It’s going to be an awkward night at the US gymnasts’ dorm in the Olympic Village. How will Aly Raisman and Jordyn Wieber, roommates and good friends, deal with the fact that one is moving on to the all-around competition, the premier event in women’s gymnastics, while the other is not?
Wieber is the world all-around champion and (was) a heavy favorite for the all-around title. Raisman has played the perennial bridesmaid, finishing third at the US Olympic Trials and at the past three national championships. At the previous two Olympics, the US has claimed the gold in the event and was aiming for a three-peat. With Wieber.
But only two gymnasts from each country can qualify for the event, and Wieber finished third among her teammates. Raisman was the top scorer for the US, with Gabrielle Douglas .126 and Wieber .359 points behind.
“It’s very hard to even grasp this situation,” Nastia Liukin, the reigning Olympic all-around champion, said to NBC. “It’s a shame there’s a rule of only two per country.”
It was a shocker that left the entire team stunned. Trying to register that she wouldn’t be continuing on to compete in the all-around event, in which gymnasts go head-to-head on all four apparatus, Wieber spoke to television media but bypassed the rest of the press, in tears. Later, she issued a written statement in which she said, “It is a bit of a disappointment. It has always been a dream of mine to compete in the all-around final of the Olympics but I’m proud of Aly and Gabby and happy that they reached the all-around and that I was able to help the team get to the finals. It was always going to be close between the three of us doing all-around and in the end it is what it is.”
Her coach, John Geddert, was more emotional. “I’m basically devastated for her,” he said, calling the two-gymnasts-per-team restriction “a dumb rule.” “One kid is going to make a mistake that costs her country a medal, and they have to live with that the rest of their life. So the FIG [International Gymnastics Federation] needs to start rethinking some of these things. A kid’s training their entire life and because they’re the third best in their country, they don’t get to go to the dream competition. I don’t know where they’re coming from. She has trained her entire life for this day and to have it turn out anything less than she deserves is going to be devastating. She’ll go into her little shell and it’ll be a while until she comes out.”
What does this do for Team USA? In two days, the team finals crown the leading gymnastics nation, and it’s a title the US wants badly. It’s been 16 years since we claimed team gold—the last time in 1996, in Atlanta, with the memorable vault by a hobbled Kerri Strug. The format is unforgiving – three gymnasts compete on the beam, uneven bars, vault and floor exercise—and all three scores count. (In the qualifying round, four athletes compete and the lowest score can be thrown out.) All three gymnasts need to be on their game, focused on nothing else but their routines. Will the dynamic between Raisman and Wieber taint the balance and the concentration of the team?
“It’s really hard of course, because we are best friends, and I know how bad[ly] she wanted it,” says Raisman. “That was one of the first things we said: ‘I felt so bad just because she worked so hard too.’”
Raisman is also the team captain, charged with motivating the team and keeping them from pulling apart during situations like this one. What can she say that will help Wieber and not sound self-serving?
“When this kind of disappointment happens, you can’t say anything,” says Martha Karolyi, national team coordinator. “It’s almost like when somebody passes away—what do you say? Anything you say in that situation is the same. I will try to be comforting and appreciative of her efforts because she definitely had a very strong effort and performed at the highest level she could.”
Known for her consistency and solid performances, Wieber wasn’t as precise as she normally is during competitions. A perfectionist, she had a small break in form on the uneven bars, balance bobbles on the beam, and stepped out of bounds on the floor exercise—a mandatory 0.1 deduction. Douglas tallied up the highest score on uneven bars with her high-flying release moves, but had a few balance bobbles on the beam and stepped out of bounds on floor exercise as well. Raisman was solid throughout, particularly on the beam and floor exercise, her specialties, to earn one of the all-around spots. “The other girls were so strong, and Jordyn wasn’t quite as sharp,” says Karolyi.
And at this level, even the smallest mistakes can be costly. The new code of points by which judges score gymnasts is unrelenting in rewarding only high difficulty skills that are executed flawlessly. It doesn’t matter that you are a world champion or an Olympian; if your handstand isn’t perfectly vertical on the uneven bars or your vault lands outside the prescribed dismount zone, judges will shave points off your score.
And the stakes will be even higher when teams go up against each other: the qualifying scores are thrown out and the tally starts over, with all scores on the line for the team total. “With the three-up-and-three-count [format], every mistake counts,” says Mihai Brestyan, Raisman’s coach.
Karolyi is hoping that the entire team of five can “turn the page” on today’s results and move on to that next challenge. Going into that event, the US are the leaders, with 181.863 points, just ahead of Russia and 5.226 points ahead of China, who are the reigning team champions. “It’s always important, no matter how hard or painful it is, to finish what you started,” Liukin said to NBC. “This is where the true meaning of being a teammate comes to play. Going into team finals, it will be so important for all five girls to unite and remember their goal.” And try to forget the heartache.