Raisman Takes Gold (and Bronze) as U.S. Women Gymnasts End Games on a High Note

In just under two hours, U.S. gymnast Aly Raisman earned two of the last medals awarded in gymnastics at the London Games. But one of them almost wasn’t

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Alexandra Raisman of the United States competes in the Artistic Gymnastics Women's Floor Exercise final on Day 11 of the London 2012 Olympic Games at North Greenwich Arena on August 7, 2012 in London.

In just under two hours, U.S. gymnast Aly Raisman earned two of the last medals awarded in gymnastics at the London Games. But one of them almost wasn’t.

Raisman, the last woman to compete on beam, couldn’t hide her disappointment when her score flashed on the board: 14.966. That put her fourth, behind two Chinese and a Romanian gymnast, but her coach, Mihai Brestyan, knew something was wrong when the rest of the numbers went up. Raisman’s routine was ranked 6.2 for difficulty — too far off the possible 6.6 that he had choreographed. He quickly filled out an inquiry form, which coaches must do if they want to appeal a decision before the next gymnast performs, or, since Raisman was last, before the competition is over and the gymnasts leave the floor. Within minutes, the inquiry was reviewed by a new set of judges, who looked back at the video and agreed that Raisman had been robbed of 0.1 for connecting her turns.

But that still wasn’t enough to put her on the podium. It pulled her into a tie with third place finisher Catalina Ponor of Romania, who is a gold medalist in the event from the 2004 Games. So the judges went to a tiebreaker: and it was Raisman’s execution score, which rewards gymnasts for the precision and technical skill they exhibit during their routines, that broke the deadlock. The judges scored her performance with 8.766 points out of 10, and Ponor with 8.466.

MORE: History-Making High: How US Gymnast Gabrielle Douglas Became the Olympic All-Around Champion

It must have been karma of some sort, because just five days before, Raisman was on the other end of a tie-breaker during the all-around competition, in which her execution score for three of the four events was lower than that of Aliya Mustafina of Russia, who edged her out for bronze. “She finally got what she deserves,” says Brestyan of Raisman’s first individual Olympic medal.

The boost certainly put an extra bounce in Raisman’s performance on floor, less than two hours later. Still on a high from the medal ceremony for her bronze, Raisman added a layout to her first tumbling pass that she had taken out during the all-around competition, out of fear she would step out of bounds and lose an automatic 0.1 points. This time, she performed the extra skill, and with the more difficult routine, posted a 15.6 that the other seven gymnasts couldn’t surpass and was good enough for gold. Teammate Jordyn Wieber, who missed out on qualifying for the all-around event after stepping out of bounds on her floor exercise, did it again, was penalized 0.1 points and finished in seventh place.

“It felt like redemption,” says Raisman of her re-scored beam routine. “I went out into the next event with a really good feeling. I wanted to win a medal in an individual event, so once I achieved that goal I felt like I could just go out there and enjoy myself.”

Her teammates, McKayla Maroney, Kyla Ross, Gabrielle Douglas and Wieber, cheered her double medal day from the stands, which brought the U.S. women’s gymnastics squad’s medal total to five. It’s one shy of the 2004 haul, and short of the eight won by the 2008 Beijing team, but Martha Karolyi, the national team coordinator, will take it. “I am very pleased with this young generation,” she says. “They showed lots of power, and medals-wise I was very pleased because the U.S. won team gold and all-around gold, the two biggest medals that any single country can wish for, and that was the first time in history for U.S. gymnastics. We are very proud of that.”

MORE: U.S. Women Gymnasts Win First Team Gold Since 1996

Earning that team gold, however, clearly wiped the Fierce Five, as they are calling themselves. The toll was clear on Gabrielle Douglas, the all-around champion in London, who had to perform on all four apparatus – beam, bars, vault and floor – three times over five days (for qualification, team finals and the all-around competition). In the finals for the bars on Monday, she didn’t have the strength to reverse a swing and ended up in last place. During her beam routine Tuesday, her foot slipped and she nearly fell off, but managed to hang on and finish in seventh. “I just rushed myself and missed my footing,” she says. “I’m a little disappointed in my performance because I could have done a little bit better but mentally and physically I was kind of tired. But overall I’ve done very good. I’m going home with two Olympic gold medals so I’m very happy.”

Her coach Liang Chow, says Games fatigue is clearly a factor in Douglas’ performance over the past two days, especially since the event finals stretched over three days and not two, as in previous Olympics. “She is a very young athlete, and it’s hard for her to focus, and after she took gold for the team, and gold in the all-around, it was very hard to bring back her focus to the level we were,” he says. “But I cannot be happier with her preparation and the results and accomplishments we got out of this Olympic Games.”

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Douglas’ teammate Maroney also faltered in her event final on Sunday; the world champion on that event, Maroney launched a textbook perfect vault to help the U.S. win team gold, but uncharacteristically fell on her second attempt during the event final a week later, which pushed her to second place. Wieber, too, hasn’t been at her best, and admitted that she has been nursing a possible stress fracture in her ankle since the squad began preparing for London at a training camp in July. “It didn’t bother me much,” she says of her ankle, which hasn’t been officially diagnosed yet but will require her to wear a boot for the rest of her time in London. “I’m not making any excuses, I’m just saying that we couldn’t train like we normally train, because we had to water down numbers, protect her leg a lot more, and sometimes that has an impact,” says her coach John Geddert.

With so many events requiring the gymnasts to be at their peak over such a long period of time, it’s inevitable that athletes will have good and bad days, and that not every routine will go off as planned. “It’s not about winning or losing, it’s just about putting your all into it,” says Douglas. “You don’t lose, you just technically have a bad day, or make mistakes. We are definitely not losers, we’re like superheroes.” And fierce ones at that.