U.S. trials feature fight for 5 spots

Although Gabrielle Douglas, right, had a fall on beam at the U.S. championships, she came close to defeating Jordyn Wieber in the all-around. Getty Images

Sixteen years ago at the Atlanta Games, the U.S. women's gymnastics team won its first Olympic gold. It was a breakthrough for the American program... and a feat that hasn't been matched since. This year, the U.S. women could once again claim gold in the team competition. As the reigning world champs, the Americans are favored in London -- and the U.S. is lucky enough to have the deepest field of athletes from which to choose a team.

The Olympic trials, which start Friday for the women in San Jose, Calif., will have no shortage of potential and former medalists vying for a spot on the five-member Olympic team. Just making the squad is a tall order, and there's no surefire formula to do it. Only the top all-around scorer at trials is guaranteed a spot, and the other four gymnasts will be named by a committee (Martha Karolyi, national team coordinator, Steve Rybacki, international elite committee chairman, and athlete representative Terin Humphrey, a 2004 Olympian) at the conclusion of the competition July 1.

The one-two punch

In all likelihood, the U.S. team will be built around 16-year-olds Jordyn Wieber and Gabrielle Douglas. Wieber was the 2011 world all-around champion and the 2011 and 2012 national champ as well, but she has new competition for No. 1: Douglas was just 0.2 points behind her at the U.S. nationals held earlier this month, and that was with a fall off the balance beam. If Douglas puts together eight hit routines over the two-day competition, she is likely to win the meet.

While both gymnasts are eyeing the automatic team berth the trials' winner receives, the reality is, barring disaster, both athletes will be on the U.S. squad to London. Their rivalry is worth watching for the Olympic implications it carries -- either gymnast could win all-around gold in London. Wieber is a steely competitor who is strongest on floor and vault, while Douglas excels on uneven bars, but is deceptively powerful in the other events as well. (Read Wieber's blog about her expectations for trials here.)

The smaller team

With Wieber and Douglas all but locks, there are only three spots left for the 13 other gymnasts competing at trials -- a group that includes six world gold medalists. As if the American depth weren't daunting enough, this team is tougher to make than in the past for another reason: In 2008 and 2004 there were six members on the squad, and in 1996 and earlier, there were seven. No more Magnificent Seven and Super Six -- we're down to a Fabulous Five.

The reduced team size also means it's harder to be a specialist than in recent years, because the majority of the team (three of the five members) must compete on each event in finals. All-arounders like Wieber and Douglas are a huge asset, as are gymnasts like Kyla Ross, a two-time junior national champion who can put up good numbers on every apparatus, and Alexandra Raisman, a consistent performer who has been scoring especially high on vault, beam, and floor this year.

If there's an athlete who makes the team for one event alone, though, it will be McKayla Maroney. Maroney won the 2011 world title on vault, and can bring in such a big mark there it justifies her spot. Unfortunately, she had a scary crash to her back during warm-ups at nationals and had to withdraw with a mild concussion and a fracture in her nose. Maroney looked spot-on in training on Tuesday, however, and seems to have recovered in time to compete in San Jose.

The 2008 veterans

Earlier this year, five of the six Beijing Olympians were training in hopes of competing in London. Shawn Johnson and Chellsie Memmel are now out of the running (Johnson retired and Memmel didn't qualify to nationals so is ineligible for trials), but three are still in the hunt: Nastia Liukin, Alicia Sacramone and Bridget Sloan.

Liukin is the reigning Olympic all-around champion, now focusing on bars and beam. She has looked fairly solid on the latter, and still has her trademark flexibility and smooth style in every skill, but hasn't yet competed a full bar routine with the tricky double-front half dismount that often gives her trouble. She'll have to look stellar on that event to have a chance on the team.

Sacramone has recovered remarkably well from a torn Achilles suffered last fall and could potentially contribute on beam and vault, especially if Maroney is still out. Sloan is still coming back to full form, but if she's significantly improved since nationals, a team berth is not completely out of the question. She proved in 2008 that she's a master of peaking just in time.

The vast majority of the trials roster has been on at least one Pan American, world, or Olympic team, so there is plenty of experience to rely on in London. Which athletes make the final team won't be complicated -- it will come down to who's healthy and scoring highest in San Jose. With 15 athletes and five Olympic spots, trials may well be more stressful than the Games themselves.