SAN JOSE, Calif. — Gabby Douglas has impeccable timing.
The perky 16-year-old upset world champion Jordyn Wieber for the first time Sunday night, winning the Olympic trials and the lone guaranteed spot for the London Games.
Douglas, bolstered by a dazzling uneven bars routine that would make an acrobat sweat, beat Wieber by a mere 0.1 points after finishing a close second at last month’s US championship and the first night of trials. Wieber soon joined her on what will be the strongest team the Americans have had since 1996, one that will be not just favored but expected to bring home only the second Olympic team gold. McKayla Maroney and Aly Raisman, who were with Douglas and Wieber on the US team that won the title at last fall’s world championships, also made the team, as did Kyla Ross.
Douglas led the team onto the floor as they were introduced, biting her lip to hold back tears.
One gymnast who won’t be headed to London, at least not to compete, is Olympic champion Nastia Liukin.
Liukin announced her comeback last October, hoping to become the first reigning Olympic champion to return to the games since Nadia Comaneci in 1980. But desire and grit are no match for shoulder problems and a three-year layoff, and Liukin’s glittering career sputtered to an end. She fell on uneven bars, her signature event, when her fingertips could only brush the bar after a release move, and needed to take a step back after landing her dismount on the edge of the mat.
She regrouped with a nice balance beam routine. As she walked off the podium, her father and coach, Valeri, greeted her with a kiss and fans began to stand. Tears filled Liukin’s eyes as she waved and said goodbye, to the crowd, her comeback and a career that includes five Olympic medals and four world titles.
But Liukin leaves knowing the Americans are in great hands.
Wieber has been considered the favorite for Olympic gold since winning the world title last fall, her biggest competition expected to come from Russians Aliya Mustafina and Viktoria Komova. Turns out, her real rival was right here at home.
Douglas served notice of her potential at this year’s American Cup, where she actually beat Wieber, though her scores didn’t count because she was competing as an alternate. She came up just short at nationals and again the first night of trials.
On Sunday night, however, Douglas would not be denied again.
Needing to score a 15.25 or better to pass Wieber, Douglas put on a show worthy of Vegas on the floor exercise. Basketball players would be envious of the hops she gets on her tumbling runs, yet she lands them with such security there’s got to be some glue somewhere on those feet. She had the crowd rocking and rolling to her techno music, and she wore a grin so bright it could have powered the arena had the lights went out.
When she finished, coach Liang Chow greeted her with a bear hug. And that was before they saw her score: a 15.3 that gave her a total of 123.45, just enough to hold off Wieber.
Only the trials winner was guaranteed a spot in London, and it was clear from the start that Douglas was going to give Wieber a heck of a fight.
She opened with a massive vault, soaring high above the table with her legs pencil-straight and body tightly coiled, and she needed only a small hop to the side to steady herself on her landing. She broke into a big grin as she thrust her hands in the air, and she trotted off the podium with her fists still raised. Her score of 16 — including a huge 9.5 for execution — moved her into first place, a spot she never relinquished.
She extended the lead on uneven bars, her signature event. Douglas is so light she looks like a hummingbird flitting between the bars, and she gets such great height on her release moves she could have dusted off the Jumbotron. But it is her grace that makes her stand out, looking like a ballerina in a jewelry box as she pirouetted on the high bar. There’s some hard-core steel beneath that pretty package, however. On one transition, Douglas’ hand seemed to slip on the bar, something that would have made most gymnasts go flying. But she kept right on going, never even hesitating.
When she landed her dismount — two layout somersaults — with only the slightest of hops, the arena responded with a roar that was probably heard in San Francisco. Her score of 15.9 gave her a 1.35-point lead over Wieber with two events left.
But balance beam has been giving Douglas problems all month — a fall the second day of the U.S. championships cost her the title — and Sunday night was no different. She had to windmill her arms to stay upright after a series of back handsprings, and she rocked and swayed for another several seconds after a back somersault. Her score of 14.85 was her lowest of the two-day trials, and cut her lead to 0.6 going into the final rotation — leaving plenty of room for Wieber, who finished on vault, the highest-scoring event.
Wieber didn’t get her normal height on vault, however, and landed low, needing to take a step back to steady herself. A minor error, for sure, but every tenth counts when the Olympics are on the line.