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Decisive manner of Team USA's gymnastics gold was unmistakable

LONDON -- This was the script the way Jordyn Wieber had seen it written all along. For the second night in three days, she waited with anticipation for a teammate's score that would seal her night. But this time, it wasn't with a look of dread and shock. This time, as she waited for judges to post Aly Raisman's mark for what was surely a gold-medal clinching floor routine in the team competition, Wieber was quietly mouthing the words, "score, score score."

After Raisman landed the final pass of her floor routine, Wieber surely knew the disappointment two days earlier in not reaching the all-around final had melted into joy. Next to the floor, she and her teammates hugged and stood watching as Raisman's score finally flashed. It was 14.933 and more important, the U.S. team had clinched the country's first gymnastics team gold since the Mag 7 placed first at the Atlanta Games in 1996. "It was definitely special, taking in the feelings out the floor," she said. "This is really what we came here for. The team was the most important thing. All the girl came together for this and we achieved it."

Time will tell if the order of priority -- "joy before sorrow" -- will last when she has time to process it, but the decisive manner in which the team did indeed come together was unmistakable. A year after whopping the field to win the team title at the world championships in Tokyo last fall by more than four points, the team did one better, hitting all 12 of its routines without a fall or major break and topping Russia, the silver medalists, by 5.066 points. Romania was two points further back, in third. In gymnastics terms, it was the equivalent of lapping the field, since each significant break costs about a point and minor one are measured in tenths. "Best team of all time," said John Geddert, Wieber's coach. "Others might disagree and say 1996, but they were at home and this was five great girls at their best."

It was all that. The lowest score of the night was Wieber's 14.666 on bars, a more-than-respectable score. "I am very proud of them tonight," said head coach Martha Karolyi. "I am proud of the consistency. I am proud of the way they never faltered from the very start."

The start was a sign of things to come. As the top qualifying team, the U.S. began on vault and executed three perfect sticks on Amanar vaults (round-off, 2½ twists) that few can match. First came Wieber who started the team off by getting a 15.933 with a barely-perceptible hop. Instantly the worried looks that came across her face on Sunday disappeared. "That gave me a lot of confidence," she said. Gabby Douglas came next and scored 15.966. Anchor McKayla Maroney, the world vault champion, then hit one of the highest, longest versions of the vault with nearly perfect form en route to a 16.233. If she hits that as one of her two vaults in the individual event finals on Aug. 5, count on it being good for another gold medal. "Vault gave us a lot of confidence," said Maroney, mirroring Wieber's thoughts almost to a word.

It's an odd worry for a group that two days earlier finished first in team competition, and had three of the highest four scorers on the opening day. But the absence of Wieber, the world all-around champ, from the all-around final, had clearly upset the balance of power, and perhaps the team's psyche as well. (Wieber revealed after the competition that she had been battling a stress fracture in her right foot for the past few weeks, but insisted it hadn't been bothering her.) Words like "confidence," "bounce back" and "rally" got tossed around as if the team had been last instead of first. At an especially tough workout on Monday, Karolyi pointed to bars as the place where the team had to maintain composure. "Just be sure you don't give away points," she said. "Fight for everything."

Bars could have been a venue for slip-ups had the squad been looking back instead of forward. Instead, Wieber, Kyla Ross and Douglas got through three clean events and the team maintained a four-tenths lead over the Russians, as China and Romania, other contenders started to falter. But the Russians were done with their best event. Aliya Mustafina, the 2010 world all-around champ has only been herself on that one apparatus since coming back from knee surgery last year. Viktoria Komova, Russia's best gymnast, scored 15.833 on her top apparatus.

The U.S. team sped through three solid beam routines with no falls or serious wobbles. The coaches team made a strategic decision to leave Wieber off the beam, because she'd been having trouble with connections between skills. Ross, the 15-year-old rookie, showed poise beyond her years, scoring 15.133 and hitting split leaps and extensions that less polished gymnasts usually tend to fudge. Douglas (15.233) and Raisman (14.933) finished their sets and then started to anticipate the coronation on floor. "Well, you can't fall off floor," said Douglas. "But you still can't afford to make a mistake."

Tell that to the Russians, whose three gymnasts were competing in the same pair as the U.S. The Russians fell apart on floor. Anastasia Grishina aborted a tumbling pass and Ksenia Afanaseva missed a combination pass at the end of the routine.

The U.S. team was now within easy range of gold. After Wieber and Douglas hit for marks of 15.000 and 15.066, Raisman was down to her best event. But Raisman had missed a tumbling skill in warmup and just before going out to compete, she consulted with Mihai Brestyan, her coach, who told her to adjust a tumbling skill to keep everything safe, since the team had a large lead. As Raisman landed her final pass, she began to tear up, knowing the only formality was the final score. "People will make comparisons to other teams," and I have seen most of them," said Karolyi, who turns 70 later this month. "What they had in 1996 was great. Was this better? I won't say."

This team was better for several reasons. The squad in 1996 had the benefit of competing at home under the base-10.0 scoring system in which home advantage mattered more than it does now. And this team of five is strong from top to bottom. Four of the five qualified for at least one event final and the fifth, Ross, performed with a maturity beyond her years. Who better to offer perspective than Bela Karolyi, the coach who carried Kerri Strug onto the victory podium in Atlanta when she stuck a final vault on a gimpy ankle? "The best this team," he said after the award ceremony Tuesday. "No doubt in my mind, the best. "No weakness, really. The mental preparation is so strong. Tonight they got what they deserved."

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