Secret Classic provides final testing ground as women gear up

By John Powers

The Games may be only two months away but it wasn’t until she came out for Friday’s podium training at the XL Center that Simone Biles realized that this indeed is the Olympic year. "We were warming up, and we were looking up and — whoa, it really is 2016," the three-time women’s World champion said on the eve of Saturday night’s Secret U.S. Classic in Hartford, Conn. "That’s crazy."

There have been other significant gymnastics competitions this season but the Classic is the final chance to qualify for the P&G Gymnastics Championships in St. Louis in three weeks. The nationals, along with the Olympic Trials next month in San Jose, will determine the five-member team for Rio de Janeiro, where the US is expected to retain the team title.

Except for Maggie Nichols, who is returning to form after arthroscopic knee surgery, all of the top contenders will be in action this weekend. That group includes Madison Kocian, who’s returning to competition for the first time since breaking her left tibia in February.

"I didn’t think it was anything that would end my chances for the summer," said Kocian, who has won two gold medals with the U.S. World team and shared the uneven bars title last year. "I want to show some new skills on beam and try to get my start value higher so that I can help the team on that event also and get my floor back. Just try to do as much as I can to help out the team and get my chances better."

With Gabby Douglas and captain Aly Raisman returning from the 2012 squad, competition for this Olympic quintet will be uncommonly vigorous with eight women who’ve won global gold medals. And while the 19-year-old Biles will be favored to win the all-around title in Rio, she first has to make the squad. So neither she nor London victor Douglas will compete in all four events here since national team coordinator Martha Karolyi prefers to have them build gradually toward the upcoming selection meets.

"All of us who aren’t doing all-around are trying to show consistency and confidence in the routines that we do," says Biles, who along with Douglas and several others will compete only on bars and balance beam. "It’s always good to get out in front of a crowd and do some events even if it’s not all just to know how you can handle it."

Biles, who has won the last two Classics, hasn’t lost an all-around since her rough outing in the 2013 event (‘I almost killed myself.’) where she withdrew after falling on two events. “Personally, I think it was like a fluke me," she says. "We all have it and it has to happen sometimes and we all get a reality check here and there. That’s just when my time was."

That day proved to be a career turning point for Biles, who’d be the first three-time consecutive World champion to compete at the Games. Her competitive mastery of her international rivals is unquestioned. If she’s able to remain healthy for two more months, Biles figures to become the fourth consecutive American woman to win the Olympic crown.

"It’s a big concern because literally anything can happen at any time," she acknowledges. "It’s not like I walk into the gym every day and say omigosh, I need to stay healthy. How does one stay healthy? You can’t just force it on me. I do a pretty good job, but it’s not something you can control."

With Biles and Douglas sitting out half of the events here, the most likely all-around champion figures to be Raisman, who won the title in 2011 and 2012 and finished second to Biles at the Pacific Rim Championships in April.

“Lately, before I go to sleep, I’ve been having butterflies in my stomach thinking about the Olympics," she says. "You don’t really want to have that but I remember I did have that in 2012 as well. So I’m just trying to stay calm."

The Classic won’t determine who’ll make it to Rio in August but it’ll provide the working form sheet for the two events that will. "It’s a little bit stressful because we know those other ones absolutely count towards the decision on who makes the team," says Biles. "But other than that we’re thinking that this could be all of our last go-rounds. So let’s make the most fun and the most memories along the way and finish off strong for Team USA."