For the United States women, this Olympic cycle is beginning to feel a whole like the one exactly 12 years ago, when five members of the historic gold-medal winning U.S. Olympic team from 1996 caught “Olympic fever” in the year prior to the 2000 Olympics in Sydney and made serious bids for a return trip to the Games. While the attempted Olympic comebacks of Shannon Miller, Dominique Moceanu, and Jaycie Phelps came up short that year (all suffered injuries and withdrew from the selection process), fellow Magnificent Seven team members Dominique Dawes and Amy Chow successfully landed repeat Olympic spots on the bronze-medal winning squad in Sydney. Just as those five champions became reinspired after time away from the sport, we now have an equal number of 2008 Olympic medalists embarking on a repeat Olympic quest for London 2012 – Shawn Johnson, Nastia Liukin, Alicia Sacramone, Chellsie Memmel, and Bridget Sloan. All five of these veterans not only have Olympic medals to their name, but all have also carried the title “world champion” at one point – and in Shawn and Nastia’s case, “Olympic champion” as well.
With these five past world champions and Olympic medalists all in the same Olympic mix with current world champion Jordyn Wieber, multiple world all-around medalist Rebecca Bross, and several other younger American stars, this Olympic selection process is likely to be one of the most intriguing and unpredictable ever. The only dilemma will be that there are only five Olympic births available – even fewer than the traditional six – and not nearly enough to represent the true depth and talent of this team.
Below I’ve listed, in order, the gymnasts I consider to be the top 12 contenders for the 2012 U.S. Olympic team at this point. As we see every Olympic cycle, this list is likely to change with injuries and competition results in the coming months, but as we officially flip our calendars to “2012” tonight, this is where I feel things currently stand:
1. Jordyn Wieber, the best in the world. She’s a stunning all-arounder and a rock-solid competitor, and she shows no signs of slowing down before London. As long as this newly crowned world all-around champion remains healthy, look for her to be the leader for Team USA and one of the stars of the 2012 Olympic Games, where she’ll be expected to battle Russian dynamites Aliya Mustafina and Viktoria Komova – and probably one of her American teammates – for the Olympic all-around title.
2. McKayla Maroney, the vaulting phenomenon. Her vault alone is so stunning and so reliable it’s difficult to imagine Marta Karolyi putting together a team without her – even with only five spots available. In addition to winning the world vault title this past year, Maroney earned more points in her corner with a confident and powerful performance on floor in the world team finals en route to the USA’s team gold. If Maroney continues to hit these two events in particular in 2012, she’ll likely be putting a stamp that says “London” in her passport in about seven months.
3. Aly Raisman, America’s best tumbler and the 4th best all-arounder in the world. Her jam-packed floor routine, combined with her uncanny poise under pressure, makes her one of America’s most valuable assets. After exceeding expectations in two consecutive world championships, Aly has emerged as a reliable leader for the USA and made a name for herself internationally. If she continues to compete as confidently in 2012 as she did in 2010 and 2011, it may take a couple of 2008 Olympians in top form to knock this rock off the Olympic team.
4. Rebecca Bross, the stoic warrior. Some might have counted her out after an absolutely disastrous 2011 Visa Championships, where she appeared fatigued and sluggish and suffered a serious dislocated patella on vault. But let’s not forget she’s one of the toughest competitors the USA has had in years, she’s a multiple world medalist, and she’s still one of the best in the world on bars – an event where she can easily deliver 15+ scores and which won’t be affected by her injured knee. She also still looked surprisingly good on floor this year even while not at her best, and the USA could really benefit from her big scores on this event as well. Don’t count out this tenacious gymnast just yet.
5. Nastia Liukin, the Olympic champion. Well it was certainly a long time coming, but I think most can agree now that the reigning Olympic champion’s comeback can finally be considered legit. In light of the amount of time she has been away from the sport and the changes her body has undergone, Nastia’s Olympic chances are far from guaranteed. But as the best bar worker America has ever had, she could be an extremely valuable asset for that event alone. Her biggest challenges in her quest for London will include avoiding distracting endorsements, getting back into world-class physical shape, and remaining healthy while trying to regain her incredibly intricate skills. If anyone has the talent and determination to do it, though, it’s Nastia.
6. Kyla Ross, the calm and quiet one. Her poise, cleanliness, and consistency have won her multiple junior national titles, and in the Olympic year she’ll get her first chance to prove she’s just as dependable on the senior stage. Kyla is strong and solid on all four apparatuses and this past year began competing the very highly rated “Amanar” on vault. Her beam is particularly reliable, and her bar routine tends to be very well received by the judges – and has the potential for more difficulty. With her well-rounded arsenal and nerves of steel under pressure, Kyla could be a dark horse to steal one of the five available spots for London.
