U.S. needs Jordyn Wieber at her best if it wants a shot at team gold
LONDON -- Only 48 hours after Sunday's dramatic qualification round, the U.S. women, a shaken group after all-around favorite Jordyn Wieber was knocked out of the all-around final, will compete in Tuesday's team competition. Despite the shock of what happened to Wieber, the team is still the favorites to win.
It's a heavy challenge for a team with an average age of just over 16, whose fortunes may lie as much with their wills as their skills.
"The girls know what they are capable of, because they have done this before," says Martha Karolyi, the team's head coach. "The expectations are high, because of what we already know we can do. Now we have to do it."
That seemed a lot easier before the stunning turn of events on Sunday. The women easily moved into the team final as the No. 1 seed, but the round also qualified the gymnasts for all-around final on Thursday and the apparatus finals later in the week. The qualification round seemed a formality for Wieber, the reigning world all-around champ, who stumbled at times on Sunday, but still did reasonably well and finished fourth among all gymnasts. But Wieber's teammates Aly Raisman and Gabby Douglas finished above her, and with a maximum of two per country allowed in the all-around final, perhaps the world's best gymnast exited the world's biggest stage before she even had a chance to enter it.
How does a 17-year old put that behind her in order to help the team that desperately needs her to perform well? With the relatively new three-up, three-down format that no longer allows teams to throw out their lowest scores, a bad mistake can take chunks off the team total, enough to topple even a heavy favorite, such as the U.S.
"Jordyn is such a strong person mentally," said Raisman, the team captain and Wieber's roommate in the Olympic village. "I'm not worried about her being at her best. Nobody is."
Those are the right things for a captain to say, especially as the one who was never expected to be in an all-around final, herself. But Wieber left the arena floor in tears, consoled by coaches. It is no time to have what-coulda-been pains plaguing you with a team title on the line.
On Monday, shortly before the men's team final in which the U.S. placed fifth, the U.S. announced its lineup for the women's final. It looks like this:
Even with a scoring system that no longer has a 10.0 as a ceiling, scores generally escalate from the first gymnast to perform to the last, as judges leave some room for higher marks. For that reason, it's noteworthy that Wieber is up first on two events, second on a third and last on none of them. She will not compete on beam, an apparatus that has been giving her trouble all season, because she's had trouble making connections between her more difficult skills.
So here's a look at what could go right (and wrong) for the U.S. women on Tuesday:
The team will start on vault, which is probably its best event. All three gymnasts have Amanar vaults (round-offs with 2 ½ twist) and Maroney, the anchor of the three, is the reigning world champion. She is competing with an injured and re-aggravated (some say broken) toe, but it hasn't bothered her so far. Expect scores in the high 15s or even low 16s should they hit.
If the team can be a bit uneven on any event, it's on the uneven bars. Wieber has added a twist to her dismount in the last eight weeks and has hit it twice at trials and once in London. Douglas can hit sky-high Tkatchevs (reverse flips over the back of the bar), but has to be careful not to stall at the top of her swings as she did once at trials. At her best, her amplitude is super. The U.S. women are not the best at hitting handstands and international judges are a lot less forgiving when gymnasts try to fudge them than the domestic ones are. That's the kind of skill a nervous gymnast rushes through in order to get to the next one.
A good start for Ross, 15, is vital to a good beam outcome. If she hits one particular sequence (front aerial to flip-flop, layout step out), she could hit a big score. She has the skills, but she looked slower than normal on Sunday. Don't overthink it; just do it. Raisman's double Arabian (front) dismount has gotten steadier as she's been competing it. She'll need it again. The rule of thumb here is nothing new: stay on the beam and you win.
Both Douglas and Wieber stumbled out of bounds during their floor routines on Sunday and can't afford to do so again. Douglas only scored 13.766 after flubbing her double Arabian on her second pass. Her mount (a 1½ to a triple full) is an absolute blur. Wieber has ample difficulty on her passes and rarely misses them, including the double-twisting double-back mount. Raisman qualified first on floor and has been getting better and better on that event. Her first pass (1½ to double Arabian - punch front) is as busy as it sounds, but she makes it look easier than it is.
Three other teams are likely to fight for the medal stand...
The U.S. women beat Russia to win the world title in Tokyo last year by 4.082 points, but that margin dropped to 1.434 points in qualifying. Russia's Viktoria Komova led the all-around qualifying, despite mistakes on floor. Additionally, this Russian team has a key reinforcement on board -- Aliya Mustafina was the world No. 1 gymnast in 2010 before a torn ACL in her left knee shelved her last year. She was still shaky when she returned for the European Championships in Brussels earlier this year, but she qualified for the all-around final here and scored an impressive 15.833 on uneven bars, her best event, indicating that her recovery has been speeding up.
Traditionally, the Chinese team is strong on beam and bars and somewhat weaker on the power events of vault and floor, and this squad is no exception. Sui Lu and Deng Linlin should give the team a boost on beam, particularly if judges clamp down hard on nuances of form (split leaps, extension) that Chinese beam workers do so well. He Kexin scored 15.966 on bars in qualifying, although Huang Quishuang is probably their best gymnast on the event. Note how easily their team flies from bar to bar. Ah, but there's a catch. The Chinese need to be able to stick three vaults, and they don't have the start values to match the other teams.
Romania doesn't quite have a second coming of Nadia Comaneci, but it does have Larissa Iordache, the squad's best hope for an all-around medal and the team's best gymnast on bars. Her followers in Romania began calling Iordache 'The New Nadia,' a distinction they have prematurely placed on others in the past. To make matters worse, Iordache is still suffering from plantar fasciitis in her heels. She managed the inflammation well in qualifying and they'll need her for at least bars and beam to have a chance at a medal on Tuesday. Besides Iordache, look for Sandra Izbasa, the reigning Olympic champ on the floor exercise. Catalina Ponor is the team's best beam worker, but they are also strong across the board there.