Sunday, January 21, 2018
Sports

Gary Shelton at the Games: Best team in U.S. women's gymnastics history emphatically wins gold

LONDON

There has never been a team like it. Not in this sport, and not from this country.

It was fiercer than the Mary Lou Retton team.

It was more athletic than Kerri Strug and the rest of the Magnificent Seven.

It was stronger than Shawn Johnson and her teammates.

And as of Tuesday night, it is the best thing that has ever happened to gymnastics in the United States.

The Americans were tough, and they were dazzling, and if you want to know the truth of it, they ran the score up on their way to winning the women's gold medal at the Olympics. They were deep, and they were energetic, and they made their runner-up rivals from Russia fall away at the sight of them.

Call them the Fab Five.

As long as there are dismounts and stuck landings, their sport will not forget them.

Pixies? Hah. These competitors were powerhouses. They started strong, and they finished strong, and in the middle, they were strong. From their opening vault, they never wobbled, and they never slipped. It was as dominating a performance as you can imagine.

For the United States, it was only the second team gold in Olympic history, and the first on foreign soil.

"They're the best team in the history of the United States," said John Geddert, a coach with the team. "No doubt about it. The (gold medal-winning) '96 team was great, but gymnastics has come so far since '96. This team is more athletic, mentally tougher, and it's deeper.

"They won by five points in a sport of tenths of a point. That's a backyard butt-whuppin'."

True, there have been more memorable individual performances. No one was perfect like Nadia Comaneci, and no one overshadowed her teammates like Olga Korbut, and no one stuck a clutch landing at the end like Strug. The team from Russia, and the bronze-winning one from Romania, had to be amazed at how little difference there was from the first American to the last one.

"In '96, that was a bouquet of flowers," said coaching legend Bela Karolyi, describing the winners in Atlanta. "This one is a team."

Want to know how dominant the United States was? Out of 12 events, it cracked 15 points nine times; that's like mid 9s in the old perfect 10 scoring system. The athletes averaged 15.25 per performance.

Individuals? If you are keeping score, Gabby Douglas' performance is a good place to start. She scored 15 points or better in each of her four events, and on the night, she contributed 61.465 points to the U.S. total of 183.596.

There is star power inside Douglas, a 16-year-old Eveready battery. By comparison, her personality left the Russian women looking grim. Of course, her performance might have had the same effect.

"She's going to be one of the best gymnasts in history," said Geddert.

Still, this was not the Gabby Douglas Show. McKayla Maroney, 16, had a terrific vault to start the night — her 16.233 was the highest American score in any event — and Kyla Ross, 15, was solid on the bars and the beam. Aly Raisman, 18, finished it up on the floor.

Then there was 17-year-old Jordyn Wieber, who went in with a little something to prove. Wieber had been the fourth-best all-around gymnast during qualifying. She was third on her team, however, and only two from each team get to compete for the individual all-around title. The U.S. team bellowed about the ruling, but it's the same rule that has been in place for the previous two Olympics.

This, then, was Wieber's Olympics, and she did a nice job of making it count. Competing in three events, she scored 45.599.

"She's a fighter," said U.S. team coordinator Marta Karolyi.

"I think I did a good job of redeeming myself," Wieber said. "The rules sometimes stink, but I think I did my part."

They all did. And that's the impressive part of this team. That, and its toughness. Wieber may have a stress fracture in her shin. Maroney has a broken toe. Did you notice? Of course not. This team has the soul of linebackers. Say what you want about a sport where the competitors are so young and so small, but these five are a fistful of grit.

There was a time, just before the U.S. team took to the beam, its third event, when the medal was still in doubt. The Russians were within striking distance if the Americans allowed the heat to get to them.

"Then we went bam, bam, bam," Geddert said. "And suddenly, their team started to struggle."

In other words, the U.S. team didn't feel the pressure; it made the opponents feel the pressure.

From now on, these athletes are the standard for gymnastics in the United States. If you are a young gymnast, they are the faces you will admire, and theirs are the posters you will hang on the wall.

They are the best their country has seen. They were golden.

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