Karolyi isn’t picking the Olympic team based on headlines, medal counts or simple potential.
The squad that goes to Rio to try to defend the 2012 Olympic team gold medal — which Douglas and Raisman helped win — will be chosen based on performance at private monthly training camps at Karolyi’s Texas ranch, as well as more public performances in three competitions this summer.
The training camps, Kocian said, have gone well. Now the first of those public events, the Secret U.S. Classic, takes place Saturday night at the XL Center in Hartford, Connecticut.
“I’m really motivated, and I really want to be a part of this Olympic team,” Kocian, a Dallas native, said in March at the Team USA Media Summit.
Kocian, who turns 19 this month and is deferring her scholarship to UCLA until after the Games, has a roadmap to Rio: Dominate the uneven bars, the event in which she shared the world title last year, and maintain a high enough level on the other three apparatuses.
“Even if not all of the events are strong you can always be a backup for other events in case something happens,” she said. “I think right now that is the best option for me, and making sure my bars stay as strong as they can.”
The process of realizing her Olympic goal started in the offseason, when she added a new connection on uneven bars and increased the difficulty in her balance beam routine. However, a tweaked left ankle suffered at a February training camp has kept her out of any major competitions until this weekend.
Despite navigating the Media Summit on crutches with her ankle in a cast, Kocian brushed off the seriousness of the injury, calling the crutches mostly a precaution and noting that she was able to do a full bar routine for Karolyi after the tweak.
“I’ll be ready for everything this summer,” she said.
Ready physically, she means, because nothing can truly prepare these gymnasts for what’s coming. After the U.S. Classic, the women move on to the higher profile competitions at the P&G Gymnastics Championships June 24 and 26 in St. Louis, followed by the U.S. Olympic Team Trials July 8 and 10 in San Jose, California. With each week leading up to Rio, the normally niche world of elite gymnastics becomes more and more of a national pressure cooker.
As Kocian prepares to navigate this new world, she’ll at least have a strong foundation to fall back on. After falling for the sport at her fifth birthday party, she joined World Olympic Gymnastics Academy, the powerhouse North Texas gym that produced the 2004 and ’08 Olympic all-around champions — Carly Patterson and Nastia Liukin — and has remained there ever since.
“I remember watching (Nastia) train for the ‘08 Olympics, and I wanted to follow right in her footsteps,” Kocian said.
The journey begins Saturday night.