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Golden touch

By Gary D'Amato
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Aug 01, 2012
LAST UPDATED: 05:16 a.m. HST, Aug 01, 2012

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LONDON » Routine after routine, rotation after rotation, the five members of the U.S. women's gymnastics team kept hitting, kept smiling, kept their size 4 feet on the Russians' throats.

MEDAL LEADERS

TOP 4 THROUGH TUESDAY
  GOLD SILVER BRONZE
China 13 6 4
USA 9 8 6
Japan 1 4 8
France 4 3 4
3 countries tied with 8 medals

Somebody was going to cave.

It wasn't going to be the Americans.

From the first vault to the final floor routine, the U.S. gymnasts were brilliant Tuesday. With no bobbles and barely a wobble, they stormed to the gold medal at the North Greenwich Arena.

The U.S. took a 1.299-point lead into the final rotation, floor exercise, and wound up beating a badly fading Russian team by 5.066. The lead was so big at the end that Aly Raisman, last up on floor for the Americans, could have done a couple of somersaults and

a cartwheel and it might have been enough.

"With a 1.3 lead, the air is basically out of the balloon by then," said John Geddert, Jordyn Wieber's personal coach. "We would have to self-destruct in order to give up a 1.3 on floor."

The competition couldn't have gotten off to a better start for the Americans, who were grouped with the Russians.

The first rotation was vault, which happens to be the strength of the U.S. team. The Americans all do a difficult vault called an Amanar, which only a few others in the world have mastered.

In the three-up, three-count format, Wieber went first, nailed her vault and got a score of 15.933. Gabby Douglas followed with an even better 15.966. Then McKayla Maroney, in her only event in the team final, was all but flawless, sticking a dart-into-cork dismount and earning a 16.233.

"That vault rotation was as close to a textbook vault rotation as you could possibly get," Geddert said. "Stuck. Stuck. Stuck. What an opening statement."

Bela Karolyi, who coached Romanian great Nadia Comaneci and the U.S. team that won Olympic gold in 1996 - the only previous team gold for the women's program - called Maroney's vault the best he had ever seen.

"Honestly, I don't know how she did not get a '10' for execution," he said. "There was nothing to deduct."

Maroney called it "the best 21/2 that I have ever competed in my life."

The Russians edged the Americans in the second rotation, uneven bars, and trailed by only 0.399 going into balance beam, the apparatus that cost the U.S. team gold in 2008.

This time, it was the Russians who cracked.

After Kyla Ross ( 15.133), Douglas ( 15.233) and Raisman ( 14.933) put up good scores, 2010 all-around world champion Aliya Mustafina led off for Russia and had problems almost immediately, with several balance checks and hesitations between tricks. She scored 14.533.

Then Victoria Komova, who qualified No. 1 to the all-around final, stepped off the mat on her dismount and scored 15.033. Kseniia Afanaseva scored 14.833, giving the U.S. a commanding 1.299-lead going into floor.

"Going into the beam, a four-tenth lead is not insurmountable," Geddert said. "And they're good on beam. So when our kids get up and go bang, bang, bang, all of a sudden they're going, 'Oh, god, now we've got to follow suit.'

"The first kid gets a little wobbly, the second kid gets a little wobbly and it sometimes becomes contagious."

The floor was anticlimactic, especially after Afanaseva, the reigning world champion in the event, fell on her face on a double-pike dismount on her final pass.

"It was obvious that they had a psychological break on the floor," said Marta Karolyi, the U.S. team coordinator. "That's why the mental preparation on the last stretch of training is so important."

To that end, the Americans modeled the competition over and over in the weeks leading up to the Olympics, even piping random bursts of loud crowd noise into practice.

The U.S. wound up hitting all 12 of its routines, just as it did in leading qualifications. The lowest individual score was Wieber's 14.666 on bars.

"You look in history and you see very, very few," Bela Karolyi said of a team making no big mistakes. "Very, very few. I guarantee you. I've seen it once or twice, back in the old days of the Soviet Union. From time to time the Soviet teams did that, but ever since I haven't seen it."

The Americans' biggest challenge going into the final was how they would handle Wieber's disappointment two nights earlier. The world champion failed to advance to the individual all-around final, finishing fourth overall but behind Douglas and Raisman. Only the top two from each team advance.

Wieber was in tears afterward, and it was the kind of upsetting development that could have shaken the Americans, whose average age is 16.4.

"I was pretty disappointed but I knew that I had to pull it together mentally for this team," she said. "Getting this gold medal was also a goal of mine so I had to pull myself together."

When Wieber hit her vault to open the competition, there was no stopping the Americans.

"When she went out there and nailed that vault it was contagious," Douglas said. "We were like, 'OK, I'm going to nail this vault, too.' It's contagious and it goes over to the bars, to the beam, to the floor.

"We wanted to be aggressive and strong and courageous and not afraid."

Is this team the best in U.S. history?

"Overall, I think the strongest if you think about body and mind," Marta Karolyi said.

Better than the "Magnificent Seven" of '96?

"It's the best team in USA history, without a doubt," Geddert said. "The '96 team was phenomenal but the skill level has risen so much since '96. If you go consistency, depth of talent and their difficulty level, it's without a doubt the best team of all time."

What is unquestioned is that the Americans were the best team in the world at the London Games.

"What a night," said Liang Chow, Douglas' coach. "What a beautiful night."






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