For the last three years, the U.S. women’s gymnastics team has been using a handheld megaphone to tell the world of its greatness. Tuesday evening in Brazil, it climbed atop the Olympic mountaintop for the entire globe to hear it roar: This is the best team in the world.
Its reward? Olympic gold for a second straight Games – and in runaway fashion. The U.S. led by four points midway through the event and then outdistanced second-place Russia by 8.209 points, the equivalent to several touchdowns in a football game. Team USA ended the day with 184.897 points, Russia with 176.688 and China 176.003.
Having won team gold in 2012 at the London Games, a team that earned the name “Fierce Five,” and then the last two world championship titles, this was the coronation Team USA had long awaited, and makes it the first team to win back-to-back Olympic golds since Romania did so in 2000 and 2004. It is also the first time the U.S. team has done so.
This year’s team chose a different, but equally fitting, nickname: “Final Five.” Revealed immediately after the team final ended and gold was secured, “Final Five” was chosen for the last team that will consist of five athletes, as well as the final team to train under the watchful eye of national team coordinator Martha Karolyi. The number of Olympic team members will be reduced to four for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, and Karolyi has said this will be her final Games.
So, an appropriate name on two different levels for Team USA.
Simone Biles led the quadrennial charge on a team that featured fellow Olympic newbies Laurie Hernandez and Madison Kocian, as well as Fierce Five veterans Aly Raisman and Gabby Douglas. Four years after London, Team USA proved itself on the biggest of stages when it mattered the most.
“We had to take things one day at a time,” said Biles, an Olympic gold medalist at last having won 14 world championship medals over the last three years, 10 of them gold. “It’s unreal. When we wake up, we’re going to see it and then believe it. It’s crazy.”
How good – no, great – is this team? It’s hard to measure against history, with scoring in gymnastics having shifted away from the 10-point system a decade ago and changing even since the 2008 Olympics, when the U.S. won silver.
But the expectation was this going into Tuesday night: They would win gold – easily. How’s that for pressure?
“We’re aware how much pressure we had on us going into this night,” said Raisman, the team captain who is 22 and lovingly called “Mama Aly” by her teammates. “We use that as confidence. We’ve been doing so many competition routines in the gym at practice so that by the time you get to tonight, it just feels like a normal day. We make it look easy, but it’s not easy.”
The great Nadia Comaneci, the 1976 Olympic champion, told TeamUSA.org: “(They’re) not here just to compete, they’re here to make a statement that they’re the best in the world and that’s what they’ve done. This is the best team that we have ever seen. They’re just amazing.”
Yet they had to be their amazing selves again Tuesday night, when the team walked out and head coach Aimee Boorman felt as though the tension was a bit too high for her liking.
“They were a little more tense in the warm-up area, so I just reminded them to do what they’ve been doing in practice and really feed off the energy of the crowd and do it from a place of joy,” said Boorman. “I wanted the energy in the arena to boost them up as opposed to make them tense up.”
It did. Two days after they had gone 16-for-16 on routines in the preliminary round, they started off with three monster vaults, first from 16-year-old Hernandez, who delivered a 15.100. It was Raisman and Biles who then hit soaring, sky-scraping Amanars – the most difficult vault women compete – scoring 15.833 and 15.933, respectively, to put the Americans in the lead after the first rotation by 0.7 over Russia, 46.866 to 46.166.
The U.S. had just gotten started: Biles rocked the uneven bars, then Douglas, the reigning individual all-around Olympic champion, stuck her routine as did the reigning co-world champion on bars, Kocian. Suddenly, the U.S. led by four points.
“We went out there and had fun,” said Kocian, a bars specialist.
“I wanted to hit a good bar set and really be confident,” said Douglas, who only competed bars Tuesday. “I walked up there and said, ‘Let’s do this, let’s go.’ I wanted to make this perfect.”
Douglas and Raisman become the first women’s gymnasts from the U.S. to capture three gold medals at the Olympics, adding to their team haul from 2012 and Douglas’ all-around, as well as Raisman’s 2012 floor gold.
More importantly, the U.S. women delivered when they needed to, and between the preliminary event and finals, hit all 28 routines on the Olympic stage, something that will make them not just great in the history books, but otherworldly.
“That’s the expectation we have of them: We train so that you can hit under pressure in any circumstance,” said Aimee Boorman, who has worked with Biles for over 10 years. “If you make a mistake, then you move on to the next skill.”
There were no mistakes from the Americans, however, a team groomed by Karolyi, who has transformed the program from one of medal contention to undeterred greatness.
Raisman was steely to start off the team on its third rotation, balance beam, sticking an Arabian double dismount, coined “the Patterson” after 2004 Olympic all-around champ Carly, and then watched from the sidelines as Biles and Hernandez – who fought through evident nerves – hit 15-plus routines as well.
In the final rotation, the floor routine was a celebration of sorts, when the script had – for the most part – already written. That didn’t mean it couldn’t be the perfect ending for what had been an almost perfect two days of competition, the crowd clapping in unison along with Hernandez’s music, then chanting “U-S-A!” after Raisman hit – gloriously – sticking her final tumbling pass.
It was then that Biles walked out and delivered once again, a 15.800 that had her soaring to the ceiling and then leaping into the arms of her teammates at its completion, the arena erupting with appreciation.
“It doesn’t feel real,” said Raisman, who was winning a second consecutive team gold alongside Douglas.
“To win an Olympic team gold at my first big international event – I was too young for worlds last year – that’s insane,” added a wide-eyed Hernandez. “We work hard everyday. It’s hard to do things by yourself, but as a team you can go so far.”
It was Biles who came up with the “Final Five” team name, and when the girls told Karolyi it was a nod to her after the win, the famously stern coach broke down in tears.
“It’s hard to make Martha cry,” Raisman said, who has said she’s seen Karolyi break down just a few times in her career. “She said, ‘I know sometimes you want to go on strike … but this is why I do it, for these moments.’ Without her, this wouldn’t be possible.”
A team that has brought tears out of Karolyi? Historic.
What the U.S. did Tuesday was continue to write its place in history, a golden, shiny place with lots of sparkles (you saw their leotards, didn’t you?). It’s hard to tell if any of the sparkles themselves were gold, though that didn’t quite matter: They had Olympic gold around their necks at last.
“It’s one more big sparkle,” Douglas said, laughing. “It feels good, really, really good.”