ON THE 40TH ANNIVERSARY OF TITLE IX, FEMALE U.S. OLYMPIANS DEMONSTRATED IN POWERFUL AND UNMISTAKABLE TERMS HOW EQUAL ACCESS TO RESOURCES AND EQUAL OPPORTUNITIES TO COMPETE CAN PAY OFF ON THE PODIUM. FOR THE FIRST TIME WOMEN OUTNUMBERED MEN ON THE U.S. OLYMPIC TEAM, AND THEIR 29 GOLD MEDALS IN LONDON ACCOUNTED FOR TWO THIRDS OF THOSE WON BY THE U.S. HERE'S A LOOK AT THE DISTINCT CHARACTERISTICS THE AMERICAN WOMEN SHOWED US—IN PERFORMANCES RANGING FROM THE UPLIFTING TO THE DOWNRIGHT DOMINANT—OVER THE COURSE OF TWO HISTORIC WEEKS IN LONDON
This is an article from the Dec. 17, 2012 issue
Oozing flair, grace and poise, the Fierce Five—Jordyn Wieber, 17, Gabby Douglas, 16, McKayla Maroney, 17, Aly Raisman, 18, and Kyla Ross, 16—led from the first rotation of the team finals and won the gold medal in dominating fashion, marking the first Olympic team title for U.S. gymnasts since 1996.
The team's performance in London—in addition to team gold, Douglas won the individual all-around title, Raisman won gold in the floor exercise and bronze on the beam, and Maroney won silver on the vault—inspired an extended victory lap around the U.S. that included a 40-city gymnastics tour, appearances at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade and the Late Show with David Letterman. They rang the bell at the New York Stock Exchange and cartwheeled onto the set of Stephen Colbert's TV show just to give him a pen. The Jewish Daily Forward listed Raisman as one of the year's five most influential Jewish Americans. All-around champ Douglas appeared on the Today show with her four teammates and The Tonight Show with Michelle Obama.
The five team members are contemplating a return to the Olympics in 2016, but it won't be easy to go back to the grind of training after experiencing the spoils of celebration. "The Olympics opened up so many doors," admits Douglas. "There's no way to top this."
Kim Rhode, Shooting
An elite athlete's career can be cruelly short, but don't tell Kim Rhode, the 33-year-old who's been an Olympic regular since 1996. A perfect round in the women's skeet shooting final at the Royal Artillery Barracks, on a day in which she missed just a single clay pigeon, earned Rhode her third Olympic gold medal and pushed her through the gates of history, as she became the first American to win an individual medal in five straight Games. She won gold in the double trap in '96 and 2004 and bronze in that event in '00, plus silver in the skeet in '08.
"They all have a special meaning," she says of her Olympic appearances, "but this one was one of the most challenging and difficult for me to get to, in terms of some of the hurdles I had to overcome." Shortly after Beijing, the Perazzi MX12 shotgun she'd used for four Games was stolen from her pickup. Last year she had a breast cancer scare. (The tumor was benign.) The hardships she has endured, along with her successes, finally hit her when she was on the podium, she says. Five Games, five medals, and still the feeling never gets old.
After winning gold she was quick to mention Oscar Swahn, the Swedish shooter who won silver at the tender age of 72, back in 1920. Says a confident Rhode, "I have a few more years in me."
Claressa Shields, Boxing
One by one, members of USA Boxing's men's team fell, and from her seat inside ExCeL Arena, middleweight Claressa Shields could hardly believe it. Suddenly, the pressure to win—the burden of staving off the humiliation of becoming the first U.S. boxing program to go medalless at an Olympics—came crashing down on her. When welterweight Errol Spence lost a fight he appeared to win handily (the decision would be overturned a few hours later after the International Boxing Association's competition jury reviewed the bout), Shields went back to the Olympic Village and started to come unspooled. "I thought we were cursed," she says. "I didn't think the judges would let us win."
Showing maturity beyond her 17 years, the Flint, Mich., native locked in on her goal. "I put myself in prison," she says. "I didn't go to any other events. I focused completely on boxing." She fell behind 4--2 after the first round in the quarterfinal, only to rally and batter Sweden's 6-foot Anna Laurell in an 18--14 decision. The gold medal match was less climactic, with Shields whipping 33-year-old Nadezda Torlopova of Russia 19--12. "When I go back and watch all the tournaments I had to fight just to get into the Olympics, I want to cry," says Shields. "Winning that gold medal was something special."
When Dana Vollmer watches a replay of one of her races, she usually feels the nervous intensity all over again. But when she saw the footage of the U.S. women's world-record-breaking Olympic medley relay at the Golden Goggles awards in November, she found herself laughing along with relay mates Rebecca Soni, Allison Schmitt and Missy Franklin. "All the memories that came back to me were funny instead of intense," says Vollmer (second from right).
If there was a defining characteristic of this swim team beyond striking success—the eight gold medals (of 15 total) represented the best Olympic performance by the U.S. women swimmers since 1984—it was a spirit of sororal fun and connection. This sense of camaraderie was no accident. Serving as the first female head coach for the U.S. women, Cal coach Teri McKeever, a two-time Olympic assistant, brought different priorities to preparation than her male predecessors. "Teri has always had a unique understanding of how women process stress and anxiety," says Vollmer. "Her team meetings created a really safe place for women to be themselves."
The U.S. women felt at home in the pool, too, where one standout performance inspired the next. "It was like every day somebody said, It's my turn now," says McKeever. And so the hardware piled up, in no small part because 2012 was finally McKeever's turn.
