Perhaps no one has her work cut out for her quite like Rebecca Bross in St. Louis this week.


She’s the one who has carried the infamous “it-girl” burden throughout much of this quadrennium – the one who was immediately named as America’s next Olympic star at the start of this Olympic cycle.  And for the first half of the four-year stretch between Beijing and London, Rebecca Bross fit the bill.


Although she didn’t dominate 2009 the way many expected her to, Bross still had an impressive first year as a senior.  After a couple of unexpected mistakes at the 2009 nationals, Bross ended up third in the all-around behind Bridget Sloan and Ivana Hong.  Then, after leading the all-around qualifications and holding the top spot through three events in the 2009 world all-around finals, Bross faltered on her last event and ended up with the silver medal behind teammate Sloan.  She added a bronze medal in the uneven bars finals and placed 5th in the floor finals.  All in all it was a strong showing, but we all knew that Bross’ best days were ahead of her.


Bross began her 2010 season with two big international wins at the American Cup in March and the Pacific Rim Championships in April, looking more and more like the confident star we had all predicted.  When she dominated the U.S. Championships in August with an effortless 8-for-8 performance, it was evident that Rebecca Bross was not only America’s best, but she appeared finally ready to prove she was truly the best all-around gymnast in the world.  Many expected that the 2010 world all-around title, which she had let slip through her fingers the year before, would again be Bross’ to lose.


But again it wasn’t quite to be.  The 2010 world championships in Rotterdam belonged to Russia and its new queen, Aliya Mustafina, who was unstoppable throughout the entire competition and easily topped the leader board in both the all-around qualifications and finals.  Bross was strong, finishing 2nd overall in the qualifications, but ended up with the all-around bronze in the finals after an uncharacteristic fall on the balance beam forced her to salvage a medal on the final event.  This time she added two additional medals in the event finals – another world bronze on the uneven bars and an impressive silver on the balance beam.  Although she didn’t come away from Rotterdam with gold, she still had a hefty four souvenirs to add to her growing world medal collection.  Overall, it was a stunning year for America’s biggest hope for gold in London 2012.


So much has changed for Rebecca Bross since then.  She was absent from competition for most of 2011 due to injury, and when she returned at the 2011 U.S. Championships, something was clearly off.  Bross had several atypical falls during the first day of competition – her Tcatchev on bars, her back tuck on beam, and her dismount off beam, and her vault appeared much weaker than it had been in 2009 and 2010.  Floor was the only strong event for the reigning national champion, where she showed her trademark powerful tumbling but had some very uninspiring new choreography.  Day 2 proved to be worse.  After a stronger beam routine than Day 1, Bross again fell short on her dismount, showing sluggish technique and a growing tendency to rush the skill in competition.  Her floor was again fairly solid, but the vault that had appeared weak and a bit scary all week finally caught up with her.  After a very short landing with an incomplete twist, Bross dislocated her kneecap and missed the rest of the 2011 season – including the 2011 world championships.


It’s been great to see Bross back in competition since the injury, but 2012 hasn’t been a whole lot better for her – at least not yet.  She began the 2012 season at the WOGA Classic, where she fell on her Shaposhnikova-half on bars and again on her double Arabian dismount (Patterson) on beam.  Her inclusion on the team at the Jesolo Trophy meet was encouraging, but unfortunately her performance wasn’t.  In her first international competition since the 2010 world championships, Bross again missed her Shaposhnikova-half on bars, and despite hitting her beam routine this time – including a stood up Patterson dismount – Bross put up a low score, suggesting that perhaps she had lost the favor of the international judges during her long absence.  It appeared that Bross was slowly slipping off the Olympic team – and it seemed that no one even knew how or why.


The recent U.S. Classic was clearly her opportunity to redeem herself.  It was unofficially the first step of the Olympic selection process, and with just two weeks to go before the U.S. Championships, it was the perfect chance for Rebecca to show she had regained the same competitive confidence and consistency that made her one of the best gymnasts in the world in 2009 and 2010.  Her first event would be beam – an almost cruel task to ask of a gymnast who was perhaps under more pressure than any other in the field.  After clearly showing her nerves throughout the routine, Rebecca rushed her dismount and crumbled to the mat – AGAIN.


