America's Olympic gymnasts: These girls are golden


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LONDON -- The five American teenage girls already had mobbed each other, the happy tears forming as soon as Aly Raisman nailed her floor exercise routine. Still, they had to see it to believe it.

They had competed against each other all over the United States and the world for years, their dreams cruelly intertwined, knowing the eventual reality of this journey: Everybody had sacrificed equally to become elite, but not everybody could be the best individually.

Now the gymnasts wearing American red were standing in the middle of North Greenwich Arena, craning their necks toward the scoreboard hanging high above, waiting on a result that by now was only a formality. They smiled, gulped deep breaths and mixed in a giggle or two. Most importantly, for the countless little girls that would be watching back at home, they held hands, a final show of solidarity.

"This is not a lie," McKayla Maroney would say. "We're all best friends. And after this, I'll probably want to go visit each girl, and we'll go have a vacation together. That's how close we are. I love them so much."

That was Maroney's "We're going to Disney World" moment, and the beauty of it was that you could actually imagine Maroney, Raisman, Gabby Douglas, Jordyn Wieber and Kyla Ross at the Magic Kingdom together, knowing that there was a time and a place when they once conquered the world.

Early Tuesday night, in a sport normally decided by tenths of a point, Team USA stomped out the hope of the rest of the field and won by more than five points, beating the second-place Russians, 183.596-178.530.

Are they the best women's gymnastics team ever? Hard to say.

Are they the best American women's gymnastics team ever? Ask Bela Karolyi, the man who coached the 1996 American "Golden Girls," the only other U.S. team to win gold.

"This is a stronger, more prepared, united team," said Karolyi, whose wife, Marta, is the national team coordinator. "The unity of [this] team is the main ingredient.

"The 1996 team, it was a beautiful team made up of great individual athletes. Dominique Dawes, Shannon Miller, Amy Chow. But when we got them together, they were still a beautiful bouquet of individual athletes rather than a team. That made a big difference [Tuesday night]."

One of the hardest things to teach a talented young athlete is how to be a good teammate. There is so much individual glory to be had in sport, and for those gifted enough to seize it, it can become an addiction. Shawn Johnson, one of the top American gymnasts from 2008, has admitted that she didn't enjoy the team competition in Beijing as much as she could have because she was so consumed by winning the all-around.

And it's hard to blame her. Gymnasts give up everything most of their peers get to experience because they want it all on the gymnastics mat instead.

Wieber had made that decision, and it was paying off handsomely. In 2011, she won the all-around world championship. This summer, she was expected to defend that title in London. There were signs that she may be vulnerable coming in -- she finished second to Douglas at the U.S. trials -- but the expectation remained the same, especially in her mind. Wieber arrived at the qualifying round Sunday thinking that she was the best gymnast in the world.

But, problem was, one of her teammates, Raisman, had raised her game and joined Douglas ahead of Wieber. Because Olympic rules allow only two gymnasts from each of the 12 teams, Wieber is shut out from the all-around competition Thursday.

Somewhere deep down in her heart, she was happy for Raisman. But Wieber, 17, was predictably despondent Sunday as she learned a lesson that life simply isn't fair. Maybe in the future the rules will change, and the fourth-place qualifier will compete in the all-around no matter what, but those are not the rules now.

"Stupid," her coach, John Geddert, said. "Put that in capital letters."

What did Geddert do with Wieber Sunday night, back in the Olympic Village?

"Let her cry," Geddert said.

Wieber's teammates, especially Maroney and Raisman, knew they had to help her refocus in time for the team meet. They would need her to perform up to her ability in three events, so the work began immediately in rebuilding her mental state. Maroney wouldn't reveal what was said -- after all, true friends don't reveal secrets -- but it was clear the next day that Wieber was going to be fine.

That didn't stop Geddert's email from filling up with hundreds of messages asking whether Wieber could recover.

"I never doubted her for a second," Geddert said. "She didn't have a bad day in prelims. She just didn't have a great day, and her teammates did."

The answer on Wieber would come quickly. She was chosen to lead off Team USA's first event, the vault. Her 21/2 twist vault was so good she already was smiling as she landed it. Judges awarded her a 15.933, which was followed up by a 15.966 by Douglas and a spectacular 16.233 from Maroney.

Maroney competed only in the vault, and to call her a good role player doesn't really cut it. She is the pinch-hitter who is supposed to sock a home run every time up, and this time she did it on the biggest stage.

"They should rename the vault," Geddert said. "They should call it 'The Maroney.' "

Karolyi agreed with that sentiment, calling Maroney the best vaulter he has seen.

After the vault, the Americans found cruise control. They gave up some points to the Russians on the uneven bars but still led by 0.4. They stretched their lead to 1.3 on the balance beam, which meant all they needed to do was hold serve on the floor.

The Russians would make their job even easier, stumbling and falling all over themselves. Team USA needed a combined 40.31 on the floor to win and produced a 45.366.

Finally, their 183.596 would flash on the scoreboard, and they could celebrate for real. As they hugged and screamed, Katy Perry's "Firework" blared across the arena, which was interspersed with American flags and chants of "U-S-A!"

"What a night, what a night," said Liang Chow, Douglas' coach. "It's a beautiful night."

The adults could understand how special this was, this group of young women that put on a tutorial for people everywhere on the power of team. No, Wieber wasn't going to get her chance in the all-around, but she will leave London with a gold medal and a lifetime full of memories.

"I'll just look back and think of all the hard work that all five of us put in and how much of a team we were [Tuesday]," Wieber said.

"It's an incredible feeling. You dream about it ever since you were little, standing up there with a gold medal and hearing your country's anthem. It's indescribable."

olympics

J. Brady McCollough: bmccollough@post-gazette.com and on Twitter @BradyMcCollough.


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