Podium training day at the 2012 American Cup in Madison Square Garden. The general warmup was over, and the U.S. women went to beam. First up: Gabby Douglas. In the media stands, reporters waited, fingers poised over their keyboards.
American unknowns don’t go to the American Cup. The U.S. takes its only world cup event of the year far more seriously than any other nation competing there, and selects its women’s representatives with special care. There’s a reputation to uphold. The last time an American woman didn’t win the cup was back in 2001, as it shook off the last doldrums of the unlucky 1997-2000 quad.
2001 was also the year Martha Karolyi was named U.S. National Team Coordinator, and the meet held special significance for her. It was at the inaugural American Cup in 1976 that the USA first met Nadia Comaneci, who, foreshadowing things to come, scored a 10 on floor exercise en route to winning the meet. The Europeans already knew who Comaneci was, since she had smoked at the 1975 European Championships, taking the all-around and everything but floor (where she finished second).
Then she came to the States and trounced the competition there too. It must have given Martha Karolyi a terrific amount of pride to think that a gymnast she molded had won the inaugural American Cup, and those she helped direct year after year kept winning them.
So, the American women don’t go to compete at the American Cup. They go to win. That’s why the vast majority named to compete there a) already possess world or Olympic medals already, or b) have at least won a junior national title or two.
In 2012, everything was flipped upside down. The two solid contenders named to compete in the Olympic year Cup were the U.S.’s most talented and most reliable: 2011 World champion Jordyn Wieber and team gold medalist Aly Raisman. Together the constituted the best 1-2 punch in gymnastics. Days before the meet, Karolyi popped a surprise: she had Gabby Douglas inserted into the lineup as a last-minute exhibition athlete, meaning that Douglas would perform at the top of every lineup and she’d be scored like any other competitor. Those scores just wouldn’t count.
Douglas went on to unofficially “win” the meet, posting a four-event total better than both Wieber and Raisman. She may not have carried off the cup, but she certainly carried the day; the gymnastics media talked of nothing else for weeks.
Strategically, it was a brilliant move: the young and historically skittish Douglas was ushered into the spotlight and allowed to display what she could do without putting quite as much pressure on her as rested on the more seasoned shoulders of Wieber and Raisman. Wieber and Raisman, of course, would have the pleasure of actually winning and placing second at the cup, effectively illustrating that they too were top Olympic contenders.
When I think about the American Cup, I think about that strange and glorious 2012 edition. I remember the glitz of that competition day, the Olympic year zest buzzing through that historic venue, the three Americans, all among the best U.S. gymnasts ever, blowing the rest of the field out of the water. Of the applause that boomed through the venue when Douglas and Raisman landed their new Amanar vaults. Of Douglas in her shimmery periwinkle leotard performing to Yolanda Be Cool and DCUP’s “We Don’t Speak No Americano,” which was just the thing for that multicultural city, for that year, for that gymnast so young but so much older than she had been at her debut world championships that past fall, looking for all the world like the Olympic champion she would be five months later.
I think of all that too, but mostly I think of the first minutes of podium training. How the U.S. women came into Madison Square Garden that morning and went to beam. How Douglas went first. She got up on the beam and launched into the most gorgeous switch leap, and in that moment, she was no longer the wide-eyed kid who had seemed overawed by it all at the Tokyo Worlds four months before. This Douglas was a fiery, long-lined contender, a butterfly just emerged from her cocoon. What a difference four months can make.
The reporters in the media gallery were looking at each other wide-eyed, mouths in Os after that beam set. Seen today, with the rose-colored glasses of hindsight, Douglas flashed an unstoppable momentum -- in that moment, on that day, and in all the days that came afterward.