‘The Final Five’: US women gymnasts are golden again
RIO DE JANEIRO — This wasn’t a competition, it was an exhibition. Aly Raisman and her sparkly friends could have done a competitive workout back at their Texas camp, Skyped it here and saved a few grand on plane fares.
The US Olympic women’s gymnastics squad was the best in the world in London four years ago and it has been by far the best since. So when the Americans creamed their Russian rivals like so much Stroganoff in Tuesday afternoon’s team final there was no need to stop the presses.
“I cried four years ago,” captain Raisman said after she and her teammates had won their second consecutive crown by more than 8 points (184.897-176.688), the biggest margin since the Russians canceled the Czechs in 1960 under a different scoring system. “I didn’t cry this time.”
In this sport of slippery fingers and wobbly knees, victory often is uncertain until the final rotation. This one was assured by the midway point when the US already was ahead by 4 points. “We are expecting to win but any time it can happen the other way,” said Mihai Brestyan, Raisman’s coach. “That’s why we are surprised in a good way, but I cannot say it was unexpected. We worked too hard for that and the kids are really good.”
If dominance is the yardstick, this is the greatest dynasty the sport ever has known. It’s not just that the Americans have won five of the last seven world team titles and seven of the last nine all-around crowns. It’s their margins. In London, the US drubbed Russia by a record 5 points. At the two global championships since then, the US beat the Chinese twice, by nearly 7 and more than 5 points. In Sunday’s prelims, the gap between them was almost 10.
Those are enormous numbers in a sport where scores are calculated to a thousandth of a point. The great 1976 Russian team that included Lyudmila Turishcheva, Olga Korbut and Nelli Kim beat the Romanians by 3-plus. The Magnificent Seven who won gold in Atlanta were less than a point ahead of the Russians.
The Americans, who qualified first and second in the all-around and put seven performers into the four event finals, could leave here with as many as 10 medals and all six golds, which would be an Olympic novelty. If the rules allowed more than two competitors per country, the US likely would have had four all-arounders and 10 eventers, including half of the balance beam field.
They call themselves the “Final Five” because this is the final Olympics with five-member teams and because this will be the final Games for Martha Karolyi, the national team coordinator whose passion for perfection has brought the Americans to the top of the world. “Every year we became better and better,” she said.
The formula was a combination of an enormous pool of girls who began Mommy & Me classes when they still were in diapers and the development program that Karolyi and husband Bela brought with them from Romania that is notable for its exceptional structure and sophistication. As soon as one Games ends, the next group of juniors heads to Houston to begin preparing for the following quadrennium.
“That’s the greatest advantage, that the young generation is exposed to the same system as the old ones,” says Karolyi. “Everything feels normal. It’s nothing new or nothing really scary or nothing so special.”
By the time the newbies arrive on the scene they’ve usually been in the pipeline for at least half a dozen years. The message to the veterans is clear: the kid who used to idolize you soon will be outvaulting you. It’s wonderful that you won a gold medal, but that was then. The eternal question for everyone is: ‘What can you do right now?”
If Karolyi had her druthers she would have picked the team after the warm-up for the qualifying round. The only member guaranteed of a place here was the winner of last month’s trials (Simone Biles). The other four were chosen behind closed doors in San Jose as soon as the event ended. When the athletes got to camp, the real competition began to see who’d be the all-arounders and who’d be the three gymnasts who’d go up on each apparatus in the team final.
Laurie Hernandez, who’d been second at the trials, figured that she might be one of the all-arounders. But Karolyi went with Biles, the reigning world titlist, with Gabby Douglas, the Olympic champion, and with Raisman, who missed the 2012 bronze on a tiebreaker, left to fight it out in the prelims, where Douglas was outpointed. When they took the floor for the final, Hernandez was up on three events and Douglas was limited to uneven bars. What can you do right now?
Bars recently has been the American’s weakest event (weak being a decidedly relative word), so Karolyi made it the focal point of the selection process. That’s where the US broke things open for good with Douglas posting a 15.766 and Madison Kocian, the team’s valuable one-trick pony, putting up a 15.933, equaling the team’s best score on any event.
That put the Americans up by more than 4 points over the Chinese, and when they got through beam with minimal wobbles, it was over. The final rotation on floor was a runway show with Hernandez, Raisman and Biles going stratospheric. Not that that was anything new.
“Martha always says just do whatever you’re doing in training,” said Raisman. “Don’t do anything more, don’t do anything less. That’s what we were thinking. We basically were just doing what we were doing the last couple of years.”
The difference this time was that there were gold medals at the end.
Raisman and Douglas, who already had a couple apiece from London, will be moving on after these Games. Biles, Hernandez and Kocian, who still are teenagers, may take a breather and come back for 2020 and Tokyo.
The door will be open for them as it was for Raisman and Douglas — but the room already will be full of new kids.