SAN JOSE, CALIF – Where you can find one, you usually can find the other. Simone Biles and Maggie Nichols — two of the tightest friends on the U.S. women’s national team — often room together at meets, hang out frequently and seek each other out for hugs after finishing their events.
They have been companions again this week at the Olympic trials, keeping each other simultaneously sharp and relaxed during the most high-profile competition of their gymnastics careers. Sunday, they will find out if they will make the ultimate besties trip: to the Summer Games in Rio. While Biles is a lock, Nichols is on the edge, needing a flawless performance — and, perhaps, a little luck — to make the five-member team that will be announced after Sunday’s competition.
Though choosing the Olympic team is a ruthless, Darwinian business, the 14 women chasing those places share close bonds. The all-around champion at the trials will earn an automatic berth; Biles holds a one-point lead over Laurie Hernandez after Friday’s opening day of competition and is expected to take the title. Nichols, of Little Canada, is in eighth place.
Hernandez and 2012 Olympian Aly Raisman are likely to make the team, and 2012 Olympic all-around champion Gabby Douglas still is considered a favorite despite recent struggles. All of them clearly felt the pressure Friday, making them all the more grateful for their sisterhood.
“We all have each other’s backs,’’ said Hernandez, 16, the wunderkind of the group. “Right before we marched in, we were all sitting in the back. And we were saying, ‘You know, no matter the outcome, we’re all amazing gymnasts. And we all love each other.
“We were giving each other so many hugs. We prayed before we went out, and we did our ‘Go USA’ thing. The support is there, 100 percent.’’
After Sunday’s competition ends, a committee led by U.S. women’s national team coordinator Martha Karolyi will pick the remaining four team members and up to three alternates. Karolyi is continuing to go over potential lineups to determine which group of five can produce the highest team scores at the Rio Games.
Friday marked the first time Nichols has done a full menu of events since early March, when she was second to Douglas in the all-around competition at the American Cup. At that point, she was solidly on track toward an Olympic berth.
But she lost several weeks of training time after arthroscopic surgery in April to repair a torn meniscus. And in Karolyi’s system, Nichols gets no points for past accomplishments. To make the Olympic team, she must prove she can perform all her skills with the same precision, poise and presence as before.
Nichols said her knee felt “really good’’ Friday, and coach Mike Hunger said it is recovering more quickly and swelling less. After falling off the balance beam midway through her routine, she put the mistake out of her mind and delivered a strong performance on floor exercise, ramping up her confidence going into Sunday.
“I hope to come back Sunday and hit all four events, and really nail the beam,’’ Nichols said. “I was happy with how I did [Friday], but I still have room to improve.’’
She and Hunger both are certain she can take her performance up a notch Sunday — and Karolyi made it clear that’s what she needs to see.
“I think she did a decent job,’’ Karolyi said. “It looks like she would need a little bit more time to get back the sharpness she had last year before the world championships. She was not quite as confident, as sharp, as commanding [on Friday].”
Even Biles, far and away the world’s best gymnast, felt the heat of the Olympic trials pressure cooker Friday. She fought off a handful of small mistakes, including a step forward on the landing of her Amanar vault and a bobble on beam. Douglas also fell off the beam, dropping her to seventh place in the all-around standings.
“It was like nothing I’ve ever felt,’’ said Biles, who has won the past four U.S. all-around titles and three consecutive world championships. “You can prepare yourself, but there’s nothing like the real thing when you get out there.”
Hunger said the U.S. has such a depth of talent that any of the 14 trials competitors could likely make the Olympic team of any other nation.
“That’s the sad, hard part about it,’’ he said. “It’s so competitive. The hardest hurdle is making the team.”
Biles admitted to being a little sad about that, too. She has been surrounded by her sisters through all the long days in the gym, all the sweat and stress and pain. Sunday, she knows she will shed tears for those who make it and those who don’t.
“We’re kind of like a family,” she said. “We have all the confidence in the world in each other. We have each others’ backs 100 percent and we just want the best for each other. The memories we’ve built together is something that will last forever.”