Douglas' spot hangs in the balance

SAN JOSE (California) • If there is anything akin to a truth serum in gymnastics, it is the balance beam - a four-inch-wide test of skill and nerve that exposes any lack of preparation, any crisis of confidence without favour or apology.

Gabby Douglas, the reigning Olympic all-around champion, stood on shaky ground when she stepped up to the beam on Friday at the SAP Centre.

It was her final event on the first night of the two-day US Olympic trials. A strong beam routine would lift her to third in the standings and compensate for the rough patches that had cost her precious execution points on the vault, floor exercise and uneven bars.

But the simplest skill - a routine spin that was mere connective tissue in a series of acrobatic flips and balletic leaps - tripped her up.

Midway through the spin, Douglas wobbled, then tumbled off, even as she fought her body and yelled at herself in silence, "I'm not coming off this beam! I'm not coming off this beam!"

Gabby Douglas competing on the balance beam at the US Olympic trials before her stumble that saw her fall to seventh in the standings. The two-time Olympic gold medallist has had her share of distractions, writing books and doing rounds on the talk-show and awards-show circuits, in addition to being the subject of a TV biopic. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE


I'm going to train so much harder than I did before. I'm just going to tell myself that it's not over till it's over.

GABBY DOUGLAS, American gymnast, after her stumble in the balance beam routine at the US Olympic trials.

Instead of inching up to third, she plunged to seventh with a performance that sounded alarms about her preparation, composure and confidence less than one month before the start of the Rio Games.

The five-woman 2016 Olympic team will be named following the final session of the competition. Barring a meltdown, Douglas' berth appears secure. She has a track record of rising at critical moments.

But Martha Karolyi, national team director of US women's gymnastics, had expected to see improvement following the American's fourth-place finish at the P&G Championships two weeks ago in St Louis.

However, she indicated afterward that her faith had not been shaken entirely. "I wasn't really surprised by anything," Karolyi told reporters. "For me, there is a little bit more work to be done. That is all."

Multiple issues factor in Douglas' struggle to reclaim her world-class form of 2012. Her body at 20 is 1.56m - 6.35cm taller than it was at 16.

She has had her share of distractions. Like other members of the victorious "Fierce Five," she took advantage of marketing opportunities that followed the team gold in London.

She penned two autobiographies, dazzled on the talk-show and awards-show circuits, was the subject of a made-for-TV biopic and, more recently, a six-part reality series, "Douglas Family Gold".

Karolyi, however, intimated that instability in Douglas' training regimen had undermined her efforts.

Like all elite female gymnasts in the Olympic pipeline, Douglas trains under a personal coach at her "home" gym but attends monthly camps at a ranch owned by Martha and Bela Karolyi, where Martha assesses their progress and tests their competitive mettle through mini-competitions known as "verifications".

Many of the gymnasts have had the same personal coach for years. Douglas, by contrast, parted with Chow Liang, the Iowa-based coach who led her to all-around gold in 2012 just a few months after she resumed training in April 2013.

After shopping for another coach, Douglas relocated to Columbus, Ohio, to train alongside close friend Nia Dennis at Buckeye Gymnastics under Kittia Carpenter, a former Arizona State gymnast with experience as a judge and coach of top juniors.

But following her fourth-place finish two weeks ago, Douglas made another swop, choosing her co-coach at Buckeye, Christian Gallardo, as her on-site coach at the US trials.

Douglas and Gallardo played down the significance of the switch on Friday, insisting it had not disrupted her preparations for Rio.

"The whole purpose of this is to put the athlete first - what she needs, what is going to work for her," Gallardo said, describing Douglas' performance on Friday as "a step in the right direction" until that beam misstep.

On Saturday, Douglas returned to the arena for what she vowed would be an intense workout.

"I'm going to train so much harder than I did before," Douglas said on Friday. "I'm just going to tell myself that it's not over till it's over."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 11, 2016, with the headline 'Douglas' spot hangs in the balance'. Print Edition | Subscribe