What I remember most is how incredibly hot it was in Brazil. The training gyms were actually outdoors, and every time I did my Gienger release move on the uneven bars, I would get a blinding flash of sunlight in my eyes as my body turned over and I reached for the bar.
But besides the sweltering training conditions, I have wonderful memories of Brazil -- which also happens to be where the Olympics will be held in two years.
I was 15 the first and only time I went there, for the Junior Pan American Championships in Aracaju in 2009. I’d been on the junior national team for only two months, so I was young and very inexperienced. Representing the United States abroad was like a dream come true -- because several months before, it had been just a dream.
I traveled with Kyla Ross, Sabrina Vega and Bridgette Caquatto, three girls who would become my very good friends and future world-class gymnasts. (Kyla was on the Olympic team with me in 2012, Sabrina the world team in 2011 and Bridgette just helped the Florida Gators win their second NCAA national title!)
But in Brazil, years before any of that, we just had a lot of fun. It was everyone's first international, and we were all very nervous and very excited to show off what we could do. At the time, I was actually more afraid of training in front of U.S. national team coordinator Martha Karolyi than competing.
Martha makes a lot of important decisions concerning the U.S. team, and if you're going to make a world or Olympic team, you need to impress her. While she's not mean or intimidating -- she's actually very nice -- she always does what she feels is best for the U.S. team, no exceptions. Unless you're about 120 percent ready, you're unlikely to be named to a team, much less compete.
To my surprise, I won third all-around and first place on vault and floor in Aracaju. Martha was very pleased because those were the kinds of results you could build on. The trip was full of other firsts, including my first time being recognized by a fan. It happened in the duty free at the airport, and I completely freaked out about it. My coach, Mihai Brestyan, still teases me about it today.
It feels like a long time ago now, and though I’ve had the chance to earn world and Olympic medals since then, in gymnastics sometimes you feel like you're only as good as your last practice. Which is why when I decided to make a comeback, with the big goal being another trip to Brazil in 2016, I knew that the first time I trained in front of Martha again would be hugely important. At the moment, that's what I'm training to do: to go to the national team camp again and train in front of Martha. For me and everyone else on the U.S. team, the road to Rio really begins with her.
Members of the U.S. national team and promising gymnasts are invited to national training camps at the Karolyi Ranch in New Waverly, Texas, every four to six weeks. It's good for everybody: The gymnasts bond, the coaches exchange advice and get to see where all of the girls are at, and Martha gets a firsthand look at everyone's progress.
When Mihai and I began serious training again last October, I figured that I would go back to camp sometime this spring, and get back into competition around the time of this year's U.S. championships, which will be held in August in Pittsburgh. But Mihai, who has been attending camp with other gymnasts, recently talked to Martha. Hold off on coming to camp, Martha said. Wait until this fall. Don't push yourselves. It's more important to be healthy later on than to rush and try to be ready now.
I admit that I was upset to hear this at first. I love competing. I love daydreaming about competing at the Olympics and worlds. But after taking some time to think about it, I do think it's the right decision. While it would be possible to be back physically, I don't want to get ahead of myself. The code of points has changed since the London Games, and my routines need to be reworked. Then practiced a thousand times. And then maybe I can go and show them to Martha. So that's what I'm going to do.
So far, I'm pleased to say that training is going very well. I have pretty much all of my skills back on beam, and am slowly getting back my tumbling on floor. I'm training the double-twisting Yurchenko vault, and when that's solid, will begin working again on the Amanar, or Yurchenko with 2.5 twists. That was always the element that scared me the most to do, and I don't want to rush it. There are also some new skills I'm hoping to add, but I don't want to give them away just yet.
Some things are worth waiting for. When Kyla and I reminisce about our junior days, we often talk about Brazil. It was the place where we started our international careers, and it would bring things full circle if we were able to end them there as well.
Even if they decide to put the training gym outdoors again.