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Tears and comebacks. Next: Rio

At the U.S. Olympic women's gymnastics trials, tears were shed.

Tears from gymnasts who made the team. Tears from gymnasts who didn't.

Tears even from Martha Karolyi, the normally stoic women's national team coordinator, who at the end of the trials on Sunday night had no choice but to crush the hearts and hopes of the gymnasts who weren't among those five women she had chosen to represent the United States at the Rio Games.

The pool of gymnasts were just so good, Karolyi said, it was "absolutely the hardest decision" she has had to make in her 16 years as team leader. Now her chosen few are the favorite to win the team gold, in this, her final year in charge. They also are talented enough to win several — if not all — of the gold medals in the four individual events in Rio.

The tears on Sunday were no surprise, not in a sport so mentally and physically grueling, and after a lifetime's worth of work and sacrifice. They weren't a sign of weakness, though. Far from it. From these tough women, they were a natural release.

For Aly Raisman, the tough team captain and emotional leader who made her second Olympics, the tears at these trials began early. They started on Friday, even before the competition began. Her longtime coach, Mihai Brestyan, saw it coming.

"Just sit down and let it out," he recalled telling her. "Let it all out."

And so Raisman did, letting her tears soak her leotard.

Raisman — who, at 22, is known as the national team's "grandma" — was thinking about how far she had come to make it to the cusp of another Olympics. The exhaustion. The frustration. But each woman who made the team had her own reasons to weep, and happiness was the basis for it.

For Simone Biles, the tumbling, twisting physical and mental phenom who could win five gold medals in Rio, some of the pressure was lifted after she won trials.

For Gabby Douglas, the defending all-around champion from the 2012 London Games, it was a relief to make the team at all. Her performance at the trials was shaky — she was seventh in the all-around — but she was given a spot on the team anyway, with expectations that she will help the U.S. on the uneven bars, her specialty.

Laurie Hernandez, who is just 16 and finished second in the all-around, and Madison Kocian, a world champion on the uneven bars, sniffled because they had just achieved a lifelong goal.

Raisman was overwhelmed by her accomplishment. It's rare for an Olympian to return to a second Olympics because it's so easy to career off track after taking time off. Third at the trials, Raisman had taken more than a year off after she won three medals, including two golds, at the London Games.

She went on a tour with the Olympic team, hopping from city to city. She competed on Dancing With the Stars. She took classes at Babson College. She traveled to appearances and photo shoots. Ah, freedom, after all her years in the gym. It was so strange and delightful, she said. Yet she wasn't ready to forsake her sport.

So in September 2013, Raisman told Brestyan that she wanted to train for the 2016 Games. Brestyan said Raisman needed to get back into "leotard shape" before he would consider resuming serious training with her.

"You need to show me your desire," he said. "I will give you a year. A whole year. If you are still serious after a year, we will move forward."

She agreed to the deal.

To regain her fitness, she ran and ran. She cut back her portions of food, ate healthier and did simple moves in the gym: box jumps, toe raises, handstands on the uneven bars, punch front flips and handspring after handspring. As the year progressed, her workouts grew more difficult.After a year, Brestyan was convinced. And only then did he call Karolyi to say that Raisman would be returning to training camp.

Douglas, 20, returned at the same time. Her comeback had also been harrowing. To get into shape, she jogged, but admitted that when she began, she couldn't even run 3 miles. "I had to stop a lot, like at every stop sign," she said. "So it turned into interval training."

Like Raisman, Douglas, 20, admitted that she had underestimated what it would take to bounce back. She had thought it "would be cake" to make the Olympic team because she had already done it once. But after struggling this weekend — she fell off the balance beam each night — she said she wished she had been more focused on her training, much earlier in the process.

"So many people thought we were crazy and doubted us," Raisman said. "But we did it."

After her final routine Sunday, Raisman hugged Biles, who started to cry when she saw Raisman crying. The other gymnasts surrounded them in a group hug of sparkly leotards, making it look as if they were being embraced by a rainbow.

"Stop crying, you're going to ruin your makeup!" Hernandez said.

Raisman, the veteran who had been through so much, didn't need that advice. She had planned for the moment, just as meticulously as she had planned her comeback. Before heading to the arena, she had applied waterproof mascara. And she will bring it to Rio, too.

— New York Times

Tears and comebacks. Next: Rio 07/11/16 [Last modified: Monday, July 11, 2016 10:17pm]
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