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An all-around team

By John Powers
Globe Staff / July 3, 2012
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SAN JOSE — In the end, after all of the computerized variables and options were weighed, these were the teams they figured to be. The five men and five women named to the US Olympic gymnastics squad after four days of trials competition at the HP Pavilion were the ones whom the selectors reckoned could cover all of the events — six for men, four for women — at the Games without leaving holes.

If the puzzle was complicated four years ago in Beijing, it is even more so now that roster sizes have been reduced from six to five. The time when the committee could afford a one-trick pony is over, unless that specialist is a McKayla Maroney, who should win a gold medal on vault. The medal that USA Gymnastics most wants in London is the women’s team gold, which the Americans never have won at an overseas Games.

They were world champions going into Athens and Beijing and had to settle for silver behind the Romanians and the Chinese. This time national team coordinator Martha Karolyi wanted to make sure the lineup was flawless on every apparatus since the three-up, three-count format for the final allows for no slipups.

The weak point was uneven bars, the only event in which the US didn’t win an individual medal at last year’s world championships in Tokyo. That’s why Kyla Ross, who ranked fifth in the all-around standings, was taken instead of Elizabeth Price and why the top six bars finishers all were included on the eight-member roster, which includes three alternates.

What the team didn’t need was five vaulters, which is why Alicia Sacramone, the Beijing veteran who has four world medals in the event, was bypassed. Sacramone, who’d been the squad’s Big Sister for years, had much to recommend her.

She’d made a gutsy comeback against long odds after tearing an Achilles’ tendon at the global meet. Her four vaults at trials were solid and she finished second to Aly Raisman, her Brestyan’s clubmate, on balance beam. But she lost out on the numbers game. Her 6.3 start value on vault was two-10ths below that of the top contenders and the selectors figured they easily could live with Maroney, trials champ Gabrielle Douglas, and world all-around titlist Jordyn Wieber. “We have vaulters, plenty of them,” said Karolyi. “The holes already were filled.”

The Americans had enough beamers, too, with Raisman (who won the event here), Wieber (a world medalist), and Ross, who was only two-10ths behind Sacramone. With a strong floor group — Raisman should medal there, and Wieber and Douglas are more than reliable — that makes for a bunch that will be difficult to knock off the top of the podium in London.

This team was every bit as difficult to make as was the Beijing squad and tougher for the Class of 2008 silver medalists who chose to come back, and all but Samantha Peszek did. Only Sacramone came close to making it and that likely was because she returned to the sport earlier.

Nastia Liukin, the Olympic champ who had two unsightly bars routines here, wasn’t ready for prime time. Bridget Sloan sprained her elbow warming up on bars and withdrew to avoid jeopardizing her upcoming career with the University of Florida varsity. “I plan on going down to school and taking names,” she declared. And Shawn Johnson, who never recovered from tearing up her knee skiing, called it a career before last month’s nationals. “It is survival of the fittest,” mused Bela Karolyi, the sport’s Papa Bear who coached Nadia Comaneci and Mary Lou Retton.

The Darwinian selection process never ends. Wieber, fresh off winning her second domestic title, was outpointed here by Douglas, the “Flying Squirrel” who suddenly became the sport’s exuberant new face. The men’s team that was chosen here — Beijing medalist Jonathan Horton, Danell Leyva, John Orozco, Sam Mikulak, and Jake Dalton — may not be the one that competes in London.

Four years ago, the Hamm twins withdrew with injuries on the eve of the Games and Alexander Artemev and Raj Bhavsar ended up with bronze medals. Mikulak sprained an ankle on the first night here but was named to the squad based on his earlier results. But if the ankle gives way during next week’s camp in Colorado Springs, Mikulak will be in the stands and whoever the computer says best plugs in — Chris Brooks, Steven Legendre, Alexander Naddour — gets his dream shot. It is a slippery sport, where one butterfingered moment can nullify four years of labor. That’s why they use chalk.

John Powers can be reached at jpowers@globe.com.

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