SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Five spots. Five plane tickets to Rio. That's what's up for the taking at the U.S. Olympic gymnastics trials in San Jose this weekend. From afar, that's the story, the tension.
But up close, the reality is far less dramatic.
Entering this weekend's competition, which began Friday night at the SAP Center in San Jose, California, and continues Sunday evening, four of those five spots were considered to be all but locked up by three-time world champion Simone Biles, 2012 Olympic floor champ Aly Raisman, reigning Olympic all-around champion Gabby Douglas and 16-year-old newcomer Laurie Hernandez.
That leaves one spot for an athlete who can contribute a high-scoring bar routine -- the weakest event for the collective four women named above -- during the team competition in Rio. And because the team selection is based on the discretion of national team coordinator Martha Karolyi and a selection committee, a gymnast doesn't need to place in the top five at trials in order to make the team. Instead, the final decision is based on more intangible criteria that includes past results, consistency in practice, and how the athlete fits into the team dynamic.
That fifth and final spot will likely go to one of two women: Madison Kocian of Plano, Texas, the 2015 co-world champion on bars, and Ashton Locklear, the bars champion at the 2016 Pacific Rim Championships and 2016 U.S. national champion in that event.
At the start of Friday's competition, the potential for either gymnast to make the team seemed almost identical. Both women own recent titles on the apparatus at international competitions and consistently put up the highest scores on bars of any current American gymnasts. Either would give a strong U.S. team an even greater advantage to win gold in Rio.
In San Jose, Locklear was the first of the two women to compete on bars, in the second rotation, and she made a strong statement to the selection committee that her name should be called Sunday night. Her score of 15.750, the best of the night until that point, was higher than her winning score at nationals in June, higher than her score at Pac Rims, and higher than Kocian's winning score at the World Championships.
"I'm really confident," Locklear said. "I've done so well at past competitions and won so many times, and I feel like I'm building a good record for myself."
If she's named to the team, Locklear would be the first Native American gymnast to compete for the U.S. at the Olympics. A member of the Lumbee Tribe, the largest in North Carolina, Locklear wears a Lumbee pin on the strap of her competition bag and carries a dream catcher with her that was given to her by a member of the tribe.
"It's a great feeling knowing they're cheering for me back home," Locklear said. "It's very unique and it means the world to me that I have their support."
Locklear's score set the bar in San Jose. But Kocian says she didn't notice.
"I didn't see [Locklear's] score before I competed," Kocian said. "I try to focus on myself. That's all you can control. What she does doesn't affect what I can do. If I let my mind wander to anyone else, you don't have 100 percent focus on yourself, and that's when you start making mistakes."
In the next rotation, as Locklear prepared to mount the balance beam, the only other event in which she competes, Kocian completed her bar routine and was also awarded 15.750. It was a tie. At least in the literal sense.
"The scores don't really matter to the selection committee right now," Kocian said. "It's what you have been doing in practice throughout the week and your consistency. After tonight, my confidence has increased."
Soon after the crowd celebrated Kocian's score, Locklear fell from the beam.
"I don't think I fell once this week in training, so it's frustrating coming into a competition like this and falling," Locklear said. "I have to turn the page. Beam is not my specialty, and that is not what they are looking at me for. I showed them that I have a good bars routine, and I've had good bars in the past. They know I have a good record."
But so too, does Kocian, who backed up her impressive bar routine with solid performances in each of the other three rotations and finished sixth in the all-around. Kocian also competes a bar routine with a higher difficulty score than Locklear's, which leaves more room for mistakes -- and for improvement.
"They tied on bars, but [Kocian] had some other routines that could be useful in a team situation," Karolyi said. "Right now, she is placing well in my eyes."
Still, Locklear believes if the selection committee focuses not on her fall on beam -- where she is unlikely to be asked to contribute in Rio -- but only on her strength and consistency on bars, she has a legitimate shot at the final spot.
"It's the little things," she says. "There were a couple handstands I missed, and my dismount might have been a little low. I could have done better."
As the Lumbee Tribe watches from North Carolina, she'll have one final opportunity to do so on Sunday.