Serena Williams, Tennis
History will recall that Williams won two gold medals at the London Olympics in women's tennis. For most of the event, though, she was playing a wholly different sport from her opponents. While they were stroking the ball, Serena was pummeling it, as though harboring a personal grudge against yellow felt. While they maneuvered around the grass of the All England Club, Serena dashed and slid. While they merely competed, she played with an imperiousness that said, Kids, get off my lawn.
In the previous month she'd won Wimbledon for the fifth time; in the subsequent one she'd win her fourth U.S. Open. But at the Olympics Serena played what may have been the most comprehensively dominating tennis of her career.
As ever, Williams's achievements came with a side order of controversy. After humiliating Maria Sharapova in the gold medal match, she unleashed a Crip Walk on the vaunted Centre Court grass. The hidebound types were quick to throw around the dis words—disrespect, disgrace, disappointment. For the rest of us it was a reminder of what we've long suspected: Serena has always conducted business on her terms, indifferent to convention, making concessions to no one. And when she's finally done, we'll forget the inane cause cél√®bres and the lapses in decorum, and simply acknowledge her as the greatest ever.
—L. Jon Wertheim
If you look only at the team results—six games, six victories—you would be tempted to say the Americans' gold medal run was a tour de force against overmatched competition. You would be wrong. Instead this team was a case study in resilience. The tone was set from the Americans' first game, when they fell behind 2--0 to France in the opening 15 minutes before storming back to win 4--2. This was not your mother's U.S. women's squad, destroying everything in its path, but it was a more entertaining one.
Consider the semifinal against Canada, one of the greatest soccer games of all time. Three times Canada took the lead through its transcendent scorer, Christine Sinclair, and three times the U.S. stormed back, twice on goals by Megan Rapinoe. There was a bit of everything that night at Manchester's fabled Old Trafford—including an unusual time-wasting call on the Canada goalkeeper that led to the U.S.'s third goal—until Alex Morgan headed home the game-winner in the closing moments of extra time for a 4--3 victory. No such epic drama was needed in the gold medal game, a 2--1 win over Japan, but that too was a comeback of sorts, as the U.S. avenged its bitter defeat from the 2011 World Cup final. Nothing came easily for these women, who showed the mettle to earn a place alongside the great U.S. teams of Mia Hamm and Michelle Akers.
Brenda Villa, Water Polo
Shortly before the last match of the 2012 Olympics, Rosario Villa pulled her daughter aside. "Regardless of what happens today, you need to be happy for what you accomplished," she told Brenda. Rosario had witnessed the disappointment after her daughter's three previous trips to the Olympics ended with silver (twice) and bronze. After the team's second-place finish in Beijing, in which the Americans gave up the winning goal to the Netherlands with 26 seconds remaining, Villa, FINA magazine's female player of the decade for the years 2000 through '09, shelved retirement plans and committed to one last chance to win gold.
Villa struggled to adjust to a new coach (Adam Krikorian took over in '09) and to an influx of collegiate players who created a generational divide on the team, and she contemplated quitting. But buoyed by the persistence modeled by her parents, Mexican immigrants who toiled in garment factories near their Commerce, Calif., home, Villa pressed on. As the team's captain she imparted the lessons of her parents to younger players such Maggie Steffens, 19, whose tournament-high 21 goals powered the team to an 8--5 win over Spain in the final. From atop the medal stand Villa understood what her mother was telling her the week before the finals: It's not all about winning. But going out on top sure feels good.
Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings, Beach Volleyball
They knew everything there was to know—how to counter an opponent's strategy on the fly, how to spot a team that was intimidated by their reputation, how to blunt the charge of young pairs who came out fired up to take them down. After more than a decade as teammates and two Olympic gold medals, there wasn't a situation on the sand that they hadn't seen before.
But two months before the London Games, their last competition before May-Treanor's retirement, the duo wasn't playing or practicing up to their own exacting standards. There was a tension that they couldn't quite identify. With the help of a sports psychologist they realized what it was: "It was the last tournament we were ever going to play together, and we were afraid of disappointing each other," Walsh Jennings (above, right) says.
The pair who knew each other like sisters had to learn one more thing about their relationship—that win or lose, neither would ever feel let down by the other. Armed with that knowledge, May-Treanor, 35, and Walsh Jennings, 34, mostly cruised to an unprecedented third Olympic gold, losing only one set along the way.
They haven't seen each other much since the Games, but they realize there's plenty of time for that. "We both know there's someone out there who will be a friend for life," Walsh Jennings says. For these wise old vets, that may be the best knowledge of all.
There is a downside to unrelenting success: 16 years after its turn as media darlings in Atlanta, the women's basketball team couldn't get journalists to show up to its games in London. The U.S. was such a heavy favorite to win a fifth straight gold medal that it seemed only off-court drama or—gasp—a loss might pique interest. But this collection of low-maintenance gym rats, led by three-time Olympians Diana Taurasi, Sue Bird and Tamika Catchings, refused to provide either.
Bulldozing opponents by 34.4 points, they extended their Olympic win streak to 41 games. "Our country has so much talent; that's what sets us apart—our ability to wear teams down and bring people in like waves," says Bird (above, right). The USA's second five could easily have started every game; indeed, the hero of the final, former WNBA MVP Candace Parker (above, left), came off the bench to score 21 points and grab 11 rebounds in an 86--50 beatdown of France.
Yet earning that fifth gold—a record in Olympic women's team sports—wasn't the carefree romp it may have appeared to be, says Bird. "I know we beat a lot of people by a lot of points, but it's emotionally taxing to try to be great for however many games you have."
That's the legacy U.S. hoops has built: For better or worse, the world will expect more of the same in Rio.