TORONTO (Reuters) - The most exciting names in U.S. gymnastics, Gabby Douglas, Aly Raisman and Simone Biles, will all be competing during the Pan American Games — just not in Toronto.
But the absence of the American big guns has not prevented the United States from dominating the Pan Am competition where a new crop of champions are putting the old guard on notice that they will have a battle on their hands for coveted Rio Olympic berths.
Two-time world all-around champion Biles, Douglas, the darling of the 2012 London Olympics, and her gold medal-winning Fierce Five team mates Raisman and Kyla Ross, are all competing at the U.S. Classic in Chicago on July 25.
Their absence from the Pan Am games has given the U.S. squad of hungry up and comers an opportunity to grab the spotlight.
For the first time in 20 years the U.S. swept both the men’s and women’s team gold medals, while Sam Mikulak claimed the men’s all-around title to end a 28-year American drought in that event.
The only blip came on Monday when women’s all-around favorite Madison Desch was beaten for the gold by Canada’s Ellie Black, but the young Americans vowed a return to the top of the podium in the apparatus finals.
“That (Rio Olympics) is what I have been working for and hopefully this is the start of great things,” said Desch. “I know I can improve. It is just the start.
“This meet is a confidence booster.
“We all look up to them (Biles, Douglas, Raisman), train next to them and it makes you work harder.
“It’s nice to have your time in the light but training against them makes me work harder.”
While Mikulak, a two-time U.S. champion and 2012 Olympic team member, is a seasoned campaigner the young American women arrived in Toronto eager to gain valuable international experience.
For 17-year-old Desch and her Pan Am team mates Amelia Hundley, Rachel Gowey, Emily Schild and Megan Skaggs, the Games are an important step towards their dreams of securing one of the five coveted spots on the U.S. Rio Olympic squad.
“They are certainly going to be in the mix, no doubt about it,” Rhonda Faehn, the senior vice-president of the women’s program for U.S. Gymnastics, told Reuters.
“This is the perfect experience because they are younger and haven’t had the experience overseas at a world championship so this is a perfect opportunity for them to gain experience.
“You never know, that is the beauty of gymnastics, you never know what competition can light or spark a level of confidence in an athlete.
“We’ve seen it before.”
Prior to the 2012 Summer Games, Douglas was the unknown newcomer viewed as an Olympic longshot.
But she left London as perhaps the biggest Olympic star with gold from the team and all-around competitions, returning home to fame and fortune.
Desch, an alternate on the U.S. team for last year’s world championships, could be that athlete in Rio, as could 17-year-old Gowey.
Trained by Liang Chow, who coached Olympic champions Douglas and Shawn Johnson, Gowey has been getting plenty of buzz in gymnastic circles as she returns to form after being hobbled by ankle problems for a year and a half.
“Rachel, she is a polished athlete and has a nice look too her with her lines and she has strong start values and that helps as well,” said Faehn.
“I really think she is absolutely one who has great potential. She has had ankle problems but you can see the potential there.”
Editing by Andrew Both