Scott Fowler

NC gymnast Ashton Locklear takes her shot at US Olympic team

Ashton Locklear competes on the balance beam during the women's U.S. Olympic gymnastics trials in San Jose, Calif., Friday, July 8, 2016.
Ashton Locklear competes on the balance beam during the women's U.S. Olympic gymnastics trials in San Jose, Calif., Friday, July 8, 2016. AP

This is Ashton Locklear’s one big chance.

On Sunday night, the 18-year-old women’s gymnast from North Carolina will either make the U.S. Olympic team or she won’t. The Olympic Trials competition will be beamed live on NBC from 8:30-11 p.m. Eastern time, with the U.S. team being unveiled toward the end of the show.

“Obviously I am hoping to be on the Olympic team when I walk out of here,” Locklear said by phone. She was speaking from the arena in San Jose, Calif., where the event is being held. “But whatever happens, I want to walk out knowing I did my best, that I did everything I could to make it.”

Making the team has consumed Locklear’s dreams for years, fueling her through constant two-hour commutes from her home in Hamlet, N.C., to her gym in Huntersville. She started doing basic flips and headstands at age 2, and she has developed over the years into a world-class gymnast – especially on the uneven bars, her specialty.

The sport has also taken the sort of toll on Locklear’s body that you might associate more with a football player.

“I feel ready, and I feel healthy,” Locklear said.

To Locklear, though, “healthy” is a relative term. Anyone who has ever been around gymnastics knows that it is truly a contact sport. The best gymnasts throw their bodies around in ways that no human body can take for too many years.

Locklear has fractured her back – twice. She has fought back from serious shoulder surgery. She tapes her knees up before every competition so that they won’t float out of place again. She will be 22 by the time the 2020 Olympics roll around, and it’s not at all clear that her body will hold up for four more years.

So this may well be her only shot.

All I can do is do my best. To make an Olympic team would be the biggest accomplishment of my life. But it's very nerve-racking.

Gymnast Ashton Locklear

Because of Locklear’s back issues, she no longer competes in two of the four events for women’s gymnasts. Of the 14 young women who qualified for the U.S. Olympic Trials – five of them will make the team – Locklear is the only one skipping out on the floor exercise and the vault.

The other 13 gymnasts are doing all four events.

Locklear does only the uneven bars and the balance beam. On the uneven bars in particular, she spins and flips from one bar to the other with an angelic grace. She is like a three-point specialist in basketball who can be brought in for a big shot at the end of the game. Locklear hopes that U.S. women’s national team coordinator Martha Karolyi will see the importance of having that card to play at the Olympics in Brazil next month (the women’s gymnastics portion of the Summer Games starts Aug. 7).

Locklear’s role could be important if she makes the Olympic team because, on each of the four women’s events, only three of a team’s five gymnasts can compete. All three scores count toward the team’s total score. So even though Locklear would probably compete in only the uneven bars in Rio, a high score from her there could theoretically make the difference between a team silver and a team gold medal.

Locklear’s score of 15.75 on the uneven bars Friday night tied her for No. 1 in that event with Madison Kocian, a Texan who like Locklear is considered to be on the bubble for making the team.

On the first night of Trials Friday, Locklear had a low score off the balance beam after falling off once. Tears welled in her eyes. But on the uneven bars, she tied for the highest score of the night after a near-perfect routine.

“All I can do is do my best,” Locklear said. “To make an Olympic team would be the biggest accomplishment of my life. But it’s very nerve-racking.”

Family sacrifice

Locklear’s father, Terry, is a self-employed construction worker in Hamlet, a small North Carolina town near Rockingham. Hamlet is about 90 miles southeast of Charlotte. Terry is a member of the Lumbee Tribe. Ashton is a member as well due to her father’s heritage. If she makes the squad, she will become the first Native American gymnast to compete for the U.S.

Carrie Locklear, her mother, is a registered nurse who has devoted much of her time to her daughter’s quest. She now works at Everest Gymnastics in Huntersville, where Ashton trains. Carrie Locklear also has home-schooled Ashton. Mother and daughter stay rent-free five nights a week in an apartment in Statesville that is attached to the home of another gymnastics family who befriended them. The Locklears drive back home to Hamlet on weekends to reunite the family.

