RIO DE JANEIRO — The U.S. women gymnasts flew through the air performing those gasp-inducing twists and tucks and double flips only to land gentle as leaves floating to the ground. Find another set of athletes in these Olympics who will mount such an exhibition of power, exactitude and danger as Simone Biles, Aly Raisman, Laurie Hernandez, Madison Kocian and Gabby Douglas did in winning the Olympic team gold medal. Find anyone to rival their athletic thunder. You can’t do it.
Men’s basketball? Nope — they’ll catch plenty of air, but it’s not nearly as imperiling, small risk of falling upside down on their heads. Platform divers? Close, but they’ve got a whole pool to land in, as opposed to on a single bar or plank of wood. “It’s the hardest sport in the world, and we make it look easy,” Biles said afterward.
Some of what they did was so scarifying, it made you throw an arm over your eyes. So it was no wonder that while their bodies were so pliant and expressive, their faces were set and stoic as a set of marble heads for most of the competition. They were in total command from the opening vault, and with every bar and beam, they built toward the largest winning margin since 1960, yet the sheer jeopardy of their routines demanded total concentration. It was only when that piking, swiveling aerialist Biles completed her final tumbling pass in the floor exercise that their arms finally went up in triumph and their mouths opened with elation.
“It was a good overwhelming,” Biles said.
They performed 12 routines across four apparatus, without one significant mistake. There were just a couple of brief shoulder-rockings on the balance beam, that was it. There were just two scores in the 14-point range, everything else was 15 and higher.
What ephemeral champions these women gymnasts are, but what a monument the USA program has built under 73-year-old coach Martha Karolyi, who is retiring after this Olympics. Karolyi’s methods have been questioned at times as unduly grinding and potentially spirit-breaking, but American women haven’t lost a major international competition in six years and have collected 89 medals and counting, and this team was clearly appreciative of her. They dubbed themselves the “Final Five” in tribute to the coach with schoolteacher spectacles who demanded they perform every little motion with the rigor of algebra, and dedicated their performance to her.
“Coming in here, we just expected to do what we’ve been doing,” Hernandez said.
The five-hour practices and the training camps were devoted to perfecting the tiniest details until nerves were not a question. “When you’re not precise, you make mistakes,” Karolyi told Texas Monthly recently. “That makes you nervous, which leads to even more mistakes.” The training sessions and “pressure sets” grooved their routines that the medal competition almost felt like another rehearsal to them once it got underway. “Marta works for every little detail, and that’s what sets us apart,” Kocian said.
Still, it wasn’t nearly as easy as they made it look. If they hadn’t been so thoroughly practiced, they might have felt the pressure. They were massive favorites to take the gold, but the sheer difficulty of their routines also meant they courted potential disaster. Only two of them, Douglas and Raisman, were Olympic veterans, the rest were making their first appearances and had moments of feeling the anxiety. “It’s the Olympics, but if you think about it, your brain’s going to fall out, you’re going to freak out,” Biles said after a practice session here.
The 19-year-old Biles admitted she didn’t sleep especially well on the night before the team final. “I had some weird dreams,” she said. When she finally woke up, she thought, “It’s finally here, and it going to come so fast.”
Hernandez, just 16, had to lead off the entire competition with her first vault. As she half glanced around at the arena she thought to herself, “Oh my goodness, we’re in the Olympics.”
But she pulled herself together with “a lot of self talk.” Karolyi told them, “I have my trust in you,” and Hernandez raced down the runway and confidently sailed through the air into a handspring and difficult twist and neatly touched down for a score of 15.1. They were off, one after another, pinwheeling through the air and then sticking their landings so emphatically into the mats. “Just hitting routine after routine, that kept it going,” Kocian said.
When Biles finally completed her floor routine, she sprinted into the arms of her teammates, and the emotions finally came. “I haven’t found the word yet,” Biles said. “I need a dictionary.” Finally they broke their clench, and together they made one last collective leap. This time it was just a simple hop onto a platform to accept the crowd’s ovation.