LONDON >> Aliya Mustafina couldn’t take her eyes off the scoreboard, staring at it with pride and delight.
She capped an impressive comeback from a serious knee injury with the gold on uneven bars Monday. It was Russia’s first gold in women’s gymnastics in London, and gave Mustafina a complete set after her silver in the team competition and bronze in the all-around.
“I was hoping very much I’d done everything I could to win it,” Mustafina said.
Beth Tweddle was simply hoping to win a medal, and the grand dame of British gymnastics finally did. Four years after missing out by a mere 25-hundreths of a point, she claimed the bronze on her signature event.
“I tried to say it didn’t matter if I didn’t medal, but I’ve got every other title to my name,” Tweddle said. “I can now say I would have been devastated walking away with no medal. I am going to sleep easy tonight.”
Also Monday, Arthur Zanetti gave Brazil its first gymnastics medal, a gold, on still rings by upsetting Chen Yibing, the “Lord of the Rings,” who won gold in Beijing and four of the last five world titles. Yang Hak-seon of South Korea added the gold medal on vault to his world title, sealing the victory with the most difficult vault being done in the world.
The Americans, meanwhile, went home empty-handed. Sam Mikulak finished fifth on vault and all-around champion Gabby Douglas finished last on uneven bars.
“Toward the end of the Olympics, you get mentally and physically tired and you’re just like drained,” Douglas said. “I tried to fight through it as much as I could.”
Just getting here was a fight for Mustafina.
She dominated the 2010 world championships so thoroughly that she left with a medal from all but one event, including golds in the all-around and team competition, and it was clear she would be the one to beat in London. But six months later, she blew out her left ACL at the European championships, putting her chances of simply competing in London in doubt.
The steely Russian, however, isn’t one to be messed with — she actually tried to convince her coach to let her compete at worlds last fall — and was back on the floor by the end of 2011. But there were only glimpses of her ruthless dominance, and she was downright dismal at this year’s Europeans.
On this night, however, there was no question of her brilliance.
“I did nothing extraordinary,” she said. “I just hoped I’d do very well before I came out.”
Mustafina’s uneven bars routine is packed with so many difficult skills it leaves her gasping for air by the time she’s finished. But she makes them look easy, flipping and floating from one bar to another. Her execution is exquisite, her toes perfectly pointed, her legs razor straight.
When she landed, she threw up her hands in triumph and turned on a megawatt smile. When her score of 16.133 flashed, coach Evgeny Grebenkin picked her up in a bear hug, and chants of “ROSS-EE-YAH!” (Russia) rang out.
Only Douglas was left, and what slim chance she had at a medal ended when the all-around champion stalled on a handstand.
“I wasn’t doubting myself, but there’s a lot of great talent,” Douglas said. “You have Beth Tweddle, you have (Viktoria) Komova and Mustafina. They have one of the higher start values to actually post that big score. If I even did well, then I still would have gotten fourth or so.”
Tweddle might have given Mustafina a real run for the gold had she not landed low on her dismount and taken two steps back to steady herself. But after her disappointment four years ago, any medal is as good as gold for Tweddle. It is the first individual medal in women’s gymnastics for the British, and gives them four at these Olympics.
Not bad for a country that qualified full men’s and women’s teams for the first time since 1984.
“It’s a massive thing for British gymnastics,” Tweddle said. “The boys have been smashing it this competition. I think our target was one to two medals, and we’ve come out with four. We couldn’t ask for anything more.”
Tweddle was the inspiration for the British renaissance, becoming the first British woman to win a medal at the world championships in 2003. Three years later, she gave Britain its first world title, on uneven bars, and has added two more (floor in 2009, uneven bars in 2010) since then.
But she had yet to win an Olympic medal, missing the bronze in Beijing by 0.025. The result devastated her, and she briefly considered retiring. Having the Olympics in her own country was too appealing to pass up, and the 27-year-old upgraded her uneven bars routine so she wouldn’t come up short again.
When the final standings were announced, she grabbed a British flag and held it aloft. China’s He Kexin, the gold medalist in Beijing, was second.
“It’s the best feeling in the world,” Tweddle said. “It’s the one medal that was missing from my collection and I’ve always said I don’t care what color it is.”
Zanetti grandly kicked off the party for the Rio de Janeiro Games with his gold, handing Chen only his second loss since 2006.
His jaw dropped when he saw his score, and the small group of Brazilian fans in the stands above him began dancing, singing and waving their flag. Zanetti beamed as he stood on the podium, chewing on his bottom lip and watching proudly as the Brazilian flag rose.
“I hope four years from now we relive this moment,” Zanetti said, “not just me but the whole Brazil Olympic team.”