As Final Five finish historic Olympics, a look to the future
RIO DE JANEIRO – Aimee Boorman’s eyes welled when she conceded that this might be the last time she coaches Simone Biles.
Retiring national team coordinator Martha Karolyi joked to Aly Raisman early Tuesday, “well this is maybe your last time doing this warm-up for a while.”
Biles and Raisman’s one-two finish in the floor exercise final capped the best medal output for a U.S. Olympic women’s gymnastics team. It also marked the end for the Final Five.
The nine medals won by this handful broke the record of eight shared by the 1984 and 2008 teams.
The U.S. is so deep many have said it could have fielded a B team that contended for a silver medal in the team competition here.
There is little doubt the U.S. will move forward as the best women’s gymnastics nation, but the faces of that program at the next Olympics, and even in 2017, are unknown.
“Maybe the best girl that we’re going to have in 2020 might not really be on everyone’s radar right now,” three-time U.S. Olympian John Roethlisberger said.
That was certainly the case in the last two Olympic cycles.
Think Rebecca Bross in 2009 and 2010 and Jordyn Wieber in 2011 before Gabby Douglas emerged.
This time four years ago, Biles was the U.S. junior all-around bronze medalist.
The two women who beat her at the 2012 junior nationals retired from elite gymnastics having never competed at a world championships.
This year’s U.S. women’s team was the first to include a returning Olympian (two, actually) since Sydney 2000. Will it develop into a trend?
One member of the Final Five is already ruling out another Olympic run.
Madison Kocian, the uneven bars silver medalist, is content to start competing collegiately for UCLA and does not see in her future a return to elite, Olympic-level gymnastics.
None of her four teammates can go the NCAA route. They have all turned professional.
Biles said she will take a post-Olympic break, starting with a pizza party and continuing on a 36-city tour with the team from mid-September through mid-November. Then she will determine what she wants to do.
At 19, she is older than Douglas and Raisman were in 2012.
Normally, older means tougher to take two years off and return for another Olympic go-around in 2018 or 2019, as Douglas and Raisman did in this cycle.
But the sport has never seen anybody like Biles. Anything is possible.
“I think she would be able to [take years off and come back] if that’s what she chooses to do,” Boorman said Tuesday. “I mean, because she’s just so talented. Her skills come very naturally, that it’s basically about getting your body in shape to do those skills.”
Douglas came back from her break in 2015 to win the world championships all-around silver medal. She struggled this spring and summer and didn’t qualify to defend her all-around title last week.
“I really haven’t thought about what I’m going to do after, so we’ll see,” Douglas said before Sunday’s uneven bars final, where she finished seventh and then poured her heart out in the mixed zone after weeks of scrutiny and social media criticism.
Douglas, who after London lived in Los Angeles, Des Moines and then Columbus, Ohio, will move back to Los Angeles to be with her family after Rio, according to the Associated Press.
Raisman, the oldest member of the team at age 22, is also neither jumping back into the gym nor announcing a retirement.
“I was in, I thought, the best shape of my life in 2012, and now it’s even better here,” Raisman said Tuesday. “So maybe I just get better with age. … So maybe I will [come back].
“I think that I’ll take some time off, take a break and then we’ll come back to the gym and kind of see how it goes.”
The team member most expected to compete in 2017 is Laurie Hernandez, the first U.S. Olympic gymnast born in the 2000s.
She turned professional right before the Games began and was thought to be an all-around contender after finishing second to Biles at the U.S. Olympic Trials.
Douglas and Raisman were chosen to do the all-around in qualifying over Hernandez, who bagged balance beam silver on Monday.
History is on Hernandez’s side for a strong 2017.
The youngest gymnast on the 2008 and 2012 U.S. Olympic teams each returned to competition the following year and earned world championships all-around medals (Bridget Sloan’s gold in 2009 and Kyla Ross’ silver in 2013).
Of course, the U.S. has a stable of gymnasts in line to replace all of Biles, Raisman, Douglas, Hernandez and Kocian if need be.
Ragan Smith is at the top of that list.
She is even younger than Hernandez, turning 16 last week, and was in Rio as one of three Olympic team alternates.
Smith’s rise has been steady – seventh in the U.S. junior all-around in 2014, third in 2015 and, in the senior division, fifth at the Olympic Trials last month.
“I think you’re going to get Laurie Hernandez for a while,” Roethlisberger said. “I would not bet against Simone Biles if she wants to keep doing it, being one of those people. And Ragan Smith, those three could make a core that could last for quite a while.”
The rest of the world is scrambling.
China brought home one women’s medal – a team bronze – from Rio, continuing its slide since hosting the 2008 Beijing Games.
Russia has clinged to its veteran gymnasts with no young teens able to challenge the Americans.
The story has long been told that girls in Romania don’t grow up wanting to be like Nadia anymore.
“Obviously, we don’t know exactly what the Russians have in their pipeline, or the Chinese for that matter,” Roethlisberger conceded, before adding, “honestly, we have a lot of coaches from around the rest of the world that have come here [to the U.S.]. It kind of has been a reverse brain drain from the rest of the world into the United States. I think the system that we have, and I think even with Martha retiring, I think it’s just a fine-tuned machine that’s going to keep rolling.”
Boorman had never coached an elite gymnast before Biles.
Now, she will head home, where her gym includes two elite U.S. junior gymnasts. The pipeline will keep producing.
“Each team just gets better and better and better,” Boorman said. “Hopefully, the team in Tokyo will be even better than this one.”