When she came off, I said to her, Redemption. You rock, said Wiebers coach, John Gedderts. She didnt say a whole lot to me. She doesnt, ever.
Cameras circled the nervous Americans while the Russians sobbed.
They waited, held hands. When the official score appeared, they rejoiced, hugging each other and waving to the crowd. Those interminable hours in the gym, miles of tape wrapping their ankles and wrists, years of sacrifice it was all worth it.
Wieber, from small-town Michigan, had been hailed by Bela as the one gymnast who reminded him most of his protégé Nadia Comaneci in 30 years. He praised her strength, consistency, poker face and her sturdiness, the ultimate Karolyi compliment.
Shes a calculator, he said. Nothing disturbs her. Look at her body constitution, the bones those are Nadias ankles. She can land on one leg when everybody else would be carried off in a wheelbarrow.
She had not missed an all-around final since 2008. But she accumulated enough little mistakes Sunday to finish fourth and behind two teammates in qualifying. Only two athletes per country can advance. The rule needs revision. A country shouldnt be penalized for depth in a sport, as was the United States, which placed three gymnasts in the top four. Nor should the worlds biggest gymnastics meet exclude the worlds best gymnasts, even if they are from a handful of powerhouses.
Thats a final? No, thats an invitational! Bela said. Thats not the top 24 gymnasts. This kid got hammered by a stupid rule.
Gedderts called it an injustice. Wieber said the rule stinks. Gymnasts who finished 20 places lower than her are in and shes out.
The Olympics occasionally tries too hard to be inclusive in its high-minded mission to promote world solidarity. Its one thing to allow Saudi Arabia to send two marginal Olympians one is the only non-black belt in judo as a symbolic gesture of equality for women. Its another to hold a championship without a champion of Wiebers caliber. It dilutes the quality and credibility of the event.
Before the team competition began Tuesday, Wieber stayed by herself in an empty room, in my bubble, she said. She felt sad. Then she cleansed her mind. Mental gymnastics requires as much concentration as the physical part.
Teammate Maroney came by to give Wieber a pep talk.
Sometimes you just need a friend, Maroney said. I wanted her to know we were behind her. Shes the toughest girl out there. She can turn her brain around in two seconds.
A petite young woman lifted herself from the rubble of crushing pressure.
The team title wasnt just good enough, Wieber thought. It was better. She hadnt had a moment to feel sorry for herself during the competition and she refused to let regret drag her teammates down. By her brave and generous example, she had shown them the way to be winners.