NEWARK, N.J. — Gabby Douglas’ Road to Rio ran through the Prudential Center on Saturday, where most of the 12,541 fans in attendance at the 2016 AT&T American Cup seemed to be part of her personal cheering section.
“It means the world to me that my fans always come and support me and lift me,” the 20-year-old Virginia native said. “To have this positive energy and positive vibe, it just means a lot.”
This event was an important stepping stone for the 2012 Olympic all-around champion, who won the title with 60.165 points, taking top honors in the uneven bars, vault and balance beam events, and placing second to U.S. teammate Maggie Nichols in floor exercise. Nichols was second in the all-around at 59.699.
The American Cup, a FIG World Cup event, has a history of foreshadowing that year’s Olympic all-around champion, with past champions including Mary Lou Retton (1984), Carly Patterson (2004) and Nastia Liukin (2008). Even Douglas put up the highest score at the 2012 American Cup, although competing as an alternate her result was unofficial.
“I’m stronger now than in 2012,” said Douglas, who is aiming to become the first Olympic all-around champion to return to the Games since Nadia Comaneci in 1976 and 1980. “The form needs to be better, but my mental game is more there, and I feel more aggressive.”
Roars greeted every stuck landing and high-flying maneuver in her routines, but her near-perfect beam performance almost tore the roof off of the Prudential Center.
“Beam was definitely my highlight — I wanted to be so solid,” she said. “Training hadn’t been going well, and I was just like, ‘Do your normal, Gabby!’ They say beam isn’t my forte, but it really is. I’m trying to show people. I just have to be so aggressive, that’s definitely the takeaway. I have to be confident.”
Douglas is in the second year of a successful return to competition after taking two years off following the London 2012 Olympic Games. She won silver behind teammate Simone Biles at the 2015 World Gymnastics Championships last fall in Glasgow, Scotland, and seems to be rounding into top form heading into the all-important spring and summer events.
Martha Karolyi, the U.S. women’s national team coordinator, entered Douglas in the American Cup to strengthen her confidence and give her specific training goals.
“She has a long-term goal, the Olympics, but she also has short-term goals (and needs) to make sure she puts in the effort to fulfill these goals,” Karolyi said. “If we leave her without goals on the track, then she will fall behind with the training. So I think she did a very good job. She was aggressive and confident enough.”
Douglas agreed that her training needed the boast.
“For me, I kind of get in that stage and say, ‘Oh, I’ll be good’ and then I start going down the mountain,” she said. “Martha pushes me up and says, ‘You need to do that, that and that.’”
Both Douglas and Karolyi emphasized that skill upgrades are still in the offing, with Douglas’ floor routine especially in need of improvement.
“I need to clean up the landings,” Douglas said. “Just everything needs to be a little bit better. I’m always going to be that way, because I’m such a perfectionist. I’m always going to want more.”
She also hopes to add a big new skill to her uneven bars routine, but she wasn’t ready to share it with reporters.
“Oh, it’s happening, but I’m keeping my lips shut,” she said.
Nichols was encouraged with her second-place finish, which included a win in floor exercise and second place in the other three apparatus. The 2015 U.S. all-around silver medalist, who seeks to make her first Olympic team this summer, impressed Karolyi with her consistency.
“Maggie showed me today that I can rely on her, the team can rely on her, and what we see in her training we will see in the competition,” Karolyi said. “She has a few (skill) upgrades to make. She has a two-and-a-half (Yurchenko) vault she didn’t do here, because of some tightness in her back. She also has a little upgrade on beam and a little upgrade on bars, to have her start values a tiny bit higher.”
Nichols, 18, was especially pleased to perform a brand-new floor exercise, set to a techno version of the Latin classic “Espana Cani.”
“I really wanted to show off my new routine and I did,” the Minnesota native said. “I’m just really proud of how I did. It’s still very new and I haven’t done a ton of full sets. … I gained a lot more confidence, knowing I can hit my routines at this big a meet.”
On the men’s side, Donnell Whittenburg, the 2015 U.S. all-around silver medalist, was one apparatus away from the title. The 21-year-old from Baltimore won four events — floor, still rings, vault and parallel bars — but a fall off on his final rotation, high bar, killed his chances for gold. Japan’s Ryohei Kato took the title with 88.931 points, edging Whittenburg by 0.366 points.
“I knew I needed to go out there and hit my set,” Whittenburg said. “It was pretty close, but he hit six-for-six routines and he deserved to win today.”
Sun Wei of China was third. Three-time U.S. all-around champion and 2012 Olympian Sam Mikulak, who is recovering from a left ankle injury, placed fourth with 85.964 points.
“I think there are certain takeaways from this competition that I’ll be able to grow on and analyze and be able to make the changes to come out on top,” Mikulak said. “I need to do more routines, build more muscle memory.”