We’ve received word that McKayla Maroney is at least back in the gym after the concussion she suffered at the recent Visa Championships, and we haven’t received any information suggesting that she won’t be able to compete in this week’s Olympic Trials in San Jose. But the truth is, we still need to be ready for it.
There’s been a lot of new research and updated guidelines on concussions over the last couple of years, all pointing towards more conservative management and “return-to-play” principles. Current guidelines strongly recommend not allowing athletes to return to activity while they still have any symptoms related to the concussion at all. These somewhat vague symptoms include headache, dizziness, fatigue, sensitivity to light or noise, irritability, depression, or difficulty with sleep, attention, memory, or concentration. While these might describe any of us when we haven’t had our morning coffee, when caused by a concussion, these symptoms can be persistent and very difficult to predict. Symptoms can last anywhere from days, to weeks, to months, and during that time, the guidelines recommend a lot of physical and mental rest to allow the brain to recover as quickly as possible. Returning to activity must be done gradually, and the reemergence of any of the above symptoms suggests the need to back off.
Envisioning McKayla Maroney compete skills like a Yurchenko 2 ½ (“Amanar”) on vault, a 3 ½ twist on floor, and just about anything on a 4-inch wide beam less than three weeks after the major hit she took is enough to make any of us queasy. And we don’t even have to do it.
The question now on all of our minds, and the one which will likely become central to this week’s Trials, is…If Maroney isn’t cleared to compete, who’s next in line to make this Olympic team?
The simple answer is…it depends. It depends on what vulnerabilities arise at this week’s Trials amongst the other four likely Olympians – Jordyn Wieber, Aly Raisman, Gabby Douglas, and Kyla Ross.
Vault is a strong event for the USA, but without world champion Maroney, this team suddenly loses what was undoubtedly going to be its single biggest score across all four events in the Olympic team finals. Gabby Douglas has shown some unpredictable “Amanars” in competition this year, and though Aly Raisman has been landing hers on her feet, it has begun to look a bit sloppier throughout the year. If either Raisman or Douglas appears tenuous on vault in San Jose, this would open an Olympic door for the more predictable vaulting powerhouses, Elizabeth Price and Alicia Sacramone.
Or perhaps one of the potential bars pros – like Nastia Liukin, Bridget Sloan, Rebecca Bross, or Anna Li – could capitalize on this opportunity. If Jordyn Wieber’s troubles on this event resurface, or if one of these four stylish swingers simply puts up something huge – like a score around the 16 mark – the selection committee may decide to give the bars lineup an extra boost with one of these specialists.
Finally, if any question marks are revealed on beam or floor at this competition, this would open the door for the exquisite Sarah Finnegan, who is capable of scoring among the very best in the world on these two events. Nastia Liukin and Alicia Sacramone are also potential contributors on beam, so this event provides another opportunity for these two as well.
So which of these seven gymnasts is most likely to steal an Olympic spot if Maroney isn’t ready?
Any of them realistically could, and it truly all comes down to what happens in this week’s competition. Unlike the last two Olympic cycles when the Trials played a somewhat murky role, and closed-door selection camps loomed mysteriously beyond the competitions, this year’s team will be determined at the Trials themselves. That means the performances – and scores – of each of the above contenders will matter tremendously in San Jose. And that’s exactly what will make this competition so thrilling to watch.