It was the question on everyone’s mind before the women’s gymnastics team final on Tuesday: how did Jordyn Wieber feel? After missing the all-around final by 0.233 points, Wieber, the current world all-around champion, was understandably upset after the qualifying round. Would she be able to pull it together for the team final and help the US women win its first gold in the event in 16 years?
The coaches on Team USA certainly wanted to know. As did National Team Coordinator Martha Karolyi. In determining the lineup of gymnasts for each apparatus in the team final, it was a crucial question. “We had a lineup meeting yesterday and had a discussion, back and forth, over who is best here and who is best there,” says Karolyi. Normally, the strongest gymnasts who have the chance of earning the highest scores go last among the three athletes who compete in the team event. “We all felt like with her character, she would come through, and put her disappointment behind her and do this for the team. If we doubted that, we would not put her in the lineup.”
“I…am…fine,” is what she told her coach John Geddert, who, doing his job and understandably concerned, asked the 17-year old from DeWitt, Mich. this morning how she was feeling. “That’s her ‘Do not ask me another question about that;’ it was like she was tired of hearing it,” he says. Apparently, Wieber got a pep talk from good friends and teammates McKayla Maroney and Aly Raisman, who is also her roommate, soon after getting back to the dorms following the qualifying round, and before long, she was “fine.”
Walking into the arena for the competition, Wieber’s mother Rita said Jordyn was “good, but will be better once the team goes in there and rocks it.”
And rock it they did, as Wieber started off the US women to a rousing start with an emphatic vault that spoke volumes about the fact that, yes, for now she has put her disappointment behind her. Scoring an impressive 15.933, she set the tone for what in gymnastics counts as a rout for the team title. It took 16 years, and four Olympics Games, but the US finally has its team gold.
With Larissa Latynina, the Russian gymnast who had just relinquished her record of most Olympic medals (18) to Michael Phelps (who won his 19th) several miles away in the Aquatics Center, in attendance, the US squad was on a mission from the moment they marched into the North Greenwich Arena. As impressive as the win was, however, what’s more astounding is the systematic purposefulness with which the US earned the top place on the podium. The team competition consists of three athletes each performing on four events – vault, bars, beam and floor exercise – and therefore requires 12 strong routines. Beginning with Wieber’s stuck landing on the vault, the US proceeded to knock off each event with impressive precision, with hardly a mistake among them. Apart from some minor wobbles on balance beam and a hop or two on dismounts, the dozen routines were nearly flawless.
“I feel that the USA have just proved that they are better than us as a team in general,” says Aliya Mustafina, part of the Russian team that earned silver. The Romanian team won the bronze and China, the reigning Olympic champions, finished off the podium in fourth.
“If you look in the history of gymnastics, you see very few of them; very, very few of them,” says legendary coach Bela Karolyi, who guided Nadia Comeneci to her history-making Olympic 10s, of teams able to produce 12 solid routines. “Back in the old days, from time to time the Soviet Union teams have done that trick but ever since, I’ve never seen it.”
The Russians came close, by 0.399 points, to overtaking the Americans after both squads finished the second rotation, on uneven bars. But after that the US opened the lead to nearly 1.3 and then a commanding 5.066 surge that assured them the gold.
“I can’t believe it, I’m so excited, and it’s so amazing and definitely hasn’t sunk in yet,” says Aly Raisman, of Needham, Mass. who is the team captain. “We were smiling the whole time, we just wanted to enjoy it, and the hard work really paid off.”
For Martha Karolyi, the gold holds special meaning – validation for a system that she and Bela fought for and created in 1999 to nurture and encourage stronger team performances like this one. “I am overwhelmed, I couldn’t hold back my tears,” she says. “You work and work and work, and you have some good days, and some harder days. It’s a fantastic feeling.”
The training system, a hybrid format that allows gymnasts to stay with their individual coaches but requires them to train together once a month as a team and to hone their skills, wasn’t popular with coaches initially.
Bob Colarossi, then president of USA Gymnastics, was the one who approached the Karolyis for help in creating the team-based system, and weathered considerable opposition to implement it. “We’ve had to overcome a lot of things since, but this format [at the Olympics] is unforgiving, and we have to be ready,” he says. “This is the culmination of all the hard work that a lot of people put into the training program. It’s been a long time coming, and words can’t describe how it feels.”
The US began on vault, where all three gymnasts – Wieber, Gabrielle Douglas and McKayla Maroney, performed the Amanar, the most difficult vault women gymnasts execute in competition. All three hardly budged on their landings, after flying through the air in two and a half twists. Maroney, the world champion in the event who will compete in the event finals in an few days for another chance at Olympic gold, threw off a textbook vault that will likely be used to teach young gymnasts for years to come, earning the highest score of the event, 16.233. “I think that was the best one I ever had in my life, and I’m really happy to be able to do that for the team,” she says.
It was so perfect, Martha Karolyi wondered why it didn’t earn a perfect 10.0 for execution; “McKayla Maroney’s vault is from a different planet,” Karolyi says. “To recognize that, I would expect they would give a 10.0 for execution. That…was…the…best!”
The win, particularly over China, is a bit of vindication for the US, since in Beijing, there were concerns over whether the Chinese team was underage. Not a problem in London, where every member of the squad is 20 with the exception of one 17-year old. (The US team has one of the youngest Olympians here, Kyla Ross, who is 15, but no one over age 18). Bela Karolyi’s opinion on why the Chinese had such a weak showing? “They are probably too old now.”
The worries about the US women’s squad going into the team event were dispelled so quickly and so definitively that it was easy to forget that not only was Wieber a wild card emotionally, but Douglas has also been on and off during high pressure meets. Her coach, Liang Chow, has been working with her on managing the butterflies and helping her to focus not on what’s at stake but on her formidable skills instead. “She did wonderful work, and handled a tough job and big pressure,” he says. “She is getting better and better and more consistent, and mentally getting tougher and tougher.”
She’ll have to draw on that foundation again on Thursday, during the all-around competition, when she goes against some of the same gymnasts for the most coveted title in women’s gymnastics – Olympic all-around champion. She’ll be joined by teammate Aly Raiman, and the pressure will be on again – this time, for the US to send a third gymnast to the top of podium, a feat that hasn’t been accomplished since the Soviet Union won the titles in 1952, 1956 and 1960. “We can’t get our noses up because you are always just as good as your performance to date,” says Martha Karolyi. “If we want to stay competitive, we have to continue at the same level, and don’t assume now that we are Olympic champions, we can relax.” No rest, it seems for the gymnastically gifted.