Where's that coin? 15 gymnasts vying for 5 spots

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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?

"I don't think people realize how many years and years of hard work it's been, I don't care if you're 16 or 22," Olympic champion Nastia Liukin said. "Five out of 15 girls' dreams will come true, and the other 10 are probably going to be devastated."

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.

"Usually, when you select a team, it comes down to that last spot," said Martha Karolyi, the women's national team coordinator.

That sure appears to be the case here.

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. Chris 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 the world championships last fall. 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 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 Rebecca Bross, who won six medals at the 2009 and 2010 world championships.

And then there are a slew of up-and-comers, including Kyla Ross, Elizabeth Price and Sarah Finnegan.

"I feel so sorry for the selection committee because it's going to be a hard decision," Sacramone said. "It's going to be hard for them to choose."

Or maybe not.

Karolyi said she has an "ideal team" in her mind, and it hasn't really changed in the last two months. Of course, there are alternatives in case something happens to this one. Or to that one. Or — well, you get the idea.

There are times, Bross admits, that she's a little envious of the swimmers and the sprinters. Whether they make the Olympic team is up to them, and only them. Beat everyone else, and you're in.

But really, she and the other gymnasts 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.

"For us to go out and do the best for our country," she said, "it's the way it has to be."


Follow Nancy Armour at www.twitter.com/nrarmour