Future gymnastics stars descend on Consol Energy Center with big dreams

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In West Des Moines, Iowa, young Norah Flatley trains six days a week at Chow's Gymnastics & Dance Institute, working to become the next Gabby Douglas. Norah is just 14 and moved from Wisconsin four years ago with her parents and siblings, who didn't want to have any questions as to whether Norah could achieve her Olympic dream.

In Spring, Texas, Simone Biles' life is already changing. Recently as Biles, the 17-year-old reigning world and national champion, went shopping for groceries, she was stopped in an aisle by a little girl, who said, "Hi, Simone Biles."

"Sometimes, I forget," Biles said of her growing fame.

In Columbus, Ohio, Douglas understands more than anyone the immediate glory that can come with gymnastics success. She dazzled the world in London at the 2012 Olympic Games, winning the all-around as a 16-year-old, and in the next two years will train at Buckeye Gymnastics as she attempts a run to Rio in 2016.

So much can happen in two years. This week's P&G Gymnastics Championships at Consol Energy Center will serve as the start of an unpredictable journey to Brazil, and the five young women selected to be Team USA's latest national darlings could come from anywhere. It is likely to be a combination of talented juniors who are just coming into their own like Flatley, seniors like Biles who have already asserted themselves at the highest level and former Olympians like Douglas, who hope to return to form and conjure up the magic one more time.

Douglas will not compete in Pittsburgh because she is too early into her comeback after taking some time off to bask in the afterglow of her accomplishment. The only member of the "Fierce Five" that won the team gold medal in London -- Douglas, McKayla Maroney, Jordyn Wieber, Aly Raisman and Kyla Ross -- who will compete here is Ross, who was just 15 when she competed in the Olympics and is reaching her potential now at 17. She and Biles will highlight the senior portion of the women's competition.

While there won't be many women with Olympic experience, the men's senior competition will feature plenty of names from London. All five performers from 2012 -- John Orozco, Jonathan Horton, Sam Mikulak, Danell Leyva and Jake Dalton -- and the three alternates -- Chris Brooks, Steven Legendre and Alex Naddour -- will be at Consol. Team USA finished fifth in London, so the men will hope to use this week's meet as a springboard to bigger things in Rio.

The junior events should be equally intriguing. These are the athletes with the most room to grow in the coming months and the most to gain in experience and confidence going forward. For reference, in the 2010 women's national championships, Douglas finished fourth in the all-around in the junior ranks behind Ross (first) and Maroney (second). Four of the five eventual Olympians were juniors at that meet, which is the equivalent in timing to the Pittsburgh meet; only Raisman competed as a senior.

Rebecca Bross, who won the senior all-around competition at the 2010 championships, was considered a favorite to make the London team but did not because of nagging injuries.

"Avoiding injury is a big part of the job," said Liang Chow, who coached 2008 Olympic gold medalist Shawn Johnson and Douglas before she left for Buckeye Gymnastics after the 2012 Games.

Chow will bring three juniors, including Flatley, and one senior, Rachel Gowey, to Pittsburgh.

Flatley began doing gymnastics at age 4 when she was simply following her older sisters' footsteps into practice.

"I was just doing whatever they did," Flatley said.

She stuck with it, even after her sisters moved to other pursuits. Her first memory of watching the Olympics came in 2008, when she was 8 years old and Nastia Liukin and Johnson were the power names. Liukin won the all-around in those Beijing Games and gave thousands of girls back home someone to emulate. Two years later, when Flatley's coach in Wisconsin moved to Boston, he encouraged her and her family to move to Iowa to train with Chow, just like Douglas had done.

"He felt that she had the potential, that she was a diamond in the rough," said Ann Flatley, Norah's mother, "and that we should at least give it a try. There's nothing to lose. We talked about it, and that's how we felt. We don't want to look back and say 'What if?' "

Flatley's career has begun to take off as she arrives in Pittsburgh. She made Team USA for the 2014 City of Jesolo Trophy in Jesolo, Italy, and finished first in the balance beam and third in the all-around on the way to a team gold. She also took first on the beam at the 2014 Pacific Rim Championships in Richmond, Canada. Meanwhile, she takes online classes to stay on pace academically.

There have been many sacrifices from her family to get her to this point, which will be the case for most of the competitors this week.

Liukin won the all-around at the 2006 national championships to start her run to Beijing.

"2006 for me was very crucial because you're at that halfway point toward the Olympics," Liukin said. "You can start to see the light at the end of the tunnel. It's the year it starts picking up."

Liukin has also seen the halfway point from the other side. In 2010, she was in the position Douglas, Maroney and Raisman are in now. She did not compete at the national championships that year after taking a few years off to focus on herself and see the world.

"There's a lot of different challenges," said Liukin, who attempted to make the 2012 Olympic team but fell short. "Taking that time off and getting back into it in a sport like gymnastics is pretty difficult. We're used to training seven hours a day, six days a week. When you take time off, your body changes. Your muscles, everything, kind of goes away.

"Also the mental aspect. Our whole life is basically dedicated to that one Olympic Games, so you take time off and experience other things outside of training, and sometimes mentally it's hard to get back into that mind-set and kind of give up the things that you were able to do those two years."

Chow shared the ultimate moment for any gymnastics coach when he embraced Douglas after her victory in London and she thanked him for everything he had done. He knows how tough it will be for her to repeat that feat in Rio.

"It's hard to predict the members of the Olympic team," Chow said. "But one thing for sure is the consistency, the commitment, will play a main role. Gymnastics is not like gambling. You can't have one good day and pull it off."

J. Brady McCollough: bmccollough@post-gazette.com and Twitter @BradyMcCollough.


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