John Orozco jokes around with teammates while stretching during practice for the U.S. Olympic gymnastics trials, Wednesday, June 27, 2012, in San Jose, Calif. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)
SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Picking their Olympic teams with a coin flip probably sounds good to the gymnastics folks right about now.
With enough depth on both the men's and women's sides that each could send two five-person teams to London, the selection committees have their work cut out for them after this week's Olympic trials. There's one -- count it, one -- guaranteed spot available, with the remaining nine gymnasts chosen based on what combination gives the Americans the best chance for medals, preferably gold, in the team finals.
"It's tough," Jonathan Horton, who led the Americans to a bronze medal at the Beijing Olympics, said Wednesday. "You know there are going to be three or four guys who belong on the team that don't make it."
The men's trials begin Thursday and the women start Friday. The top two men, using combined scores from nationals and Olympic trials, could lock up spots, but only if they also finish in the top three of the six events. Otherwise, two gymnasts will be named Saturday night and the remaining three will be added Sunday. The winner of the women's all-around competition gets that lone guaranteed spot and, for the first time since 2000, the rest of the team will be determined after the competition ends Sunday.
Got all that?
"It's going to be really, really tough because there are so many great guys," U.S. champion John Orozco said, looking around the room. "It's going to be hard to pick a team from 15 guys."
Unlike track or swimming, the scoring format makes it impossible to pick a gymnastics team simply based on who finishes first, second, third, fourth and fifth. In qualifying, four gymnasts compete on each event and the lowest score is dropped. For team finals, however, the format switches to the unforgiving three-up, three-count, with three gymnasts competing on each event and all three scores counting.
That means teams have to be built to put up monster numbers in team finals, yet still have the versatility and balance to get through qualifying -- not to mention withstanding last-minute injuries. And that means the selection committees will be doing the equivalent of an Olympic jigsaw over these next few days, trying to figure out what pieces fit best where.
And, let's be honest, the gymnasts are doing their own versions of that same puzzle.
"Absolutely," said Chris Brooks, an alternate on last year's world team. "If they say they don't, they're lying."
Orozco, world parallel bars champion Danell Leyva and Horton, a two-time medalist in Beijing, are considered virtual locks. That leaves two spots, and Sam Mikulak sure helped his cause by finishing third at the U.S. championships two weeks ago. Brooks, Jake Dalton and Steve Legendre are sitting squarely on the bubble.
Dalton said he was already figuring out where -- and how -- he could fit at last year's worlds. His best events are floor and vault, but he noticed the U.S. men needed some help on still rings.
"You think who's good on what events," Dalton said. "I knew I needed to get stronger on still rings."
For the women's team, reigning world champion Jordyn Wieber, Gabby Douglas and Aly Raisman can probably start packing for London. Douglas finished a mere 0.2 points behind Wieber at nationals and also has a massive score on uneven bars, the weak spot for the Americans. Raisman was the bronze medalist on floor exercise at last year's world championships, and is as rock steady as they come. Do the math, and that leaves two spots -- and at least a half-dozen candidates for them.
There's reigning Olympic champion Nastia Liukin and Beijing teammates Alicia Sacramone and Bridget Sloan. There's McKayla Maroney, who added a gold medal on vault to the one the Americans won in the team competition at last year's worlds. And then there are a slew of up-and-comers, including Kyla Ross, Elizabeth Price and Sarah Finnegan.
While having all these puzzle pieces in play makes it a little more stressful on the gymnasts, they wouldn't have it any other way. After all, the goal is to win medals, and no one's been better at that over the last two Olympics than the Americans. The U.S. men and women both won team medals in Athens and Beijing, something no other country can say.
"This," Horton said, "is the reality of how gymnastics is now."