More than the Russians, Romanians and Chinese, the biggest challenge for the gold medal might come from how they deal with world champion Jordyn Wieber’s failure to qualify for the all-around final Sunday. She was bumped by her best friend on the very last routine.
“I’m definitely worried,” national team coordinator Martha Karolyi said. “You try to find words … what do you say? But the fact is the fact. She did her best. She was edged by her teammates.”
A heavy favorite for gymnastics’ biggest prize Wieber lost her chance with a series of uncharacteristic mistakes. She wound up with the fourth-best individual score in qualifying, but countries are limited to two gymnasts in the all-around and event finals and pal Aly Raisman and Gabby Douglas were ahead of her.
Russia’s Viktoria Komova, who was the runner-up to Wieber at last year’s world championships, is ahead of all three Americans.
The 17-year-old Wieber was sobbing as she made her way through the mixed zone, so distraught she couldn’t speak to reporters. Later on Twitter, she thanked fans for “all your love and support.”
“I am so proud of our team today and I can’t wait for team finals!!” she wrote.
It could be a historic competition for the Americans, who breezed to the top of qualifying with a score of 181.863 points and then waited to see if Russia, Romania or defending Olympic champion China could match it.
No one came close. Russia, the runner-up to the U.S. at last year’s world championships, was 1.4 points back (180.429) while China (176.637) and European champion Romania (176.264) were well behind.
“We knew the Americans were going to be up there,” said Rebecca Tunney of Britain. “They’re going to be unbeatable.”
Scoring starts from scratch in Tuesday’s team finals. The Americans are the strongest team top to bottom – if they can get their heads around Wieber’s woes.
The Americans have only one Olympic title, winning it in 1996. They arrived at the past two Olympics as world champions, only to leave without gold both times. But this team is stronger than the 2004 and even 2008 squads, and has a swagger LeBron and his buddies would appreciate.
Part of that is skill, but the Americans’ have a unique bond, too, a closeness that comes from traveling the world together for events and spending weeks at the Karolyi ranch for training, little to keep themselves entertained besides each other.
Wieber, Raisman and McKayla Maroney are so close they talk or message each other every day, no matter where they are on earth.
But a shock like this can shatter even the tightest of bonds.
“That’s what I told her. She’s going to handle this with as much class as she handled the victories. Make no excuses,” said John Geddert, the U.S. coach. “The job’s not done yet. Team USA has got a big day on Tuesday.”
Only four reigning world champions have won Olympic gold, with Ukraine’s Lilia Podkopayeva the last in 1996. If anyone was going to avoid the 16-year curse of world champions going without Olympic gold, it was going to be Wieber. She had lost only two all-around competitions – both to U.S. teammates – since 2008, and the only thing more impressive than her gymnastics was her steely composure.
But Wieber appeared vulnerable these past few months while Raisman and Douglas have been on the rise. Wieber’s troubles began on vault, when she stepped slightly out of bounds. Then there was a form break on uneven bars, followed by a few wobbles on balance beam. On floor exercise, she got too much power on one of her massive tumbling passes and had to steady herself with a step back – right out of bounds. It was only a 0.10 point deduction, but it put her squarely on the all-around bubble with Raisman, the world bronze medalist on floor, still waiting her turn.
Raisman needed less than a 15 to knock Wieber down to third place, and she got it easily – and then some. She gets such great height on her tumbling passes that you could park a Mini Cooper beneath her; and she lands them with such pinpoint accuracy you want to check her feet for glue. The crowd was grooving and moving to her Hava Nagila music, and she lit up the arena with her performance and smile.
As Raisman climbed off the podium, Douglas, Maroney and Kyla Ross greeted her with hugs. By then, Wieber had already disappeared, knowing her chance at the Olympic title had, too.
“I’m devastated for her,” said Geddert, who has trained Wieber her entire career. “Things just didn’t go her way today. It’s not that she had a bad day, it’s that other people stepped up and did better.”
The sudden shift in fortunes put a damper on what was otherwise a spectacular day for the Americans.
“We knew the Americans were going to be up there,” said Rebecca Tunney of Britain, which was in the same qualifying session as the Americans. “They’re going to be unbeatable.”
The Americans won the world title by four points last year – pretty much a runaway – and they’ve gotten even better, particularly on vault.
All four Americans do Amanars, one of the toughest vaults in the world – a roundoff onto the takeoff board, back handspring onto the table and 2.5 twisting somersaults before landing. It’s got a start value – the measure of difficulty – of 6.5, a whopping 0.7 above the vault most other gymnasts will do, and it gives the USA a massive advantage after just one event.
Even worse for their rivals, the Americans make those vaults look easy. Douglas’ toes were so pointed in the air she looked like a directional arrow while Maroney’s legs were ruler straight. Each American took a hop on their landing, but it was a minor deduction and the U.S. left the event with a score of 47.633.
Compare that to the Russians, who, despite Komova and Maria Paseka doing Amanars, still gave up 1.3 points on that one event.
They got some of it back on uneven bars, where Komova looked like a ballerina as she pirouetted on the upper bar. But the Americans also had the highest scores on balance beam and floor exercise – even with Wieber, Douglas and Ross going out of bounds.
Give Raisman some credit for that. She may not have Douglas’ elegance or magnetic smile, but she is steady and solid, and her routine on balance beam is a wonder to behold. She lands her skills with such assuredness she may as well be doing them in an open field rather than a 4-inch wide beam that’s 4 feet in the air, and there was barely a wiggle on her dismount.
Raisman scored a 15.1 or better on all but one event, and made the finals on both floor and balance beam.
“I think that we were really strong out there today,” said Raisman, the team captain. “Hopefully, we can do the same in finals.”
That depends on how well Wieber can put Sunday’s disappointment behind her.
“We will deal with that. We will try to help her as much as possible,” Karolyi said. “I would be very disappointed, too. She is reigning world champion, also U.S. champion. Today she wasn’t quite as sharp. She was very good, but not quite as sharp and the other two girls surpassed her. So we will give her all the support.
“What can you do? Sport is sport.”