SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Gabby Douglas didn't only fall off the balance beam Friday on the opening night of the two-day U.S. Olympic women's gymnastics trials. The all-around champion from the 2012 London Olympics put herself in real jeopardy of not even making the five-woman team if she doesn't find some way to rally from her seventh-place finish when the competition concludes Sunday.
Douglas wasn't having a lights-out effort anyway at SAP Center when she got to the balance beam, her last routine of the night. But what happened next -- the sight of Douglas falling off the beam on the sort of spin she has made a thousand times, then fighting like hell just to overcome her jangling nerves and finish the routine -- opened the floodgates for some serious second-guessing of her decision to shuffle her coaches just before this event.
The fact that U.S. national team coordinator Martha Karolyi didn't pass on the chance to mention it afterward herself was the second-worst piece of news for Douglas from the opening day of this meet.
"Don't give up on me yet," a somber Douglas told reporters, gamely staying moored in her news conference chair until she had faced every last painful question. She allowed that her fall off the beam "made it hard to flip the switch" because the only thought rattling through her brain at that point was, "This hole just got bigger for me to climb out of."
The leap in improvement that Karolyi was hoping to see from Douglas wasn't enough Friday to liberate Karolyi from her half-joking, half-not pre-competition remark that Douglas' habit of peaking late before big events "makes me nervous."
Karolyi and a panel of Olympic team selectors have broad discretion when choosing the final U.S. women's team. It won't just be based on their trials scores. The gymnasts have always known that the trials results will count greatly toward winning a spot in Rio, but they will also be judged on other competitions earlier in the year, their ability to perform under pressure, and how their skills fit in with the team's needs.
So while Karolyi left open the possibility that Douglas could rebound Sunday -- reiterating, not for the first time, that she likes athletes who are crucible-tested "competitors" -- Karolyi also said she could feel this kind of performance coming from Douglas. She was put on notice after she finished fourth at the U.S. nationals two weeks ago that she needed to sharpen up her routines between there and trials.
But Douglas got here and took a step backward instead.
"I think her training was not so perfect coming up to today," Karolyi said. "She wasn't quite hitting all her routines. And certainly, in my opinion, you compete better if you train better. ... Maybe it was the coaching situation."
Karolyi was alluding to Douglas' decision to switch to having Christian Gallardo as the only coach she allowed to have on the competition floor at these trials rather than Buckeye Gymnastics' Kittia Carpenter, who was with Douglas two weeks ago at the national championships.
Douglas herself insisted it was not a big deal since Gallardo has helped coached her all along. Her mother, Natalie Hawkins, went so far as to release a statement through USA Gymnastics minutes before the competition began, stating: "Gabrielle hasn't made a coaching change. Christian Gallardo has been Gabrielle's coach since she arrived at Buckeye. Since there is only to be one coach alongside Gabrielle throughout the Olympic process, Christian is that coach based on their longtime coach/athlete bond, chemistry and strength together."
But Douglas also knows her reputation for changing coaches with little warning or explanation has trailed her throughout her post-London comeback and raised questions --fairly or not -- about her commitment. She was only 16 when she won in London and then took nine months off afterward to take a well-deserved victory lap that was full of public appearances, endorsement deals, a couple of autobiographies, and a tour with the other four U.S. women who won the team gold in London.
When Douglas returned to training in May 2013, she initially rejoined her longtime coach Liang Chow in Des Moines, Iowa. But she stayed there only two months before leaving without public explanation and returned to Los Angeles to train at a local gym.
In April 2014, she returned to Chow and Iowa yet again, but again left before the end of the year in what Lowell Taub, her agent at CAA Sports, insinuated was a compensation dispute.
Douglas and her advisors thought finding a new coach would be simple. But it was not. Several coaches turned Douglas down outright, some out of respect for Chow. Even Carpenter admitted she was wary of taking on Douglas when Douglas first came to her. She wondered if Douglas would be a diva in the gym and said she was pleasantly surprised to find out she was not.
Carpenter is gone, Gallardo is here. When he arrived at trials, he confirmed to USA Today's Rachel Axon that Douglas had decided not to do a high-difficulty/high-reward Amanar, a vault she had done with great success in London and other big meets in the past.
Once again, Karolyi was blunt.
"I am a little disappointed -- I was expecting to her to do an Amanar," Karolyi said. "We gave her enough time and we talked about it the whole year, starting with American Cup and going from one stage to the other, but it looks like mentally she is not ready to do it."
Douglas' reputation for somehow coming up with the goods when she needs to will be tested now. So will the selection committee's guts: Would they really swallow hard and leave the defending Olympic champ off the team?
There has always been the thought that once Karolyi gets Douglas into the national team's training camp before big competitions, Karolyi been able to work magic with Douglas, sharpen up her routines and get her to believe in herself again. But Douglas is also cutting it closer than ever this time. And it's reasonable to wonder if Karolyi is running out of patience with her.
If Douglas can come back Sunday, she can still be a very important member of the U.S. team. And that is going to have to be enough.