U.S. gymnasts cement status as Olympic juggernaut with dominant Rio win
- After the Final Five’s dominant win in Rio on Tuesday, it’s more clear than ever: Team USA women’s gymnastics is the greatest active Olympic dynasty, in any sport.
RIO DE JANEIRO — To make the women’s gymnastics competition fairer, maybe they should blindfold the U.S. gymnasts, make them carry balance beams on their shoulders or perhaps just invite the U.S. Z-team. Other suggestions are welcome, but failing those, it might be better to simply appreciate the U.S. women’s gymnastics juggernaut for what it is: the greatest active dynasty in Olympic sports. For starters, here’s a number. The U.S. women won the Olympic team gold medal on Tuesday by a margin of 8.209 points over silver medalist Russia. China took third. That was not quite double the gap between the Russians and the last-place team from Brazil, which finished 4.601 points behind the silver medalists in eighth place.
No, in an artistic sport such as gymnastics, dynasties and dominance are hard to quantify. Maybe it is better to hear it from Russian veteran Aliya Mustafina. “We feel like we achieved the best,” she said afterwards. “The Americans compete with themselves.”
To be sure there were wobbles and bobbles here and there—“It was very good, but maybe, not quite perfect,” said Martha Karolyi, the U.S. program director who has built impossibly high standards for a program that has flourished under her watch. “I think this was a reflection of the training and the commitment that the girls made. If you make it in practice, the competition is not so hard.”
As expected, the best came from Simone Biles, the three-time world all-around champion, who before Tuesday had the most medals at the world championships of any gymnast in history but had never competed for an Olympic medal. In the mixed zone after the competition, Biles hugged her teammate Laurie Hernandez and jokingly said, “Laurie, did you hear we’re Olympic gold medalists?” Hernandez skipped around and answered, “You’re lying.”
It was the kind of team joviality that has made the squad so likable, and as the coaches see it, so successful. “They don’t wander around with blinders on,” said Aimee Boorman, Biles’s personal coach. “They don’t have airs or attitudes. They have so much fun together. Everyone makes everyone else better. And you see the results.”
The results were convincing from the first rotation. As they did in London four years earlier when they romped to team gold, the U.S. women built a lead on vault Tuesday that they would never relinquish. Hernandez went first and scored 15.100 followed by returning Olympian Aly Raisman’s 15.833 and Biles’s 15.933. Biles even took a noticeable hop on her Amanar vault, a round-off 2 1/2 twisting backflip, but was so far past the horse that her amplitude atoned for any imperfections in form.
On the team’s next event, the uneven bars, Biles muscled through her weakest event and scored 14.800, before Gabby Douglas and Madison Kocian, both competing in their only event of the night, put up two outstanding bars sets. Douglas, the reigning Olympic all-around champion, looked to have a second wind after two nervous outings at U.S. nationals and Olympic trials. The extra zip showed on her face and in her routine. At her best, she has the highest and most stunning reverse Hecht on the planet, and this was her best in a long time. After Douglas’s 15.766, bars specialist Kocian put an exclamation point on the rotation, scoring 15.933. Kocian has textbook lines and hit handstand positions better than anyone. “I’ve done a thousand of those,” she said later. “It wasn’t until I finished that I thought, Oh, I just did it at the Olympics and now I’m wearing a gold medal.”
No apparatus can spoil a party as the balance beam can, but Raisman, Hernandez and Biles were all solid. Biles was actually the shakiest of the three, but the wobbles were minor and the difficulty scores that each U.S. gymnast carried left significant margins for error that were never made.
With the team well ahead, the three floor routines were superb. Hernandez opened with a sassy set that pulled the crowd in Rio along with her. “I felt the little kid who started this when I was five years old patting me on the back for never giving up,” she said. At 16, the woman in her first year of senior competition still has her best gymnastics ahead of her, with difficulty upgrades sure to follow and complement her engaging personality.
Raisman followed. The defending Olympic champ on floor is now the team’s second-best on the event. Her front tumbling on her first two passes was excellent, and she followed that with a dynamite double layout and a full-in, which capped a routine full of difficulty and polish. “How many times did I go through practice telling myself, Do it like you would in Rio. Push harder. It will pay off,” she said. “That was the routine.”
And then came Biles, who seemed to tumble out of the clouds. Her signature move, the Biles, a double layout-half out is rife with difficulty and yet looks like a skip in the park. Before her score of 15.800 ultimately flashed, the team’s five members huddled and jumped for joy. “We did it together,” Biles said. “That’s what made it so special.”
And so convincing. In a sport whose placements are often determined by tenths and hundredths, the U.S. team has lapped the field for an entire quad. At the world championships in 2015, it topped China by 5.174. Biles, Douglas, Raisman and Kocian were members of that team. In 2014 in Nanning, China, they finished 6.683 ahead of second-place China. Biles and Kocian were on that squad. No team event was held in 2013, but at the London Olympics in 2012, the U.S. team, known then as the Fierce Five, topped silver-medalist Russia by 5.066 points. In 2011, the team placed 4.082 ahead of second-place Russia.
The glue that connects the gymnasts is Karolyi, who insists that she will retire at 73 after these Olympics. Before the competition, the U.S. team convened to choose a nickname, similar to the Fierce Five of 2012. They chose the Final Five, to honor Karolyi. “She cried when we told her,” Hernandez said. “Yup, Martha tears. Believe it. May not see it again.”
She could say the same for the U.S. team’s supremacy. If subsequent iterations are never this good again, it has been a commanding ride.