There was never any doubt that the U.S. women’s gymnastics team would win its second consecutive Olympic gold medal. The only questions were by how much, and under what nickname.
The Americans delivered two emphatic answers Tuesday night at the Rio Games, defeating Russia by 8.209 points for the largest margin of victory since 1960 and crowning themselves the Final Five, in honor of retiring coach Martha Karolyi.
The dominance on breathtaking display in all four disciplines was comparable to a 100-50 basketball score, making these gymnasts the petite version of the U.S. Dream Team. Simone Biles stands only 4-8, but her twisting flips through big air are far more impressive than Michael Jordan’s dunks.
The Final Five name the gymnasts kept secret until they made the podium is fitting. We may never again see a team so daring, deep and determined. Karolyi knew she could nurture something special from the moment she saw a young Biles launch off the vault like a rocket and 9-year-old Laurie Hernandez tightrope-walk along the edge of a sidewalk like it was a balance beam.
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The competition was devoid of suspense as the Americans opened a lead that grew and grew through vault, parallel bars, balance beam and floor exercise. The result for the nation that has been finest in the world for 10 years was practically a foregone conclusion, which was fine with Karolyi.
“We are not in theater,” the Transylvania native said in her broken English, always managing to convey her thoughts more clearly than someone with flawless diction. “I tell the girls, ‘Don’t be drama queens. We are sports people. Be strong and powerful.’ ”
This team is so good that it’s not chasing rival nations. It’s chasing perfection, and Karolyi knows that will keep her pupils chasing, for the rest of their lives, in whatever they pursue.
Karolyi and her husband, former coach Bela, prefer “sturdy girls.” The two of them are as tough as a gymnast’s calloused hands. Bela built their Texas ranch by himself. Bela’s harsh methods forced him out of the sport, but as he used to say, “Gymnastics is not golf.” Martha, the doyenne, is only slightly gentler. So she was surprised to find tears in her eyes when the team told her the name they had chosen.
“From my nature, I’m really not a sentimental person,” Karolyi said. “So I felt, ‘Oh, what is happening to me?’ ”
After 40 years in gymnastics, she will be missed, but she has implemented a system that has elevated the U.S. above Russia, China, Romania.
It’s a system that demands “you can always be a little better,” she said. Biles was dissatisfied with her wobbles on beam, as was Aly Raisman and Hernandez, so they flung themselves into their final routines on floor with a stunning show of aerial wizardry and charisma. Biles tumbled to music with a samba flavor and scored a 15.8, evoking wild cheers from the Olympic Arena crowd.
Madison Kocian did her job as specialist on parallel bars, the U.S. team’s weakest event sticking her full twisting double back dismount for 15.933. Gabby Douglas, the 2012 all-around champion, did her part with a 15.766 on bars and pep talks. She and Raisman — whose parents are famous again for their nervous pantomime of her moves from their seats — made history by becoming the first American women to repeat as Olympic team champions.
“The unity on this team is what sets it apart,” she said. “I think we were all so excited to win that we couldn’t cry. I had my waterproof mascara on in case.”
Coach Aimee Boorman said Biles was more nervous Tuesday than during Sunday’s qualification round.
“I think it hit her that now you have to nail your routines because you’re doing it for your country,” Boorman said of Biles, who has a chance to win five golds.
Hernandez, 16, was her usual hyper self, the most “spunky and animated” member of the team, as Douglas said.
“The 5-year-old Laurie was patting me on the back and thanking me for sticking with gymnastics,” Hernandez said.
The Magnificent Seven clinched the first Olympic team gold for U.S. women at Atlanta 1996, when Kerri Strug stuck her vault landing on a sprained ankle. The Fierce Five beat Russia by five points in 2012. Generation by generation, the U.S. has improved and surpassed the traditional powers. When the Code of Points opened up in 2006, U.S. coaches had a strategy for capitalizing by “adding difficulty smartly and safely,” Boorman said.
Raisman’s coach Mihai Brestyan said U.S. success comes from stronger bodies rather than the anorexic stick figures of the past.
“To do these high level skills you need to be physically strong and healthy,” he said. “You can see the Chinese gymnasts and other countries follow the old way of being thin and they are still slow to change.”
Training camps at the Karolyi ranch have been the most important key to the U.S. transformation — and are the envy of the U.S. men’s team. At the ranch, Karolyi drills her gymnasts to do enough repetitions that they are sticking dismounts even in the subconscious mind.
“They’re not nervous at meets because they know they did it thousands of times to build consistency,” Karolyi said of her formula. “It’s that auto pilot.”
The proof is in the greatest U.S. team of all time, an energetic, genuine group that possesses a maturity some robotic teams have lacked in the past.
Karolyi is ready to step aside — at least she thinks she is.
“Maybe I’ll pop in the gym,” she said. “Just to see if the girls are going in the right direction.”