SAN JOSE, Calif. – The confetti had fallen on the U.S. Olympic Gymnastics Team Trials on a Sunday night that began with Elvis-lookalike acrobats providing the pregame entertainment. Fittingly, deep inside HP Pavilion, the show was still going on.
Bela Karolyi was holding court. And the legendary coach and famously animated TV analyst was providing all kinds of sound bites for the collection of microphones and cameras in front of him.
"I don't know what the hell they are doing," he said of the Russians. "They're getting beaten by Romania by more than eight points at the European Championship, and then they go home and say they're going to win the Olympic Games? I don't know what that is about.
"Did you watch her ankles? Did you watch those ankles?" he later asked to no one in particular about the lower-body strength of Jordyn Wieber, the reigning all-around world champion. "That's Nadia [Comaneci] ankles. … She's coming off the vault on one leg. Anybody else would be carried out."
The quote he gave with the most conviction, though, had to do with Team USA's chances at the London Games.
Karolyi thinks they're the team to beat.
With a "fab five" of Wieber, Gabby Douglas, Aly Raisman, McKayla Maroney and Kyla Ross, he likes how they all complement each other, how the strengths of one cover up the weaknesses of another. He also is convinced that this women's team is the best the U.S. has had since 1996, when the Shannon Miller-led Americans won Olympic team gold in Atlanta.
"We picked an amazing vault performer and an amazing beam performer," Karolyi said of Ross. "And we have an amazing floor performer and an amazing vault performer [in Maroney]. … I don't believe any other country will have the luxury to line up with such a powerful combination."
He also praised the group's dedication and focus, going so far as to call Raisman "the smartest gymnast I have ever seen" for her meticulous preparation.
"She is like a program," Karolyi said.
[ Video: Raising an Olympian: Jordyn Wieber ]
But for all of the team's dedication and attention to detail, it won't be able to compensate for its lack of experience. No one on the five-woman team or three-woman alternate list has ever competed in an Olympic Games. Which is why Karolyi was pulling so hard for Nastia Liukin to beat the long odds of a late comeback attempt.
In his mind, having Liukin, the Olympic all-around champion at the Beijing Games, provide some veteran calm and tidbits of wisdom would've been perfect. But Liukin lacked the endurance to compete at the highest level and it showed in the uneven bars as she suffered bad falls in each of her routines at the trials.
"Let me tell you one thing – and I'm telling you, look at me – if she would have stayed on the bar tonight and did the same beam routine she does, she would be on the team," Karolyi said of Liukin. "I would have fought for that."
A USA Gymnastics staffer came over and handed Karolyi a cup of coffee. As if he needed a jolt of caffeine.
He then reiterated his boldest claim of the night.
"I guarantee one thing: that the truth will come out in the Olympic Games," Karolyi said. "And that we will be solidly in first place for the team [competition].
"No question about it."
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