“We wanted to be aggressive and strong and courageous, and not afraid,” said Gabby Douglas, the sweetly electric prodigy from Virginia Beach. “And we went out there, and we did that.”
After all the double-twists and double-backs, the Yurchenkos and Amanars, they were 12 for 12. A dozen taut routines on four apparatus — the vault, the chalk-slippery uneven bars, the butter-slick beam, and floor exercise — without a significant mishap, hardly a bobble. It was the best collective performance from the Americans ever, better even than that Bela Karolyi-coached 1996 squad led by Kerri Strug. Nobody else came even close Tuesday. The Russians? They trembled and shook, they wilted and they cried, and one of them nearly landed on her head. “Pffft. Crash,” said Karolyi, who was in the audience to watch his wife Martha coach this one.
There were pretty moments from other countries — little bits of wavy-armed elegance from the Chinese and Romanians — but in the end, they all slid or blundered or fell off something. Meantime, the Americans were (standing) on their apparatus.
It started with Jordyn Wieber, who just Sunday was the one in tears when she missed qualifying for the individual all-around competition, but who came back jut-jawed. In an inspired move, the Americans sent her off first in the vault. Wieber took a few deep breaths, pounded down the runway, hurled herself at the horse, and whirled through an Amanar, the world’s most difficult vault. Whap, she hit the mat with both legs firmly together and an instantaneous smile. It was a critical moment.
“To go out and stick it was amazing,” Wieber said.
“When she nailed that vault it was contagious,” Douglas said. “It was like okay, I’m going to nail this vault too.”
Next came Douglas, twirling through the air even higher for another near-perfect landing. Finally there was McKayla Maroney, the specialist in the discipline. She soared toward the rafter, whipping end over end and then landed as lightly as a leaf dropping to the ground.
“Jordyn going up first, it was important, because it got us all hyped up,” Aly Raisman said. “Having them do the vaults of their life was exciting for us.”
The rest of the meet was a steady beat of excellence, and it all led to the crescendo of Raisman’s floor exercise, which entered the pantheon of epic nail-down-a-gold-medal performances. She might easily have walked through it, played it safe. All she needed was a score of 10.3 to secure first place over the Russians. Instead she threw down a wholly committed, whirling, slam dance of a routine, catching all kinds of air and then driving her feet into the mat. “Rocking it,” said Liang Chow, Douglas’s coach.
At the finish the crowd erupted — and Raisman’s composure went. She burst into tears, clapping hand over her mouth, and then threw herself into the air one more time — into a group clutch from her teammates.
“Toward the end you could feel that Olympic moment,” Wieber said.
They made a chain of arms. Still holding hands together, they turned their chins upward and stared at the scoreboard for what they knew was coming: ratification that they had won only the second team all-around gold in the program’s history. When the numbers came, they threw their arms up in the air: 183.596 to Russia’s 178.53, an unheard-of margin of victory. For such a commanding down-the-line performance, you had to go all the way back to when the Soviets were the great empresses of the sport.
“In history, we’ve seen very, very few,” Karolyi said. “Really very seldom.”
As they stepped up to the podium, they almost swaggered. Only when the gold medals were hung around their necks, the ribbons dangling practically down to their waists, did you remember how little they were.
“It’s really heavy,” Raisman said of hers. “But it feels amazing.”
For previous columns by Sally Jenkins, visit washingtonpost.com/jenkins