LONDON — 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.
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.
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 a tearful 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. “That was absolutely a huge difference between them and particularly the Russian team.”
In a way, this U.S. gymnastics team was playing hurt Tuesday every bit as much as the Magnificent Seven was entering its final rotation in 1996. But unlike Strug’s shredded ankle, Jordyn Wieber’s injury was hidden from view. It was a shattered dream.
Wieber, the reigning world all-around champion and the Americans’ most consistent performer the last two years, missed the cut for the individual all-around competition after a subpar showing in Sunday’s qualifications. It brought a devastating end to something she’d worked for since she started gymnastics at 4, and she left the arena in tears.
To have any hope of a team gold on Tuesday, the U.S. team needed Wieber to “turn the page,” as U.S. team coordinator Martha Karolyi calls it. They needed her to set aside any anguish or resentment she felt over being eclipsed by teammates Gabby Douglas and Aly Raisman, who’ll compete for the all-around title instead. And they needed her 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 felt 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 them 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 followed 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 importantly, 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 her 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, needing only 40.300 points — scores of 13.500 apiece -- to clinch gold.
And in turn, Douglas, Wieber and Raisman delivered far more.
“We just decided to go out there and be aggressive and be strong and courageous and not be afraid,” Douglas said later, a gold medal around her neck. “We went out there and did that. And it feels awesome to be the champions.”
Photos: All the highlights from Day 4
Photos: U.S. women win gymnastics gold
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