Jordyn Wieber puts disappointment aside, leads U.S. women’s gymnastics team to glory

Jordyn Wieber won’t win the solo gold medal that is the crown jewel of her sport.

She had a good cry about wasting the opportunity for Olympic supremacy that is so fleeting in a sport for teenage girls who can do all sorts of magical tricks with their bodies except stop them from growing.

Then she went out and gave that denied glory to her team.

At the age of 17, when confidence can be as crumbly as a cupcake, Wieber bounced back from personal disappointment to lead the U.S. gymnastics team to a gold medal.

The U.S. women won for the first time since the Magnificent Seven clinched gold with Kerri Strug’s unforgettable sprained-ankle vault in Atlanta in 1996. In the past 16 years, the team has gone through four incarnations and coaching control was taken from Bela Karolyi and assigned to his wife, Martha.

On Tuesday at North Greenwich Arena, it was the Fabulous Five of Wieber, Gabby Douglas, Aly Raisman, Kyla Ross and McKayla Maroney that controlled the meet from start to finish, scoring a total of 183.596 points, which was a commanding 5.066 ahead of Russia. Romania finished third and 2008 Olympic champion China was fourth, 9.166 points back.

Whereas the 1996 team had exceptional individual talent, this one was a “bouquet of unity,” Bela said.

Defending world champion Wieber, a reserved and serious girl who was usurped at the Olympic trials by the charismatic chatterbox Douglas, then finished behind Douglas and Raisman in Sunday’s all-around qualification to lose her presumed spot in Thursday’s all-around final, could have injected poison into the team. She could have whined about the bruised foot that has gotten more painful over the past six weeks. She could have underperformed.

But she was the one energizing her teammates Tuesday with her clean routines, her fluid flips and long lines. She encouraged them, steadied them, showed them the way.

She kick-started the United States by opening with a 15.933 on vault, nailing the high-risk Amanar — a roundoff onto the board, back handspring onto the vault and two-and-a-half twisting somersaults into the landing. Two teammates followed by nailing their Amanars; McKayla Maroney, the world’s top vaulter, scored 16.233.

On uneven bars, the team’s weakest event, Wieber set the tone by powering through her catch and release moves like a turbine. On balance beam, Wieber served as cheerleader and the United States regained its lead.

The United States led Russia by 1.299 points going into the last rotation, and had the advantage of following Russia on floor exercise. The Russians could only manage three shaky routines, ending with a groan from the crowd when Kseniia Afanaseva botched her beautiful choreography by crashing hard. She put her head in her hands and rapped her forehead. Aliya Mustafina wiped away tears.

All that remained to be done by the United States was three floor routines with no implosions.

Douglas was speedy, agile, a bouncing ball of fire. She couldn’t stop smiling. Raisman, unflappable as the guards at Buckingham Palace, scored 15.3.

Floor had been Wieber’s downfall Sunday. On one of her tumbling runs her momentum carried her out of bounds. But on Tuesday, Wieber, sensing the moment at hand, flew like a muscled ballet dancer through her first two runs and grinned as her coach yelled, “Yeah!” She maintained her rhythm as spectators howled for a British athlete on the adjacent beam. She concluded with stunning height on her last pass. Relief flooded her face.

“When she came off, I said to her, ‘Redemption. You rock,’ ” said Wieber’s coach, John Gedderts. “She didn’t say a whole lot to me. She doesn’t, 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.

“She’s a calculator,” he said. “Nothing disturbs her. Look at her body constitution, the bones — those are Nadia’s 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 shouldn’t be penalized for depth in a sport, as was the United States, which placed three gymnasts in the top four. Nor should the world’s biggest gymnastics meet exclude the world’s best gymnasts, even if they are from a handful of powerhouses.

“That’s a final? No, that’s an invitational!” Bela said. “That’s 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 she’s out.

The Olympics occasionally tries too hard to be inclusive in its high-minded mission to promote world solidarity. It’s 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. It’s another to hold a championship without a champion of Wieber’s 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. She’s 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 wasn’t just good enough, Wieber thought. It was better. She hadn’t 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.

Related stories from Miami Herald