But then – perhaps for the first time since 2010 – Rebecca ended a competition on a positive note.  She hit her intricate 6.5-value bar routine, complete with her high-flying release moves and rock solid handstands, and placed third on the event with a very strong 15.3.  Best of all, she showed some of the crispness we remember from Rebecca when she dominated competitions two years ago.  As bars is still the biggest question mark surrounding this year’s Olympic team, this routine alone gave Rebecca’s fading Olympic dream its first boost since her devastating injury at last year’s nationals.


So here we are, two days before the start of the 2012 U.S. Championships, and where does Rebecca Bross stand?


Right now, I’d say she has a reasonable shot as an alternate, and a very slim chance at sneaking back onto the team.  I’d say right now she’s got about a 10% chance at making the team, and that could go up by about 10% with each day she hits both routines at nationals and Trials.  That means with an 8-for-8 performance throughout the entire process, I’d give her about a 40% shot.  Of course that could change based on what we see from the other gymnasts and on potential injuries that could still occur, but those are ballpark figures of where I envision her at this point.


For starters, we have to be realistic and say that with several strong bars and beam contenders in the mix like Kyla Ross, Nastia Liukin, and even potentially Bridget Sloan, bars alone is very doubtful to be enough to put Rebecca Bross on the Olympic team.  Although she clearly still has a bar routine that could contribute to Team USA and hit it at the recent national team camp as well as the U.S. Classic, that event by itself could probably only lead her to an alternate spot at best – and that’s if she continues to hit all of her bar routines from here on out.  Her ticket to London will need to rely on her hitting a near-15 on beam as well, and quite frankly, she hasn’t done that since the 2010 world championships.


The biggest question among many fans is why on earth Rebecca is still competing that Patterson dismount off beam, after missing it so many times in competition and obviously showing a worsening tendency to rush the skill in competition.  First, she rushes the roundoff…then she turns too early and fails to stand up properly on the takeoff, also missing her “punch”…then she grabs her knees and tucks too soon…and finally ends up having no rotation.  She basically has some technical flaws that become more pronounced under pressure – and that pressure has become greater and greater as she has continued to miss it in competition.  It has snowballed into a huge monster that none of us see Bross being able to overcome – unless she just gets rid of it.  It is eerily similar to Vanessa Atler’s struggles on uneven bars from 1997-1999 and even Shayla Worley’s bars dismount in 2008…where everyone in the world seems to realize that a skill needs to be changed – everyone except for the coach.


No disrespect to Valeri Liukin, who is obviously one of the best coaches in the world, but if it were me that dismount would have been a double tuck a long time ago.  If anything, it would have allowed Rebecca to get her confidence back before trying to tackle that skill in competition again.  And it would have been a good experiment to see what she could score without it.  The Patterson is a “G” skill and gives Rebecca 0.3 over a double tuck…which sounds like a worthy gain at first, until you recall that a medium step alone is a 0.3 deduction, cowboying the legs can easily be a 0.3 deduction, a large step or even a deep squat is a 0.5 deduction, and of course a fall is a 1.0 deduction.  To me, the stress alone that this dismount probably causes Rebecca – and all of us for that matter – isn’t worth 0.3.  Truthfully, even if Rebecca were to hit four for four Patterson dismounts through nationals and Trials, it would be hard to envision Martha ever feeling comfortable putting this routine out in the Olympic team finals – at least with that skill still in there.


A four-for-four competition could go a very long way towards erasing Rebecca’s recent mishaps, so I sincerely hope that she accomplishes that in St. Louis this week.  Most of all, we need to see that “spark” to her gymnastics that has been missing since 2010.  It’s that unwavering confidence that translates into a little extra crispness and sharpness in competition.  If Rebecca Bross can find that spark again, there’s no limit to what she can do.  I think we all would love to see that happen, regardless of how Rebecca’s Olympic fate pans out.


I’ll be very interested to see what beam dismount Rebecca throws this week in St. Louis.  If she chooses to go after the Patterson dismount yet again, I certainly hope it proves successful and that Rebecca can have the type of nationals we all know she is capable of.  But I believe watering this down – not only in the interest of score, but in the interest of Rebecca’s confidence and Martha’s confidence in her – would be very prudent.  Can you imagine how uplifting it would be to Rebecca, her coach, her fans, and Martha Karolyi if she were to cap off her routine with a nice STUCK double tuck?  I think that’s the way to go.


Good luck in St. Louis, Rebecca.