The United States women’s gymnastics team stood in a cluster and looked up at the scoreboard overhead. When the numbers flashed on the screen, the title that had all but been conceded to them before the competition even started was official. They were champions again.
The Americans, headlined by the 19-year-old talent from suburban Houston who threatens to become the face of these Olympics, reasserted their place at the head of gymnastics’ new world order by defending their gold medal with a sterling performance at the Rio Olympic Arena.
Simone Biles finished with the highest individual scores in the vault, the balance beam and the floor exercise to spirit the US team to a record-breaking win. She had entered these Olympics already widely hailed as the most talented gymnast ever, since becoming the first woman to capture three straight world all-around championships. During a three-year run that has seen her win the all-around at each of the 12 major international competitions she has entered, no one has even approached her level of difficulty or execution.
Now she has proven her mettle on the sport’s grandest stage and the lone piece of silverware missing from her trophy case – an Olympic gold medal – is hers. By the end of the individual event finals next week she could have become the first woman to win five of them in one Games.
“It felt kind of normal,” the freakishly composed Biles said afterwards in the mixed zone. “It didn’t even feel like the Olympics because we were just so ready.”
The five-person squad – Biles, Aly Raisman, Gabby Douglas, Laurie Hernandez and Madison Kocian – produced a series of stirring, mistake-free performances to deliver on the stratospheric expectations that have become the new normal in America. Once on the outside of the sport’s Eastern European hegemony, the United States is now the lone country to have made the podium at the last seven Olympics – and they have never been better than in Tuesday’s coronation.
Four years ago in London, the United States won by 5.066 points, the biggest margin in 52 years, capturing their first team gold since the Magnificent Seven’s famous victory in 1996. This time it was even wider.
The US team, who finished with the top marks in all four disciplines, scored 184.897 to win by an eye-popping 8.209 points. Russia finished with a score of 176.688 for the silver, pipping China (176.003).
The Americans, clad in sequined red, white and blue leotards that shimmered from the back of the nearly-full 13,280-seat arena, began the night with a statement on the vault. First up was Hernandez, competing in her first major international competition, who landed a solid double twisting Yurchenko. Next was Raisman, the team’s eldest member and captain, who stuck a perfect Amanar.
Then came Biles, who soared to preposterous heights on an Amanar to earn an even higher mark of 15.933 despite a small hop at the end – a testament to the boundary-pushing, score-boosting difficulty scores that are propelling a sport forward ready or not.
Next came the uneven bars, the lone apparatus where Biles has shown glimpses of mortality, where she stuck a perfect dismount for a 14.800. She was followed by Douglas and Kocian – bars specialists both – who delivered on their only routines of the afternoon. Kocian’s score of 15.933 was a career best.
As the Americans stuck one error-free routine after another and rotated from event to event, the mistakes piled up for their rivals: Shang Chunsong missed a catch on the uneven bars and Mao Yi fell on the floor exercise for China, Great Britain’s Ellie Downie fell from the beam on an Arabian. With only three gymnasts from each team performing on each apparatus in the team final and no scores dropped, any miscue was crucial.
Raisman, Hernandez and Biles each survived minor wobbles on the beam as Martha Karolyi, the legendary national team coordinator who is retiring after Rio, leaned forward from her front row seat in the stands. When the marks were tallied after three rotations, the lead had ballooned to nearly five points.
As in London, the US team’s final event was the floor exercise. First went Hernandez, who delivered a sassy, joyful routine that had the audience clapping to the beat, giving a thumbs up as she left the floor. Raisman’s power tumbling and firm landings kept the momentum going and further electrified the crowd.
By the time Biles stepped onto the competition podium to close the show, the lead was effectively insurmountable. Yet it was as much a lean-forward moment as these Olympics have seen. When she finished her Samba-flecked routine, the team’s 12th of the afternoon without a mistake – and 28th in a row counting Sunday’s qualification – her team-mates rushed the podium and the five embraced while chants of U-S-A! U-S-A! rang from the arena’s upper reaches.
The victory had the feeling of a culmination. Douglas and Raisman, the lone survivors from the London team who become the first American women gymnasts to win three Olympic golds, will join Karolyi in retirement. Both spoke afterwards about the nickname the team self-coined during a recent grouptext – the Final Five – a nod to Karolyi’s farewell and the sport’s move to a four-person team for Tokyo 2020.
But Rio is not done with them yet. All five members of the team qualified for at least one apparatus final: Biles will go for golds in the all-around, vault, beam and floor. She will be joined by Raisman on the floor and Hernandez in the beam, while Douglas and Kocian will attempt to win medals in the bars.
“We all are in a very good spot because every time we got put up we hit our sets,” Biles said. “But anything can happen. We just have to keep going in and train. We train so hard for this. This is why we’re here.”
For the greatest team in US gymnastics history, it has only just begun.
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