NEW YORK — No better place for Gabby Douglas to have a coming out party than Madison Square Garden.
Oozing class, confidence and some serious star power, the 16-year-old upstaged world gymnastics champion Jordyn Wieber on Saturday by posting the highest score at the American Cup. Never mind that the score didn't count because Douglas was competing as an alternate. Or that Douglas was under no pressure while all eyes were on Wieber.
The London Olympics are less than five months away, and Douglas' emergence is further sign that the Americans might have their deepest — and most dangerous — team yet.
Wieber was the official winner Saturday, giving her a second straight American Cup title and third overall. Fellow American Aly Raisman was second.
"The depth is incredible," said John Geddert, Wieber's coach. "The problem with it is we're going to leave a B team at home that could vie for a medal. The depth is ridiculous. I guess it's a good problem to have."
The Americans have been at the top of the gymnastics world since 2000, producing the last two Olympic champions and winning 60 — count 'em, 60 — world and Olympic medals in that span. No other country has had more than 35. They cleaned up at last year's world championships, winning the team and all-around titles as well as a gold on vault and bronzes on balance beam and floor exercise.
But the U.S. is still looking for a team that can match what the Magnificent Seven did in 1996 and claim the Olympic gold, and the Americans are optimistic they have the goods to get it done in London.
In fact, making this year's team might be a bigger challenge than the Russians and Chinese in London. In addition to the world team, the Americans have the reigning Olympic champion (Nastia Liukin), the Olympic silver medalist (Shawn Johnson), the 2005 and 2009 world champions (Chellsie Memmel and Bridget Sloan) and a six-time world medalist (Rebecca Bross) fighting for spots on the team. Most countries would love to have one of those gymnasts, let alone all of them.
As if that competition wasn't already stiff enough, there is now one less spot available after international gymnastics officials cut the size of the Olympic squads from six gymnasts to five.
"I don't like to name leaders," said national team coordinator Martha Karolyi, who will have the difficult task of selecting those few gymnasts from the considerable pool of talent. "I think a team (where) every member is a good, confident gymnast and there's unity is a good team."
Douglas is still relatively new to Olympic-level gymnastics. She finished fourth at the Nastia Liukin Cup, a meet for lower-level gymnasts, only three years ago, and was still a raw talent when she moved from her home in Virginia Beach, Va., to Des Moines, Iowa, a little over a year ago to train with Liang Chow, Johnson's coach. When she made last year's world team, it was only her third international event.
But Douglas blossomed in the gymnastics world's biggest spotlight, and did so again Saturday.
"When we won the team title it made me more confident," Douglas said. "I realized, 'Wow, I'm one of the best ones in the world.'"
Uneven bars is a weak spot for the U.S., and it's where Douglas can help the most. She is so quick and light she appears to float between the bars — Karolyi has dubbed her the "Flying Squirrel" — and she gets such great height on her release moves she can dust off the ceiling lights. The routine she did Saturday had a 6.5 start value and she plans to add another four-tenths of difficulty, making it among the toughest in the world. Her score of 15.633 was eight-tenths better than anyone else's.
"Bars is one of our weaker events, and Gabby has that talent," Chow said. "If we can be more helpful, I would like to push her to the maximum."
But there is no room for one-event specialists on the smaller team, and Douglas and Chow have spent the last six months upgrading all of her routines. She is now doing one of the toughest vaults there is, the Amanar — a roundoff onto the takeoff board, back handspring onto the vault and then 2.5 twists before landing — and she was near perfect Saturday.
Her execution, already impressive, is even sharper, with gorgeous lines and perfectly pointed toes; Karolyi said the international judges made a point of telling her how impressed they were with Douglas' execution on uneven bars.
And she has the potential to be a show-stopper, with a bright smile and captivating presence that made her floor routine look like as good a fit for Broadway as the Garden.
"It was very good for somebody, especially like Gabby, who is just breaking in, it's important to pass this kind of test," Karolyi said. "She proved she is on the very right direction."
A direction Douglas hopes will lead all the way to London.
"I didn't really feel pressure. I was so excited to compete and show everybody what I'm capable of," she said. "I wanted to put my name out there."
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