LONDON >> One by one, the Americans thundered down the runway, soared high above the vault and slammed into the mat.
Boom! Boom! Boom!
When the fireworks were over, so was everybody else’s chance for the gold medal.
The Americans lived up to their considerable hype and then some Tuesday night, routing silver medalist Russia and everybody else on their way to their first Olympic title in women’s gymnastics since 1996. Their score of 183.596 was a whopping five points better than Russia’s, and set off a debate over whether this is the best U.S. team of all time. Romania won the bronze.
“Others might disagree. The ’96 team might disagree. But this is the best team,” U.S. coach John Geddert said.
The Americans didn’t botch a single routine, and all but three of their 12 scores were 15.0 or higher. The Russians, on the other hand, had just one score above 15 in their last two events as they unraveled down the stretch. They sat on the sidelines sniffling and watching glumly as the Americans turned their final event, floor exercise, into a coronation.
When the final standings flashed, chants of “U-S-A! U-S-A!” rocked the arena, and the U.S. women, who backed up to get a better view of the scoreboard, held up their index fingers for the cameras — in case anyone had a doubt.
“The feeling was incredible,” world champion Jordyn Wieber said. “To have this gold medal around your neck, it’s really an indescribable feeling.”
The Americans had come into the last two Olympics as world champions, only to leave without the gold. But national team coordinator Martha Karolyi recognized six months ago that this was a special group, stronger than previous U.S. teams.
It’s not just the titles these Americans have won, though there are plenty: last year’s team gold at the world championships, along with Wieber’s all-around crown and McKayla Maroney’s title on vault. It’s their fierce competitiveness, and the unshakable faith they have in themselves. Rather than flinching under the weight of the heavy expectations, it made them stronger. When they noticed the Russians and Romanians peeking in on their training sessions, they cranked up the oomph in their routines, the better to intimidate.
Even Wieber’s failure to qualify for the all-around final, which left her teammates stunned following Sunday’s sessions, turned out to be a minor speedbump.
“I told them just believe in yourself,” Maroney said. “Live up to that Olympic moment, because you’re never, ever going to forget it.”
Unforgettable, like their performance.
The Americans opened on vault, their strongest event, unleashing a barrage right that let the Russians know in no uncertain terms that they — and everyone else — would be playing for silver.
“They’re just so far ahead of anyone else,” Britain’s Rebecca Tunney said.
All of the Americans do the high-difficulty, high-scoring Amanar — a roundoff onto the takeoff board, back handspring onto the table and 2.5 twisting somersaults before landing. It’s got a start value — the measure of difficulty — of 6.5, a whopping 0.7 above the vault most other gymnasts do, and they ripped off one massive one after another.
Going first, Wieber did perhaps the best one she’s ever done, getting great height in the air, her legs locked together. When her feet slammed into the mat on landing, she threw up her arms and smiled broadly. Anyone wondering how she was coping with the devastation she felt Sunday had their answer.
“I was pretty disappointed, but I had to put it together mentally, especially for this team,” Wieber said. “A team gold medal was also officially a goal of mine, and I had to pull myself together and move on and be stronger mentally for the team.”
Gabby Douglas went next, and her vault was even better. Then came Maroney, who may as well claim her Olympic vault gold now. She got so much height on her Amanar it’s a wonder she didn’t bump her head on the overhead camera. She hit the mat with tremendous force yet didn’t so much as wiggle, triumphantly thrusting her arms in the air as she saluted the judges.
The Americans strutted out of the event with a 1.7-point lead, and never looked back.
“We definitely started the competition with a bang,” Maroney said.
Russia erased all but four-tenths of the deficit on uneven bars, where Viktoria Komova and Aliya Mustafina defy the laws of gravity. But the Americans threw down another challenge on balance beam, making the 4-inch slab that stands 4 feet in the air look like child’s play. Kyla Ross, the only American who wasn’t on that world team last year (she was too young), performed like a ballerina with her long legs and gorgeous lines. She landed one somersault with her left foot curled over the edge of the beam, yet never flinched. (Ross was born in Hawaii. She is the daughter of former UH football and baseball star Jason Ross. Her mother, Kiana, is a University High graduate. Kyla’s aunt, Nohea Tano, played volleyball at UH and is married to NFL player Travis LaBoy, who played football for the Warriors. Mike Burger, the assistant tennis coach at UH, is her uncle.)
Douglas has struggled on balance beam all summer, with a fall the second day of the U.S. championships costing her the title. But she has been clutch in London, delivering the highest score in qualifying and again Tuesday night. She whipped off a series of backflips as if she was still on the ground, a look of intense concentration on her face. She had a small balance check on a leap, swaying slightly and waving her arms to steady herself, but it was a minor error.
Aly Raisman wasn’t her usual steady self, wobbling on a somersault and taking a step back on her dismount. But it hardly mattered because the Russians, following the U.S. on beam, were about to implode.
Mustafina swayed and wobbled so badly on the landing of a leap it’s a wonder she didn’t fall off. Komova almost stepped on the judges on her dismount. The grim mood darkened even further on floor exercise, where Anastasia Grishina stumbled on one pass and botched another when she all but came to a dead stop in the middle of the floor. World champion Ksenia Afanaseva finished the night by landing her dismount on her knees.
“We did everything we could,” Komova said.
The Americans swore they weren’t watching the scoreboard, but there sure seemed to be some extra sparkle in their final three routines.
Wieber’s bright smile widened as she danced and tumbled, the crowd clapping in time to her techno pop music. Fans the world over will be humming the “Doo-doo-doo-doo-doo-doo” from the start of Douglas’ music and little girls are sure to be bouncing in their backyards trying to get as high as she does on her leaps. Raisman closed it out with a rollicking routine to “Hava Nagila,” soaring high on her tumbling passes and sticking a landing with a cement-like firmness.
Coach Mihai Brestyan was jumping up and down as Raisman finished, the tears already starting to fall. They gave way to shrieks of joy as she collapsed into her teammates’ arms.
“We knew we could do it,” Raisman said. “We just had to pull out all the stops.”
Now they need a catchy nickname, something like “The Magnificent Seven” from 1996.
“I like Fierce Five,” Maroney said. “Because we are definitely the fiercest team out there.”
And they’ve got gold to prove it.