It’s time to get back in the game!

It’s funny – after following the world’s best gymnasts so closely for four years (or more), analyzing their every move, writing about them several times per week, becoming fully invested in the emotional Olympic selection process, and then traveling to the Olympic Games in London to experience the culmination of it all firsthand, it almost felt like I’d gone through the Olympic journey myself.  Physically…no…but mentally and emotionally…I went through a post-Olympic “crash” that I would guess was not all that dissimilar from what the athletes go through.

London was an incredible experience.  It’s now nearly a full year later, and I can still feel the “tingle” that passed through my body and still hear the music that played as the arena darkened just prior to the athletes marching out for each session of competition.  I can still remember that child-like excitement I felt each and every morning I awoke during those three weeks, wondering what stories – what Olympic memories – that day would bring.  And although we had no shortage of memorable moments during those Olympic Games, I was struck by how much of the Olympic experience actually happens outside of the competition arena…from the selection process leading up to the Games, to the stories that develop during training, to the chatter and predictions that begin to spread amongst the fans and media, to the surprising possibilities that seem to emerge leading up to the competition – even though many don’t actually come to fruition.  Most of all, I realized that the Olympic Games is so powerful that it draws the simultaneous attention of the entire planet – eyes from all corners of the globe focus on the best athletes in the world competing in the biggest sporting event in existence.  It’s no wonder why so many athletes train and dream nearly every day of their lives to be a part of it.

It’s this time in the post-Olympic year when that Olympic flame – which has faded somewhat since London – begins to reignite.  We’ve got multiple big competitions on the horizon that will begin to reunite the world’s best gymnasts, who have scattered in various directions since last summer.  Many have taken breaks, some have retired and moved on, some have kept one foot in the gym and one foot out, and some have already emerged as new stars.

Below I’ve put together a list of 5 things I’m excited to see over the last half of 2013 – and what I would consider the true beginning of the journey to Rio 2016:

1.  A New World All-Around Champion.  The post-Olympic world all-around title always seems to be up for grabs, and while Japan’s Kohei Uchimura will be the likely candidate on the men’s side, the women’s side will be wide open.  As in London, we can expect a couple of Americans, a couple of Russians, and a now-healthy Larisa Iordache to battle it out.  Could Kyla Ross do what Bridget Sloan did in 2009 and seize the post-Olympic world crown?  Could a less experienced teammate like Simone Biles, Katelyn Ohashi, or Elizabeth Price do it instead?  Could Viktoria Komova finally stand atop the podium after taking silver in 2011 and 2012, or could teammate Aliya Mustafina regain the title she last won in 2010?  All the names in the mix aren’t even clear yet, and that’s what makes it so fascinating.

2.  U.S. Olympians Sticking Around.  Amazingly, it is entirely possible that all ten Olympians from the American squads in London could be in competition during this next Olympic cycle – almost unheard of after an Olympic Games.  It’s not yet clear when all may return to the competition floor, but there’s no question we should see quite a few of them at the upcoming U.S. Championships.  Kyla Ross is the most certain participant on the women’s side, but we’ve also seen recent footage of McKayla Maroney that suggests she could in fact be a contender for this year’s world team, and we’ve seen footage of Jordyn Wieber indicating she’s still in excellent shape as well.  All five U.S. men’s Olympians – including two-time Olympic veteran Jonathan Horton – have indicated the desire to push towards Rio.  We’ll know more in the coming weeks how many of them will be competing this summer, but the fact that the U.S. men will have five fantastic all-arounders with Olympic experience in the mix throughout this cycle bodes very well for this team.

3.  Unpredictable U.S. Champions.  With the U.S. Championships just over a month away, it’s anyone’s guess who will emerge as the post-Olympic national champions.  Jake Dalton, who looked better than ever as he won this year’s American Cup title, is a definite front runner, but several of his Olympic teammates like Danell Leyva and Sam Mikulak should make it an exciting battle.  The women’s field will be somewhat wide open, with Olympian Kyla Ross expected to battle with Olympic alternate Elizabeth Price and new seniors Simone Biles and Katelyn Ohashi.

4.  Russian Women Seeking Redemption.  Getting dominated by the American women wasn’t exactly what the 2010 world champion Russian women’s team had in mind in London, so we can expect this team will be seeking some revenge throughout this Olympic cycle.  They’ve already put together a super strong five-woman squad for the World University Games that begins tomorrow – including 2010 world all-around champion and four-time Olympic medalist Aliya Mustafina and two-time Olympian Ksenia Afanasyeva – both of whom have looked fantastic this year.  With past world team members Tatiana Nabieva and Anna Dementieva back in the mix, and Olympic all-around silver medalist Viktoria Komova expected to be back for the world championships, this team is still absolutely stacked.  While there won’t be a world team competition this year, we can expect some brilliant gymnastics from this talented squad in the coming months.

5.  International Veterans Not Done Yet.  In addition to so many U.S. Olympians sticking around, several international stars whom we might have worried would consider retirement after London have decided to continue competing – at least for this year.  Veterans like Sandra Izbasa, Aliya Mustafina, Ksenia Afanasyeva, Oksana Chusovitina, Vanessa Ferrari, Jessica Lopez, Vasiliki Millousi, Fabian Hambuechen, Marcel Nguyen, and even Kohei Uchimura are all still in serious training and competition – and we can expect to see all of these gymnasts in Antwerp this year.  Compared with most past Olympic Games, we seem to have had relatively few retirements among the top stars – exciting for the next four years!