Published July 13, 2012
After stockpiling more precious metal than a jeweler over the last decade, the American women have gotten a little picky.
Bronze really isn't their color, and they had their fill of silver in 2004 and 2008. No, they'd prefer something brighter and shinier from the London Olympics, similar to those gold medals they brought home from last fall's world gymnastics championships.
"Every year, we get so much stronger," reigning world champion Jordyn Wieber said. "We did so good at worlds, but I think this team is even stronger than that. I'm really excited that we have a lot of potential to win the gold medal in London."
With a whopping 59 medals in international competition since 2001, the U.S. women are on a run not seen since the breakup of the Soviet Union. They won the world title in 2003, 2007 and 2011 and, including Wieber, have produced four of the last six all-around champions. At last year's worlds, the Americans claimed half of the six titles available, and there could be a similar gold rush in London.
The Americans have won only one Olympic team title, way back in 1996 with the Magnificent Seven. They have gone to each of the last two Olympics as the world champion, only to come up a step short on the podium.
They have every reason to believe, however, that London will be different.
"If I would say it honestly, yes, U.S. wins the gold. U.S. wins the gold as a team. Definitely," said Bela Karolyi, whose wife, Martha, is the national team coordinator. "They're a fabulous team. A fabulous team."
Previous teams weren't exactly slouches, particularly that Beijing squad with Nastia Liukin and Shawn Johnson, who finished 1-2 in the all-around and needed a wheelbarrow to get all their medals home. But this team is more balanced, and stronger top to bottom than rivals Russia, Romania and China, the reigning Olympic champion.
The stars, of course, are Wieber and Gabby Douglas, whose dazzling rise in the last six months has made for a compelling -- and surprising -- rivalry, a la Liukin and Johnson. Wieber, much like Johnson, is powerful and unflappable, with no real weaknesses. She took down then-world champion Aliya Mustafina of Russia in her very first competition as a senior, and has lost only two all-around competitions since 2008, both to American teammates.
"She reminds me very much of Nadia, to be honest," Bela Karolyi said. "This is the first one that is closest to her. The body and the mind. That fight, that strong performance. When she's in trouble, she never gives up."
Douglas combines Johnson's vivacious personality and Liukin's gorgeous lines, a gymnast who makes everything look effortless and light. After making last year's world team on the strength of her acrobatic uneven bars routine -- Martha Karolyi has dubbed her the "Flying Squirrel" -- Douglas emerged as an all-around threat at the American Cup. That's where she actually beat Wieber, though her scores didn't count because she was competing as an alternate.
Douglas finished a close second to Wieber at the U.S. championships, and again the first night of Olympic trials. But big scores on uneven bars, floor and vault pushed her past Wieber for the trials title, and the results are sure to motivate both as each tries to become the third straight American to win the Olympic all-around title.
"It pushes us to do greater and better things," Douglas said. "You just see, `Oh, she did that routine. I've got to do this, I know what I've got to do and I've got to do it better.' It kind of gets us into that mindset. That's when the show really starts to begin. `Oh, Jordyn did a nice routine but Gabby over here, she's killing it! Jordyn over there, she's fired up and Gabby over here, she's getting it!' That's what competition is about."
But, as the Americans learned in 2008, the supporting cast is every bit as important as the headliners. Three gymnasts compete on each event in team finals and all three scores count, meaning even one weak routine can be the difference between the Americans singing the national anthem and pretending to look happy while they listen to someone else's song.
With steady Aly Raisman, world vault champion McKayla Maroney and up-and-comer Kyla Ross, however, the Americans have the potential to score 15s or better across the board in team finals. Compare that with last year's world championships, where the Americans had just three scores of 15 or above -- and still won by a whopping four points. Or this year's European championships, where Romania won despite only one score above 15.25.
"Just by looking at the scores, you can tell we've all been working really hard," Wieber said. "We're going to be tough to compete against in London."
Uneven bars, long the U.S. weakness, has been shored up, with Douglas and Ross both capable of monster scores.
"Gabby Douglas probably has one of the best routines out there," Martha Karolyi said. "Some people may have higher difficulty values on their routines, maybe one or two tenths. But Gabby's execution, I feel, is the best in the world."
And what about the rest of the world?
Russia appeared unbeatable in 2010, with Mustafina running roughshod over the world championships. She led Russia to the team title, its first at a major international competition since the Unified Team won at the Barcelona Games, claimed the all-around title and won silvers on vault, uneven bars and floor exercise. Add in inaugural Youth Olympic Games champion Viktoria Komova, and it's no wonder folks at the O2 Arena were keeping a Russian flag and national anthem handy.
But injuries have left the Russian team a hobbled mess. Mustafina blew out her knee at the 2011 European championships, and has shown only flashes of her ruthless brilliance since returning to competition last fall. Sure, she scored an eye-popping 15.833 on uneven bars at this year's European team finals, but that came after she botched all three of her events in prelims.
Komova has been slowed by a nagging ankle injury and inconsistency, falling off balance beam at Europeans just as she did at worlds. Anastasia Sidorova, a member of the European team, is out with a back injury. Anna Dementyeva, who won the 2011 European title after Mustafina was injured, has been struggling to adjust to a growth spurt.