“We are very proud of Ashton,” Carrie and Terry Locklear said Saturday in a joint statement they provided in response to some questions I emailed them. “All any parent wants is to see their children happy and pursuing their dreams.”

Still, Ashton’s dream has long been a financial struggle. Coaching expenses. Travel expenses. Training expenses.

With the help of a family friend, money was raised through generosity.com to send Ashton’s parents and her older sister Angelia to San Jose to cheer her on in the Olympic Trials.

That webpage noted that at most major competitions there is a gala following the final event where the young gymnasts get to dress up and often get asked by people what designer they are wearing that night. At a recent gala, Ashton wore a $24.99 dress from Target -- and looked quite beautiful.

What’s next?

Ashton Locklear’s future is unclear beyond Sunday. If she makes the Olympic team, she likely will be part of a team gold medal in Brazil that will grab a dizzying amount of NBC’s coverage. The U.S. squad will be so deep that it is believed that -- if the rules allowed it -- America could actually field two five-women teams of gymnasts and win medals with both squads.

A team gold medal would likely lead to some sort of lucrative nationwide gymnastics tour for all five of the women once the team returned to the U.S.

Only the top all-around finisher -- likely Simone Biles -- wins an automatic spot on the U.S. women’s gymnastics team at Olympic Trials. The other four spots are “coach’s choice” and will be announced shortly after the Trials conclude Sunday night.

If Locklear doesn’t make the team though -- and Friday night’s fall off the balance team did not help her cause -- she and her family are unsure of the next step. At one point, a scholarship to the University of Florida awaited Locklear. But that has changed.

“Ashton decided to forgo enrolling in college in order to pursue her lifelong dream of being a member of the USA Women’s Gymnastics team and pursuing her Olympic dreams,” her mother said.

But Ashton Locklear doesn’t sound ready to retire, either, if she is not one of the final five Sunday night. “I think I’ll probably pick up some classes somewhere, stay on the elite [gymnastics] route, and do a couple more international meets hopefully,” she said in our phone interview.

Unlike many Olympic Trials, 80 percent of the women’s team will be “coach’s choice” -- with Karolyi having the final say. Only the winner of the Trials -- which will almost surely be the world’s No. 1 gymnast, Simone Biles -- gets a guaranteed spot on the U.S. team. Everyone else must wait and hope.

The gold is for a gold medal, of course.

Gymnast Ashton Locklear, on her tradition of wearing a hair ribbon that includes the color gold.

“Whatever happens, we love her and support her and have been a part of this journey with her,” Locklear’s parents said of Ashton. “We have seen the commitment, dedication and sacrifice she has given to be a part of the USA Olympic Trials.”

So much of their daughter’s short-term trajectory depends on Sunday. Locklear has one more balance beam to dance upon and, most importantly, one more uneven bars routine that she absolutely must nail.

So, on Sunday night, she plans to sprinkle some glitter in her makeup and tie up her hair with a ribbon that includes the color gold.

“The gold is for a gold medal, of course,” she said.

Then, when it’s time, Ashton Locklear will tape up her knees, chalk up her hands, wave at the crowd, leap toward the sky -- and find out where she’s going to land next.

Charlotte-area Olympians

The Charlotte area once again will be well-represented at the Summer Olympics in Brazil Aug. 5-21 -- even though basketball star Stephen Curry has decided to skip the Summer Games. Eight athletes with Charlotte ties have already made the U.S. Olympic team, all in watersports. The six swimmers are all part of SwimMAC Carolina's Charlotte-based Team Elite. The two members of the canoe/kayak team relocated to the area to be able to train at the U.S. National Whitewater Center.

Swimming

Cammile Adams: Two-time Olympian has shot at individual medal

Kathleen Baker: 19-year-old bundle of energy from Winston-Salem

Anthony Ervin: At 35, his teammates call him "Gramps"

Jimmy Feigen: Fast freestyler qualified in the 4x100 relay

Ryan Lochte: CLT's highest-profile Olympian; 11 medals already

Katie Meili: First-time Olympian also has an Ivy League degree

Canoe/Kayak

Casey Eichfeld: Will compete in both single and double canoe

Michal Smolan: Kayak specialist is coached by his father

-- Scott Fowler

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