ST. LOUIS -- With each tumbling pass Aly Raisman nailed on Friday night, the fans at Chaifetz Arena cheered.
Sitting in the front row, the most important spectator simply nodded.
Martha Karolyi, the national team coordinator whose opinion matters most in U.S. women’s gymnastics, appreciated Raisman’s floor exercise routine at the P&G Gymnastics Championships like a classical music fan appreciates a good symphony.
With each pass, a deliberate nod of approval. And at the end, a polite applause.
“From every training camp to the next training camp she improved, from the first competition to the next one she improved, and I think right now she shows that she feels like she handles these routines that she has,” said Karolyi, the unforgiving leader practically gushing over Raisman’s performance.
“She looks like somebody who controls it and doesn’t feel intimidated.”
Alas, Raisman’s all-around score of 60.45 still trailed Simone Biles’ by more than two points. But trailing the three-time reigning world champion by two points isn’t something to scoff at.
“I was like, ‘Simone only beat me by a point and a half? That’s pretty good,’” Raisman said. “There’s no one that can catch Simone, so I was very happy. I think she usually beats me by three points.”
Raisman, 22, is tied with Laurie Hernandez for second place after the first of two days of competition in St. Louis. The U.S. women wrap up the P&G Championships — which determine the national champions — on Sunday evening and then move on to San Jose, California, for the U.S. Olympic Team Trials on July 8 and 10.
If Biles is a lock to make the five-person U.S. Olympic Team — and barring an injury, there’s no doubt she makes it — then Raisman is proving herself to be the next best thing.
The 2012 Olympian has rounded into top form a little more than a year after returning to competition. Her scores of 15.6 on floor exercise and 15.35 on both vault and balance beam were all good for second on the night — behind Biles, of course — and right in the ballpark of her scores at the 2012 Olympic Trials.
“I think she is pretty much at the level that she was, and that was a good level obviously,” Karolyi said, noting Raisman’s 2012 Olympic gold medals in the team competition and floor exercise. “I’m very pleased with where she is.”
The same couldn’t quite be said for Gabby Douglas, the 2012 Olympic all-around champion who, like Raisman, is seeking to make consecutive Olympic teams, a feat that hasn’t been accomplished in the United States since 2000.
Douglas, 20, scored 58.9 to place fourth. It was her third all-around competition of 2016, and her scores have decreased in each one. Karolyi said Douglas needs to be more aggressive in training and avoid distractions.
“Reaching for the very top, you have to do a little better,” she said.
On Friday night, the 16-year-old Hernandez overshadowed the Olympic champion. Competing in her first U.S. championships on the senior level, Hernandez bounded around the gym with the confidence of a gymnast who is ready for the Olympic Games, posting the third-best scores of the night on bars, beam and floor, and the fourth-best score on vault.
“We know that her routines are good and they are world-class routines, but we have to have the proof that she’s able to perform those routines when the pressure is grown,” Karolyi said. “It was a good competition for her because she just proved exactly that.”
Posting the same score as the veteran Raisman — whom the team calls “Mama Aly” — puts some weight behind those words.
“She’s such a beautiful gymnast, I’m honored to tie with her,” Hernandez said. “I also have to remember that the meet’s not over yet, and I need to keep my head straight and do the same thing for Day 2.”
And in the bigger picture, for the Olympic Trials, too.
Much still could change, and several U.S. gymnasts are in the mix to make the Olympic team.
Maggie Nichols, last year’s U.S. all-around runner-up, was once an Olympic favorite but now has to prove herself all over again following arthroscopic knee surgery in April. She’s competing only on bars and beam this weekend, and got off to a shaky start.
Bars stars Madison Kocian and Ashton Locklear could be battling for one spot on Team USA. Locklear, fourth at the 2014 world championships, had the better performance Friday. Though Kocian, who finished in a four-way tie for first place at the 2015 world championships, has the advantage of being able to compete on all four events. (Locklear skips vault and floor.)
MyKayla Skinner, who stands out on vault, is also among the contenders.
With three days of competitions remaining before the Olympic team is named, every performance takes on more importance than the last.
As the pressure ramps up, Raisman, at least, appears to be settling in.
“I finally felt like I found the routines that work,” she said.