By Liz Clarke
The Washington Post
© August 1, 2012
They were hailed as the Magnificent Seven, the U.S. women's gymnastics team that won gold at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. And their heroine was Kerri Strug, who sealed the triumph with a gutsy vault on an ankle so badly injured she had to hop just to stay upright.
On Tuesday at the London Olympics, America's current generation of female gymnasts staged its own display of grit. And it was a tour de force, with the U.S. women winning the prestigious team gold for the first time in 16 years and only the second time in Olympic history.
It wasn't even close.
"We just decided to go out there and be aggressive and be strong and courageous and not be afraid," Virginia Beach's Gabby Douglas said, a gold medal around her neck. "We went out there and did that. And it feels awesome to be the champions."
The Americans opened with a jaw-dropping performance on the vault and never trailed, finishing with 183.596 points to relegate the imploding Russians to silver (178.530) and Romania (176.414) to bronze.
"It's the best team of all time," U.S. gymnastics coach John Geddert said without apology.
It was difficult to take issue. As world champion gymnasts from Russia and China crumpled under the pressure, teetering wildly on the balance beam and falling face-first on the floor, the Americans were solid as granite, delivering their 12 mandatory routines without a single glaring gaffe.
Their margin of victory, 5.066 points, is unheard of in international competition. But even that didn't come close to quantifying the vast gulf between the Americans' mental toughness and that of their chief rivals, 2008 Olympic champion China, which finished fourth, and perennial powers Russia and Romania.
"There was no comparison with any other team in sturdiness and the decisive, aggressive and strong approach," brayed Bela Karolyi, the Romanian native who coached Nadia Comaneci to Olympic perfection in 1976 and masterminded the historic 1996 U.S. gold.
Douglas, the 16-year-old dubbed "The Flying Squirrel," has been nothing short of clutch these Games, and she contributed again Tuesday. Though she has struggled on balance beam all summer, with a fall the second day of the U.S. championships costing her the title, she delivered the highest score in qualifying and again Tuesday. She whipped off a series of back flips as if she were still on the ground, a look of intense concentration on her face. She had a small balance check on a leap, swaying slightly and waving her arms to steady herself, but it was a minor error.
Douglas' dream will continue, as she competes for the individual all-around title Thursday, but teammate Jordyn Wieber was devastated Sunday when she missed the cut after a subpar showing in qualifications. Wieber, the reigning world all-around champion and the Americans' most consistent performer the past two years, left the arena in tears.
To have any hope of a team gold Tuesday, the U.S. team needed Wieber to set aside any anguish or resentment she felt over being eclipsed by teammates Douglas and Aly Raisman, who'll compete for the all-around title instead. And they needed Wieber to be her rock-solid self and prove she was still world-class caliber.
Geddert, her personal coach, had no doubt.
"She had about five minutes of disappointment, and she let it cry out," Geddert said. "And then she immediately responded with, 'We've got work to do on Tuesday.' "
Still, Martha Karolyi convened the full complement of U.S. coaches Monday to go over Tuesday's starting lineup one more time, a final gut-check on whether they thought Wieber could deliver. No one flinched.
In team finals, each country must choose three of its five gymnasts to compete on each of four apparatus: the vault, uneven bars, balance beam and floor. Because all three scores count, a mistake by any gymnast hurts her team.
The United States didn't waste time putting Wieber's emotional state to the test. She led off on vault, performing what's considered the world's most difficult stunt: the two-and-a-half-twisting Amanar.
It was the Americans' "secret weapon," Bela Karolyi confided later. Only a handful of gymnasts in the world even attempt the feat, and three of them are American. Wieber got the team off to a terrific start, scoring 15.933, with only minor deductions for execution from the stunt's high start value, and her teammates exulted.
"When she went out there and nailed that vault, it was contagious," said Douglas, who went next and got even more amplitude and higher marks.
Then came McKayla Maroney, who elicited gasps with her Amanar, a high-speed blur of power and elegance as she whipped through the air as if shot from a candy-coated cannon. Maroney earned 16.233 points and was smothered in hugs by her coach and teammates. (Later, after all 24 gymnasts had competed, the Americans' vault scores ranked first, second and third).
Said Wieber, asked about her disappointment she suffered in qualifications: "On the competition floor, the pain just goes away. I really mentally have to forget about it and just do my routines."
Next came the American women's weakest event, the uneven bars. And while they didn't dazzle, they didn't have any major glitches, either. Most important, they maintained their lead and their confidence.
The balance beam was next. Again, the Americans were solid across the board, blending acrobatics with grace. There were a few wobbles; no one fell or stumbled on the dismount.
Throughout the competition, the U.S. gymnasts were so focused on their own routines and those of their teammates, they didn't notice the Russians and Chinese were short-circuiting around them.
The Russians' floor routines, once the gymnastic power's strength, were disastrous. Two of their gymnasts fell during tumbling sequences and broke down in tears. Russia's gaffes took tremendous pressure off the Americans entering their final rotation. They needed only 40.300 points - scores of 13.500 apiece - to clinch gold.
And in turn, Douglas, Wieber and Raisman delivered far more.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
For original article, click here.
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