SAN JOSE, Calif. — Ashton Locklear, a Robeson County, N.C., resident and Lumbee Tribe member, planned for 16 of her 18 years on making the U.S. Olympic Team.
So Sunday night, when the announcement was made in the athletes’ room at the Olympic trials for women’s gymnastics that she had failed to earn a spot, but would go to next month’s Olympics in Rio de Janeiro as a replacement athlete, she was emotionally unprepared.
“Honestly, I was just sitting in the room and I knew the scores,” Locklear said. “I knew it was going to be hard for them to pick the team. When they came in and I heard my name, my whole body just went numb. I didn’t know that it was possible for a specialist (she competes only on the uneven bars and balance beam) to go as an alternate.”
She struggled to pinpoint her feelings in the trials’ immediate aftermath, upset at not being on the team but overwhelmed at the honor of being named as one of three athletes chosen to go to Rio in case one of the five women on the team must be replaced.
Her tears were equal parts disappointment and joy.
Since 2014 Locklear has lived and trained for one week a month in Texas with the athletes whose elation at making the team was undiluted by any other feeling and with athletes whose dejection at being passed over entirely contained not a hint of a consolation prize like hers.
One of the athletes in the first category was her friend and rival, Madison Kocian of Dallas, Texas, once a bars specialist herself because of her upper body strength until U.S. national team leader Marta Karolyi encouraged her and her coach to train in all four disciplines to better her chance of going to the Olympics.
It took three years and eight head-to-head competitions for Kocian to catch up to Locklear — a specialist because that’s all her bad back will permit. But at the Olympic trials, Kocian posted the two best bars scores of her career to edge Locklear 31.650 to 31.450.
“I’m extremely proud of her,” Locklear said. “We’ve both worked so hard for this, and knowing that we were both specialists and we were working our butts off on those two events, then she came back strong as an all-arounder — it’s amazing. And I look up to her for that.”
There is no defense in gymnastics. There is only the best that you can do, and Locklear said that’s what she did in San Jose.
“I hit my routine,” she said.
Monday morning, Kocian said she and Locklear had spoken and explained, “I’m just really proud of the job that she did this weekend. To become an Olympic alternate — that’s a huge deal. We both deserved to make this team. I think for her she helped to push me to become even better on bars and I’m really thankful for that.”
Locklear’s coaches at Huntersville’s Everest Gymnastics, husband and wife Qi Han and Yiwen Chen, wouldn’t concede that Locklear’s bar routine in Sunday’s final really fell short of Kocian’s. But they weren’t making a stink about the judges’ marks, either.
“I feel Ashton did the best,” Han said. “I’m not a judge but for myself, she did the best. She could be a better score, but what it is, it is. That’s the sport. That’s gymnastics. However, I think Ashton’s bars — they’re beautiful.”
Both coaches are former members of the Chinese national gymnastics team who have been in Locklear’s situation. Han’s career was ended by injury before the Olympics; Chen narrowly lost at China’s trials.
“I knew I was right on the edge then (of making the team),” she said. “But I did the best I could and I really enjoyed it. I learned a lot for my life. I feel that in handling difficult situations I’m stronger. Gymnastics taught me a lot. It’s not just being the winner. It’s about the passion.”
Locklear said after she finished Friday’s competition tied with Kocian for first on bars, “my phone was blowing up. I thought my phone was broken. It just kept buzzing and buzzing and buzzing. It’s amazing to know that all of the people at home care and all of them support me.”
Locklear returned to North Carolina on Monday where she will be for a week.
Then she will reunite with Olympic team members Simone Biles of Spring, Texas; Gabby Douglas of Tarzana, Calif.; Laurie Hernandez of Old Bridge, N.J.; Aly Raisman of Needham, Mass.; Kocian and alternates Ragan Smith of Lewisville, Texas, and MyKayla Skinner of Gilbert, Ariz., for an intensive 10-day training camp near Houston before flying to Rio.
USA Gymnastics officials said the team will be in Brazil for about three weeks.
“I’m excited about going to Rio,” said Locklear, who has competed internationally previously in China, Canada and Italy. “I like just going to another country and seeing how they live and getting experience different things.
“I always told myself I was going to go to the Olympics and it’s unreal now. Like a dream.”
Jody Meacham, a journalist for the Silicon Valley Business Journal in San Jose, Calif., covered Ashton Locklear in this past weekend’s Olympic trials.