7. Gabrielle Douglas, “the flying squirrel.” Having been compared by many to three-time Olympian and Magnificent Seven member Dominique Dawes because of her unique combination of power, exquisite lines on bars, and daredevil skills on all four events, Gabrielle made her Olympic case quite compelling with her impressive rookie performance at this year’s worlds. Hitting all four events in qualifications, making the world bars finals, and hitting bars in team finals skyrocketed her stock for London, but it’s the potential she has for even more improvement that makes her particularly intriguing. She’ll be training alongside Shawn Johnson for her Olympic quest, and if 2012 turns out like 2011 did, she could even leave her Olympic champion idol and training partner behind.
8. Shawn Johnson, America’s darling. The 2007 world all-around champion, 2008 Olympic balance beam champion, and 2009 Dancing With the Stars champion learned in 2011 that coming back to world-class gymnastics shape after a two-year stint as a public celebrity figure is much easier said than done. After a nervous and rusty start to her highly anticipated return to competition, she began to look more and more like the old Shawn Johnson with each routine she performed at the 2011 Visa Championships – so much so that Marta Karolyi granted her a spot as an alternate on this year’s world team. Shawn’s biggest challenge now will be figuring out where exactly she fits in amongst a field of younger competitors who do many of the skills she used to do – and even better than she did them.
9. Chellsie Memmel, the unlucky veteran. Chellsie is no stranger to comebacks, and she’s no stranger to being written off. Many critics had counted her out of the 2008 mix after a string of injuries kept her out of shape and out of the limelight in 2006 and 2007…but when crunch time arrived in 2008, this unshakeable competitor looked better than ever. This past summer she quietly launched one of the great comebacks in the world and looked nearly as good as she did in her heyday, until yet another untimely injury kept her out of the world championship mix. She’ll now be facing her biggest uphill battle to date, as her older body, younger competitors, and rapidly shrinking window of time will all be working against her. But given what we’ve seen her do in the past and her potential value to the team on bars, beam, and floor, we’d be foolish to count this gymnast out.
10. Sabrina Vega, the 2011 surprise. Vega has been known as a clean and solid all-arounder with a particularly strong floor routine over the last couple of years, but it’s doubtful anyone really expected her to land a spot on the 2011 world team until several more experienced contenders went down with injury. Vega seized the moment beautifully, hitting all four events in the world qualifications and hitting both bars and beam as the leadoff gymnast in the team finals. Although she performed to the best of her ability in Tokyo, she’ll likely need more difficulty to stand out amongst this deeper field of contenders for London.
11. Bridget Sloan, the former world champ who’s been MIA. Bridget Sloan has been known to sneak up on the competition out of nowhere. She did it in 2007 when she ended up as a surprise alternate to the world team. She did it in 2008 when she stole the final spot on the Olympic team after a rough Olympic Trials. She did it in 2009 when she won the world all-around title over the heavily favored Rebecca Bross. And she did it again in 2010 when she landed a last-minute spot on the world team and made the world bars finals after being injured and out of competition nearly the entire year. Bridget is talented enough to do it yet again in 2012, but with a larger field of competitors to contend with – including several of her teammates from Beijing – she’ll need to be healthy and better than ever to make her second trip to the Olympic Games.
12. Alicia Sacramone, America’s all-time best vaulter who’s now on the mend. Alicia Sacramone shocked the world with her 2010 comeback that led to her first ever world vault gold and first ever world balance beam finals, and looked on track for an equally successful 2011 worlds before tearing her Achilles during training. Many gymnasts have managed to return to competition about a year following this devastating injury in recent years, but regaining Olympic form on vault, floor, and beam in less than nine months is an entirely different story…particularly when the USA has several capable substitutes. Sacramone unfortunately has a huge uphill battle that may or may not even be possible, but if there’s anyone willing and able to give it a fighting chance, it’s Alicia.
Other possible contenders:
Other names to watch for include the Naperville, Illinois trio of Mackenzie Caquatto, Bridgette Caquatto, and Anna Li, all of whom are excellent on bars and could potentially sneak onto this top 12 list at least, depending on how things play out. Mackenzie was a 2010 world team member and looked to be a legitimate contender for the 2011 squad before getting injured at the selection camp. Her younger sister, Bridgette, had trouble hitting her packed bars set consistently this past year, but recently won the all-around and bars at the Pan American Games and will likely be more confident in 2012. Anna Li, a former UCLA gymnast, was initially on the world squad this year before injuring a stomach muscle, and like Bridgette, never quite seemed to quite show enough consistency with her loaded bar routine to ultimately gain Marta Karolyi’s trust.
Another name to keep an eye out for is upcoming first-year senior Sarah Finnegan, a polished, well-rounded young gymnast who trains under Al Fong at GAGE and placed 3rd in the junior division at this year’s Visa Championships. Although she may not quite have all the stuff to be considered a top contender just yet, her style and situation are strikingly similar to fellow former GAGE gymnast Courtney McCool, who burst out of the junior ranks in 2003 and ended up as a surprise addition to the Olympic team in Athens 2004.
Happy New Year Everyone…And Happy Olympic Year Too!!!