Commentary

Rivalry drives U.S. gymnasts

Updated: July 28, 2012, 6:11 PM ET
By Jim Caple | ESPN.com

LONDON -- Swimming has Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte. Gymnastics now has Jordyn Wieber and Gabby Douglas. The latter might not be as intense or publicized a rivalry, but it could play an important part in how the United States performs in these Olympics.

After winning the all-around at last year's world championship, Wieber was considered America's leading hope for gold in London. Then came last month's Olympic trials, when Douglas won the all-around and served notice that she must be considered a strong candidate for gold here, as well.

[+] EnlargeJordyn Wieber
AP Photo/Jeff RobersonJordyn Wieber won the all-around at last year's world championship but finished behind Gabby Douglas at last month's Olympic trials.

"I wasn't surprised,'' Wieber said of narrowly losing to Douglas at the trials. "Both of us have been working very hard, and it was only a tenth difference between our scores, and I definitely made some mistakes, especially on beam. But that made me want to go back in the gym and work even harder to improve.

"I think having that little friendly competition here and there with Gabby has been really important for us. It definitely pushes us both to do that much better. It really brings out the best in our routines and helps the team in the long run.''

U.S. team coordinator Marta Karolyi agreed, saying both gymnasts gained from the experience.

"I think it probably showed Gabby she is just as good as the front-runner, and, on the other hand, it also probably gave the stimulus to Jordyn that I have to work hard because look what is happening just in my own country,'' Karolyi said. "I think it was good for both of them.''

Team rosters were reduced from six gymnasts to five for these Olympics, which Karolyi said works against the United States.

"For our country, we have much more depth, so this wasn't done in our best interest,'' she said. "Some other countries might like it more because the number of gymnasts they have is reduced. But changes happen and you just have to go with the changes.''

Still, the United States, looking for its first team title since 1996, will be the team to beat, in part because of the strength of Wieber and Douglas, and the competition that is driving them to greater heights.

"When I used to play racquetball, I wanted to play someone better because then I would get better,'' said Wieber's coach, John Geddert. "When you have someone neck and neck like that, it's got to serve a great motivator. You can't sleep, you can't rest on your last competition. You have to keep getting better, you have to keep pushing, you have to stay focused. I think it's a great motivator for both of them. And they're both phenomenal athletes, so it's great for Team USA.''

Geddert said that Wieber took the loss in trials positively.

"A lot of her major victories were by less than a tenth. This time, she lost by a tenth. So, she understands how thin the margin of victory is and she knows it can go either way,'' he said. "It's all about delivering. It served as a motivator for her. I don't think it was devastating. It wasn't, 'Oh my God, I got beat -- I'm not supposed to get beat.' She doesn't think that way.''

Douglas, meanwhile, said winning the trials gave her a welcome boost of confidence. "Each competition, I've been getting better and better and improving,'' she said. "That was a great thing for me, peaking at the right time. I'm feeling very good right now.

"That's what it's all about. Everyone loves competition. It's fun, and it makes us do greater things.''

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com