With three weeks to go until the 2016 Summer Olympics, North Carolina gymnast Ashton Locklear finds herself in a state of red, white and blue limbo.
On Sunday night in California, at the conclusion of the women’s gymnastics trials for the U.S. team, Locklear was told she didn’t make the five-woman squad. And then, as tears streamed down her face and her coach comforted her, she was told she did make the three-woman replacement team. That means Locklear will go to Rio with the rest of the U.S. squad, but she won’t compete unless somebody else gets hurt.
“So first I was crying because I was sad,” Locklear said, “and then I was crying because I was happy.”
Now comes the uncertainty. Locklear could be a sudden star in Brazil – coming off the bench to pinch-hit for an injured teammate – or she could stay in the shadows forever.
If she doesn’t compete, she will not receive a medal (the U.S. is heavily favored to win the team gold) because the alternates don’t get one. She will fly to Rio with the other U.S. gymnasts in early August, but she doesn’t get to stay or practice in the Olympic Village with her teammates. She and the other two alternates will be housed and continue their training just outside the Olympic Village, waiting for a call-up that may never come.
Then again, it might. Already, one of the three replacement gymnasts on the U.S. men’s team has been pressed into service in Brazil. John Orozco made the five-man team originally but got hurt during training camp this week and had to withdraw with a torn ACL. He was replaced Friday by alternate Danell Leyva.
Said Locklear: “I’m definitely not wishing anyone any harm ... But I came back and I’m training just like I’m one of the five. you still have to be in perfect shape so that if one of them does get hurt, you’re ready.”
A send-off party
At Everest Gymnastics in Huntersville Friday, they threw a sendoff party for Locklear. There were red, white and blue popsicles. There were patriotic balloons and “Congratulations, Ashton!” signs.
In the center of it all was Locklear, smiling for innumerable pictures with the 150 or so gymnasts and their families who came to see her off.
There are a few sure things about Locklear’s schedule for the next three weeks, and her plane flights are among them. She leaves Sunday for a 10-day Olympic training camp in Texas with the rest of the U.S. women’s gymnasts and her coach, Qi Han. After that, she will fly to Brazil with the team a few days before the opening ceremonies.
She won’t see the opening ceremonies live on Aug. 5, she said, because the gymnasts likely won’t be allowed to participate in them because of how quickly their competition starts. On Aug. 7, the women’s teams have their team qualification. Until then, no team is set in stone. After that Aug. 7 competition, however, there can be no substitutions – even if a gymnast gets hurt the first night.
Locklear’s immediate family – her mother, father and older sister – all plan to go to Rio just in case she competes. Her gym and her friends are trying to raise money for that cause at generosity.com.
Locklear is from Hamlet, N.C., and she and her family have long struggled to pay for top-flight training. Her father is a self-employed construction worker in Hamlet, a small N.C. town about 90 miles southeast of Charlotte. Terry, Ashton’s father, is a member of the Lumbee Tribe. Ashton is a member as well. Her mother, Carrie, stays with her five days a week in Statesville – and home-schools Ashton as well while also teaching younger gymnasts to help ends meet.
The room where it happened
Although NBC’s cameras try to cover every Olympic angle, they were not allowed into the room Sunday night in San Jose where U.S. women’s national team coordinator Marta Karolyi first made the announcement as to who made the team and who didn’t. This was right after the Olympic Trials had concluded. Only one spot – for all-around winner Simone Biles – was guaranteed. The other four were “coach’s choice,” and Karolyi consulted with her staff for several minutes longer than she was supposed to before walking into the room.
“It was the longest 18 minutes of my life,” Locklear said.
Han described the mood in the room as “intense” as everyone waited for Karolyi. Locklear said it was broken up into several sections of emotion. She said there were several girls who had been near the bottom of the standings who knew they had little chance. They were calm and acting like: “Yeah, whatever, that was a good experience,” Locklear said.
“Then,” Locklear continued, “there were the top three girls who knew they were going to make the team -- Simone (Biles), Aly (Raisman) and Laurie (Hernandez). And then there were a couple of us who didn’t know, just sitting there like ‘Ohmigosh, ohmigosh.”
Locklear was the only one of the 14 in the Trials who did not compete in all four events. Lower-back injuries turned her into a specialist in the uneven bars and the balance beam, and she had thought that specialists would not be considered to be alternates.
So when Karolyi walked into the room, Locklear felt like she either had to be one of the first five gymnasts named or that her hopes of going to Rio were finished.
“Finally, Martha came in and she was actually tearful,” Locklear said. “She said, ‘We made the decision and it was a really hard one.’ She couldn’t get it out because she was crying. ... But then she did, and she named the team, and I wasn’t in the top five. So the tears came. ... I thought, ‘Wow. Sixteen years of all this training. After all you’ve done, it’s over.’”
Karolyi paused, congratulated those five, and then went on to name the alternates. “My name was the second one called,” Locklear said, “and I was shocked because I didn’t think a specialist could be an alternate. I was like, ‘Wow, I’m on the Olympic team!’”
Rio, and beyond
In many ways, she is. At the training camp in Texas, she will get all the same gear as everyone else. USA Gymnastics will fly her and her coach to Brazil. Locklear said she also gets to participate in the post-Olympics Kellogg’s Tour of Gymastics Champions with her teammates, which will allow her to make some money and likely perform at the stop in Charlotte in October.
But will she ever really compete in Rio? That question may not be answered for three weeks – although the odds are long.
Locklear not only would need an injury to a teammate, but to the right teammate. The injury would likely need to be Madison Kocian, Gabby Douglas or Laurie Hernandez, because those are the three young women currently scheduled to compete for the U.S. in the team final in the uneven bars, Locklear’s specialty. Even then, Karolyi could pick one of the other alternates.
“All of it is going to be a little harder this way,” Locklear said. “But it’s still going to be the experience of a lifetime.”