RIO DE JANEIRO — Gabby Douglas tried to block out the criticism when national team coordinator Martha Karolyi named the reigning Olympic champion to the 2016 gymnastics team last month despite a so-so performance at trials.
Emphasis on tried.
Yes, Douglas wasn’t crisp on beam either night in San Jose. Yes, there were a handful of other athletes Karolyi could have chosen instead with minimal effect on the Americans’ chances of steamrolling their way to gold in Rio. And yes, Douglas understands everything she does now will be compared to that euphoric summer four years ago when she rapidly morphed from prodigy to superstar.
Yet Karolyi chose her anyway, confident there was nothing wrong with Douglas that a little quality time at the Karolyi Ranch in the southeast Texas woods couldn’t fix. The second-guessing on social media came anyway. Douglas heard it loud and clear.
“I mean everyone makes mistakes and after trials it was hard because there was a lot of negativity, but whatever,” Douglas said Thursday after finishing a solid round of podium training inside the Olympic Arena. “I feel like shutting it all the way (down) and I have to prove myself.”
Funny, but the poised and professional gymnast that always seems to turn it on when it is absolutely necessary was back just three days before team qualifying.
There was Douglas working the beam Thursday evening without so much as a wobble. There was Douglas gliding over the uneven bars. It’s a testament to how much Douglas has improved over the last month — much of that time spent under Karolyi’s close, personal supervision — that she’s assured of a spot in the all-around with three-time world champion Simone Biles while Aly Raisman and Laurie Hernandez are fighting for the third all-around spot even though both finished well ahead of Douglas at trials.
That’s how quickly Douglas seems to respond when she’s able to retreat into the sanctity of the ranch.
“She kind of has us in a little bubble,” Douglas said. “It’s great we all get to go down there and she whips us into shape.”
It’s exactly what Karolyi had in mind when she selected Douglas over alternates MyKayla Skinner, Ashton Locklear and Ragan Smith and 2015 world championship team member Maggie Nichols.
It would be a stretch to call Karolyi sentimental, but she’s uniquely attuned to what makes Douglas work. It happened last fall when Douglas struggled in training ahead of the world championships before coming alive once the team got to Britain, where she finished runner-up to Biles in the all-around and qualified for the bars final. Karolyi believes it can happen again.
“I know Gabby for many years,” Karolyi said. “Like I said, she’s peaking a little bit later and she definitely needs organized and structured training system installed before competitions and she reacts well to that. She responds very, very well. I feel that she is ready to compete.”
Nowhere is her renewed confidence more visible than on beam. After hopping off once during both nights at trials — mistakes that overshadowed largely clean routines elsewhere — Douglas attacked it during training in the green-splashed arena. Podium training is basically a dress rehearsal, a chance for the gymnasts to get a feel for the equipment, the lighting and the energy. No wonder she looked so at home. She’s been here before.
“It’s not really feeling any different (than in London),” Douglas said. “We’ve done so many routines we’re kind of like on autopilot right now. It’s go, go, go, go.”
It’s a sense of urgency that Douglas has long thrived on. A pep talk with Christian Gallardo — who took over as her full-time coach between U.S. Championships and Olympic Trials — helped, too.
“The biggest thing we talk about is going out and doing her gymnastics,” Gallardo said. “Her gymnastics are beautiful, consistent, clean. She doesn’t have to worry about anything other than going out and being Gabby Douglas.”
When she steps into the arena on Sunday, she’ll be the first reigning Olympic champion to return to the ensuing games since Nadia Comaneci in 1980. It’s heady territory and despite her occasionally uneven route back to this point, Douglas is trying to enjoy it. That doesn’t mean it’s easy. The crown she’s worn for four years has proven heavy at times.
“I’m not going to go out here and listen to any negative thing,” she said. “Just shine bright and do what I’m capable of doing.”