After stockpiling more precious metal than a jeweler over the last decade, the American women have gotten a little picky.
Bronze really isn’t their color, and they had their fill of silver in 2004 and 2008. No, they’d prefer something brighter and shinier from the London Olympics, similar to those gold medals they brought home from last fall’s world gymnastics championships.
“Every year, we get so much stronger,” reigning world champion Jordyn Wieber said. “We did so good at worlds, but I think this team is even stronger than that. I’m really excited that we have a lot of potential to win the gold medal in London.”
With a whopping 59 medals in international competition since 2001, the U.S. women are on a run not seen since the breakup of the Soviet Union. They won the world title in 2003, 2007 and 2011 and, including Wieber, have produced four of the last six all-around champions. At last year’s worlds, the Americans claimed half of the six titles available, and there could be a similar gold rush in London.
The Americans have won only one Olympic team title, way back in 1996 with the Magnificent Seven. They have gone to each of the last two Olympics as the world champion, only to come up a step short on the podium.
They have every reason to believe, however, that London will be different.
“If I would say it honestly, yes, U.S. wins the gold. U.S. wins the gold as a team. Definitely,” said Bela Karolyi, whose wife, Martha, is the national team coordinator. “They’re a fabulous team. A fabulous team.”
Previous teams weren’t exactly slouches, particularly that Beijing squad with Nastia Liukin and Shawn Johnson, who finished 1-2 in the all-around and needed a wheelbarrow to get all their medals home. But this team is more balanced, and stronger top to bottom than rivals Russia, Romania and China, the reigning Olympic champion.
The stars, of course, are Wieber and Gabby Douglas, whose dazzling rise in the last six months has made for a compelling — and surprising — rivalry, a la Liukin and Johnson. Wieber, much like Johnson, is powerful and unflappable, with no real weaknesses. She took down then-world champion Aliya Mustafina of Russia in her very first competition as a senior, and has lost only two all-around competitions since 2008, both to American teammates.
“She reminds me very much of Nadia (Comaneci), to be honest,” Bela Karolyi said. “This is the first one that is closest to her. The body and the mind. That fight, that strong performance. When she’s in trouble, she never gives up.”
Douglas combines Johnson’s vivacious personality and Liukin’s gorgeous lines, a gymnast who makes everything look effortless and light. After making last year’s world team on the strength of her acrobatic uneven bars routine — Martha Karolyi has dubbed her the “Flying Squirrel” — Douglas emerged as an all-around threat at the American Cup. She beat Wieber, though her scores didn’t count because she was competing as an alternate.
Douglas finished a close second to Wieber at the U.S. championships, and again the first night of Olympic trials. But big scores on uneven bars, floor and vault pushed her past Wieber for the title, and the results are sure to motivate both as each tries to become the third straight American to win the Olympic all-around title.
“It pushes us to do greater and better things,” Douglas said. “You just see, ‘Oh, she did that routine. I’ve got to do this, I know what I’ve got to do and I’ve got to do it better.’ It kind of gets us into that mind-set. That’s when the show really starts to begin. ‘Oh, Jordyn did a nice routine but Gabby over here, she’s killing it! Jordyn over there, she’s fired up and Gabby over here, she’s getting it!’ That’s what competition is about.”
But, as the Americans learned in ’08, the supporting cast is just as important as the headliners. Three gymnasts compete on each event in team finals and all three scores count, meaning even one weak routine can be the difference between the U.S. singing the national anthem and pretending to look happy while they listen to someone else’s song.
With steady Aly Raisman, world vault champion McKayla Maroney and up-and-comer Kyla Ross, however, the Americans have the potential to score 15s or better across the board in team finals. Compare that with last year’s world championships, where the Americans had just three scores of 15 or above — and still won by a whopping four points. Or this year’s European championships, where Romania won despite only one score above 15.25.
“Just by looking at the scores, you can tell we’ve all been working really hard,” Wieber said. “We’re going to be tough to compete against in London.”