Qualifier coverage is ramping up with the London Olympics looming mere weeks away. In the pool, Michael Phelps is working to qualify in enough events to go for eight golds again. For track and field, hurdler Lolo Jones was able to nab an Olympic team spot last weekend despite injury concerns. These stories are certainly notable and available, but one (summer games) sport in particular seems to enrapture the world every four years – and that is gymnastics.
For a sport that so few have access to throughout most of the year (from both a viewing perspective and via direct involvement), gymnastics owns a cult-like following when the Olympics roll around. There is a crescendoing buzz surrounding the women’s trials (which begin this evening at 9 PM on NBC) – who the favorites are, who will make the cut, who can make a comeback. The drama surrounding the team selection intensifies this year in that the pool of competitors is so strong, yet for the first time, only five girls can make the team. Until 2000, the squad consisted of seven. From 2000-2008, six girls could make the cut. But now it is down to five. In a sport where consistency is strived for yet unpredictability reigns, choosing the five representatives that will attempt to bring team gold to the USA for just the second time ever (1996’s Magnificent Seven were the first and only… cue memory of Kerri Strug’s vault) is a daunting task for head coach Martha Karolyi (who will actually have four choices to make after it becomes clear who wins the individual all-around – an automatic bid).
The biggest rivalry for the all-around title will almost certainly come down to Jordyn Wieber (the reigning World Champion) and Gabby Douglas (nicknamed the “Flying Squirrel” for her unreal bar routine), two incredibly talented 16-year-olds, both of whom will likely make the squad no matter who takes top honors this weekend. With those two spots all but locked, the three girls who will make up the rest of Team USA is anyone’s guess. In the Olympics of years past (with larger squads), one or two-event specialists would often be selected. But this year, that tactic seems wasteful.
Ali Raisman, Kyla Ross, Elizabeth Price, and Sarah Finnegan are all strong candidates for the 3-4-5 spots, but they will also be competing against 2008 Beijing olympians Nastia Liukin, Alicia Sacramone and Bridget Sloan – all trying for comebacks. Trying might be as far as that goes though – the aforementioned “strong candidates” all finished ahead of the Beijing competitors at the Visa National Championships earlier this month.
I remember hearing many years ago that enrollment in gymnastics goes up in the year that follows the Olympics. I never saw it in my gym, and I’m not sure if that statistic is even true, but I could believe it. Little girls across America watching only slightly bigger girls performing indescribable feats of athleticism on pieces of wood and leather, chalk clouds erupting from grips slapped together pre and post bar routine. The thud of 90-odd pounds of muscle slamming into a bright blue mat, stuck landing, emphatic salute. Who wouldn’t want to be able to do that? I have had my share of angst when it comes to this sport, looking back at the sheer amount of time dumped into something so far off the general radar, something so unbelievably challenging. But I believe I am better for having been a part of it, and you can be damn sure I’ll be watching every second of it I can.