One giant leap for Team USA gymnasts

  • Article by: RACHEL BLOUNT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 1, 2012 - 7:57 AM

The American women performed dazzling routines under pressure, pulling away for their first team gold medal since 1996 in Atlanta.

LONDON - With one event left to go Tuesday afternoon, the U.S. women's gymnastics team formed a tight circle on the floor of North Greenwich Arena. Despite the pressure-filled situation -- a lead of a little less than two points on the Russians, with the Olympic gold medal at stake -- team members kept the message simple.

"Just go in there and enjoy it and have fun," Aly Raisman said. "Because you would remember this for the rest of your life."

They ensured history will, too. The U.S. women won their first Olympic team gold since 1996 and their first ever outside their home country, blowing away Russia by more than five points. That final event, floor exercise, turned into a victory dance for Raisman, Gabby Douglas, McKayla Maroney, Kyla Ross and the star-crossed Jordyn Wieber, who rallied in grand style from the disappointment of the qualifying round.

As the Russians crumbled, the Americans shined. Douglas, Wieber and Raisman finished it off with a trio of exuberant floor routines to stretch their winning margin to 5.06. The U.S. won with 183.596, ahead of Russia (178.530) and Romania (176.414).

The U.S. set the tone for the afternoon immediately, rolling up a huge score on vault punctuated by Maroney's difficult, dazzling Amanar. They hit each of their 12 routines, leading Martha Karolyi -- the coordinator of the U.S. women's program -- to declare them the greatest women's gymnastics team in U.S. history.

That was no small statement. Her husband, Bela Karolyi, coached the Magnificent Seven, who won gold in the 1996 Atlanta Games with Kerri Strug's dramatic vault. That was a beautiful team of individuals, Bela Karolyi said. This one is joined by a single steel backbone, forged through the years devoted to a single goal and to each other.

"It's an incredible feeling, something you've dreamed about since you were little," said Wieber, who was a favorite to win the all-around title before failing Sunday to qualify for the finals. "Standing up there with the gold medal, hearing your country's anthem, it's just indescribable.

"I'll look back and think of all the hard work all five of us put in, and how much of a team we were today, how we all cheered for each other. It was a team effort."

The gold was only the second in Olympic history for the U.S. women's team, which has been building toward it since 1999 -- when the Karolyis instituted the training system credited with making it the most consistent team in the world. Since 2000, the U.S. has won 60 Olympic and world championship medals, nearly twice as many as Russia, its closest competitor.

The country's best gymnasts assemble for frequent training sessions at the Karolyi ranch outside Houston, where they live together in cabins and their coaches work together as a group. All those coaches were on the sidelines Tuesday in London, pumping their fists, hugging their gymnasts and leaping nearly as high as the athletes.

Maroney had one job Tuesday: to perform the world's best vault flawlessly. She caught big air off the vaulting table and stuck the landing for a score of 16.233, immediately sending a signal that the afternoon would belong to the Americans.

The U.S. never trailed, posting the highest score on three of the four events. Their routines were nearly perfect, each one ending with a group hug and a slew of high fives and fist pumps. Wieber shook off her disappointment and earned the day's third-highest score on vault and fourth-highest score on floor, fulfilling her desire to come through for her team.

Martha Karolyi expected nothing less, knowing Wieber is a fighter. That same strength defines all five teammates, she said. When they earned the top score on balance beam with three assured, elegant routines, Karolyi said she knew the medal was in their hands.

So did Bela, in part because of what he saw behind them. The Russians began to wobble on the beam, and he sensed they were on the edge.

"The moment they started to shake," he said, "I knew they were going to go down."

They did, landing with a thud on floor exercise. Anastasia Grishina botched two landings on her tumbling passes and wept in her coach's arms. Kseniia Afanaseva under-rotated one of her landings and fell to her knees.

Karolyi also knew the Americans would not fold. At the ranch, Martha routinely created the same kind of environment, pumping in crowd noise and putting her gymnasts under extreme pressure. That was designed to prepare them just for this moment.

They proved how well it worked with their joyful floor routines. Raisman and Wieber said they were stunned by the five-point margin. Bela Karolyi beamed. And Martha Karolyi let her tears flow, for herself and for her team.

"It's a fantastic feeling, overwhelming," she said. "Certainly we had this in our mind, but we never spelled it out. We always said we were fighting for a place on the podium, but certainly, you would like to get on the highest step. And it happened."

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