BY WILL GRAVES
SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) — Laurie Hernandez likes to joke that any gymnastics meet that includes three-time world champion Simone Biles is really just a race for second.
Hernandez is kidding, but not really.
For the last three years, there has been Biles and then everyone else. During the opening round of Olympic Trials on Friday night, “everyone else” drew as close to Biles as they have in a while, led by the electric 16-year-old Hernandez.
While Biles led the way as usual with a 61.850, Hernandez was just a point back at 60.850. The gap is sizable to be sure. It may even be insurmountable. Yet the fact Hernandez is in the same area code is a testament to her level of comfort on the biggest stage.
“You kind of have to act naive to it,” Hernandez said with a laugh. “This is just another meet. The arena is just bigger than usual.”
The stakes too.
While there were others — even Biles and defending Olympic champion Gabby Douglas — who had to tamp down the adrenaline or the mistakes (or both), Hernandez erased any lingering doubt about her readiness for Rio de Janeiro. Each of her scores on the four individual events ranked in the top five, including a beam routine that’s good enough to win Olympic gold on its own.
Heady territory for someone who turned 16 a month ago. Yet Hernandez seems to thrive on the pressure, pressure that ever so briefly seemed to get to Biles. The overwhelming favorite to win the all-around in Rio overshot her landing on vault and had to muscle her way through an awkward spin, a rare wobble during a skill coach Aimee Boorman said her star has been drilling “for weeks.”
Blame it on the adrenaline that comes with a spot on what could be the most loaded U.S. team in history on the line.
“What you saw was the adrenaline today,” Boorman said. “There were a lot of people that can’t reign in the adrenaline. I don’t think we need to change much of her gymnastics.”
Aly Raisman’s continued her resurgence to the form she showed while winning three medals at the London Olympics while finishing third, followed by MyKayla Skinner in fourth.
National team coordinator Martha Karolyi is picking from an embarrassment of riches as she pieces together a squad that will head to Rio as the heavy favorite to win a second straight Olympic team gold. Karolyi, who is retiring after the games, said following the national championships last month that she already had five names in mind and doesn’t appear ready to break out an eraser just yet.
“The list is staying pretty solid,” Karolyi said. “Even with some mistakes here or there. We look for the potential and you look for the fact of what you see what the girls were able to do in the past also.”
Biles, Hernandez and Raisman appear to be in solid position while Douglas is still searching for the form that helped her win an eye-opening silver in the all-around to Biles at the world championships last fall. Douglas was only so-so at nationals and adjusted her coaching situation heading into Trials, with Christian Gallardo taking a more prominent role with less than a month to go before opening ceremonies.
Gallardo, who has served as Douglas’ co-coach along with Kittia Carpenter since Douglas moved to Buckeye Gymnastics in Columbus, Ohio two years ago, called the move a collective decision. Olympic rules only allow one personal coach on the event floor, and Douglas’ comfortability with Gallardo made the difference.
“We always thought it was a good idea, especially leading into trials,” Douglas said. “We do a lot of numbers and a lot of reps. He was always my coach in the gym and you can only have one coach on the floor. It just made sense.”
If there was any immediate impact on the decision, it didn’t show under the lights, a place where Douglas so often thrives. While Douglas was third on uneven bars, the event that first caught Karolyi’s eye five years ago, she was iffy elsewhere, her occasionally shaky night ending with a hop off the beam.
Douglas’ wobble may open the door for other candidates to slip into the group. Skinner put a strong 59.450, including top four scores on vault, beam and floor.
Madison Kocian and Ashton Locklear, who came into the trials as the leading candidate for the fifth spot, posted matching 15.750s on bars — the best of the night by far — with Kocian adding a steady 14.7 on balance beam.
There is no drama at the top, though there might be company for Biles.
The high-flying star hasn’t lost a meet since the summer of 2013 while cementing herself as the best gymnast of her generation. Though she’s still in a class by herself, she wasn’t quite as crisp as she was while winning her fourth national title in St. Louis two weeks ago. In a way, Biles is a victim of her own success. She’s separated herself from the rest of the world so completely that anything less than dominance seems like disappointment.
Biles, however, prefers not to look at it that way. She’s spent the better part of her life preparing for this moment. She’s not about to let it slip away. Yes she was a little amped on Friday. She’ll adjust.
“I feel like it’s a world selection camp except this one is a competition held publicly,” she said. “That’s fine. It’s like crickets out there (at selection camp). Here at least you have the crowd to pump it up. That’s what we train for.”
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