Despite those pink "2012 champion" T-shirts the Chinese wore at last year's worlds, the defending Olympic champions are also in a bit of disarray. A distant third at worlds, they have since lost captain Cheng Fei to a torn Achilles, and have been unable to settle on their fifth team member.
Then there's Romania. Written off after poor performances in Beijing and the last two world championships, the Romanians jumped back into the mix with a surprise win at Europeans. They are bolstered by the return of triple Olympic gold medalist Catalina Ponor and the emergence of Larisa Iordache, the latest Romanian to be crowned the "New Nadia." But they also have consistency issues, and are scrambling to try and match the Americans' difficulty.
"We have sent out a message to tell the world that we are the best team, shooting for the gold. Look at my bumps when I say that," said Liang Chow, who coached Johnson and Douglas, holding out his arm to show the goose bumps. "But I'm sure Russia and Romania and China will not be automatically giving their hands up. We have to go after it."
On the men's side, London may bring an end to the Chinese dynasty.
China has been on top of men's gymnastics for much of this century, winning five straight world titles as well as the gold medals at the Sydney and Beijing Olympics. For much of that time, the Chinese had the meet won simply by getting off the bus. They were that much better than everyone else and not only did the competition know it, they freely admitted it.
But China looked -- dare we say it? -- vulnerable in winning the world title last fall. The Chinese finished qualifying behind Japan and the U.S. men, the first time since the Athens Olympics they had finished anywhere but first in any phase of a major competition. The reduction in team size, from six to five, figures to hurt China most, putting more of an emphasis on all-arounders, something the Chinese lack.
"It will be extremely hard for us to defend the team event title this time," Chen Yibing, the Olympic gold medalist and four-time world champion on still rings, said in a May story in China Daily. "We lack the all-around talent now, so everybody has to dig deeper and try to make up for each other's weak event."
Or pass the torch to somebody else.
Silver medalists in Beijing -- albeit very distant ones -- and runner-up at the last four world championships, the Japanese are led by the otherworldly Kohei Uchimura. Stylish and precise, Uchimura has dominated men's gymnastics so thoroughly since Beijing the debate is no longer whether he belongs on the list of the sport's greatest, but where. First? Third? Eighth? Does he get bonus points for that fabulous Beatles-like mop top?
Uchimura has won three straight world titles, and even his rivals -- though that term is used loosely -- acknowledge they're chasing silver and bronze unless something stunning happens. Uchimura, however, insists he doesn't care about upgrading his all-around silver from Beijing. It's the gold in the team competition that consumes him.
"I'm fed up with being second in the team event," he said this spring. "The team is a special event, and winning it is in many ways more rewarding than the individual event."
That's how the U.S. men feel, too.
The Americans have been insisting for years they can make a run at gold and, for the first time since 1984, they might just have the goods to back up the big talk. The Japanese sure seem to think so, sending a scouting party to this month's Olympic trials.
"I think this is clearly one of the best teams we've ever, ever fielded," said Peter Vidmar, a leader of the '84 Golden Gang who is now chairman of the board at USA Gymnastics.
It starts with talent. Jonathan Horton has two medals from the Beijing Olympics, and Danell Leyva gave the U.S. men their first world title since 2003 last fall with his gold on parallel bars. John Orozco, Leyva and Horton had three of the top five qualifying scores at worlds on their way to the bronze medal. Jake Dalton, also a member of that world team, has the precise lines and polished elegance that international judges love.
And the lone newcomer, Sam Mikulak, is a precocious phenom who might wind up being the best of the bunch.
More important, however, is how the Americans are using that talent. For years, they were the indoor equivalent of the X-Games kids, packing their routines with the toughest tricks they could find. It was amazingly cool when they pulled them off. Too often, however, they didn't.
But the Americans have matured. Oh, they still have some of the slickest skills around -- Need an adrenaline rush? Catch Leyva's high bar routine on YouTube -- but the cover-your-eyes-and-hide-the-children uncertainty is gone.
"I don't think we've toned down how crazy our gymnastics is, but I think we've made it look better," Horton said. "We've really polished and cleaned everything up. We've fixed the rhythm of our gymnastics. It's minor details that have made big differences for us."
So, too, their mindset. The Americans have bought into the team concept, every single one of them. As proud as Leyva was to stand on top of the podium last year, he knows it could not compare to doing it with his teammates.
"Simply put, I think we have the talent, we've got the ability, we have the routines and the start values. The intangible part of it is we've got the spirit," Horton said. "Every single one of these guys knows how to rise to the occasion. When we compete under enormous amounts of pressure, something special happens and we've all proven it.
"We just know that we have the same level of difficulty as any other team out there. Now we just have to go out and have a good time and showcase what we're actually capable of."
The sentimental favorite in London will be the British, naturally.
Four years ago Britain was barely an afterthought in gymnastics, with Louis Smith giving the country its first medal in nearly 100 years with his bronze on pommel horse. But the British have become a budding powerhouse since then, making regular appearances on the podium at the world championships and qualifying full men's and women's teams to an Olympics for the first time since 1984. This spring, the men won their first European title.
There's been such a dramatic shift in their fortunes that not only could the British win multiple medals in London, led by Smith and three-time world champion Beth Tweddle, it will be a disappointment if they don't.
"I'm not sure anyone ever expected such rapid development, and it's such a positive thing for everyone involved in the sport," Smith said. "Now we have a chance to really show how far we've come."