Team unity trumps all for gold-winning gymnasts

On Sunday, the U.S. women's gymnastics team stood apart, separated by surprising individual results that threatened to derail a quest for Olympic gold.

Tuesday, the five teammates stood side-by-side, united by the medals that hung around each of their necks.

It was no longer Jordyn Wieber, Aly Raisman, Gabby Douglas, Kyla Ross and McKayla Maroney.

It was Team USA -- Olympic champions.

Not that it ever wasn't.

"I think we're as close as we can already be after this whole experience," said the 16-year-old Maroney. "We've been through world (championships) together and I've known Kyla since I was six years old.

"This is not a lie. We're all best friends."

Perhaps we were all being overdramatic as we feared cracks in the foundation following Sunday's qualifier, when Raisman pushed her best friend Wieber out of the running for all-around gold. Raisman notched the second-best score and Douglas was third, while Wieber, the reigning all-around world champion, still had an excellent day and finished with the fourth-best score. However, rules state that only a max of two gymnasts can compete in the event from each country.

Complain about the rule all you want -- many did, including the former coach of the 1996 gold-medal winning team from the Atlanta Games, Bela Karolyi, who reiterated on Tuesday he felt it was a "stupid rule." But the fact remains that the rule is in place and had been prior to these games. Maybe it will change, maybe it won't. It matters little right now.

What matters is that the tight-knit group pulled together and won just the second women's team gold medal ever, and first on international soil.

Karolyi said it was their closeness, coincidentally, that set them apart -- even from his '96 club.

"This was a united team working together, living together, fighting for each other, and that showed tonight," he said after the team held off Russia to win gold. "By the time the other team started to shake and finally they fall apart, this team stayed solid and sturdy all the way to the end."

Karolyi, whose wife Marta is the U.S. national team's coordinator, was asked how this team stacks up to the Atlanta group. He put credit on the fact that this team has been together as a unit longer.

"This is a stronger, more prepared, united team. The unity of this team is their main ingredient," he said.

"The '96 team was a beautiful team, made up from great individual athletes. Dominique Dawes, Shannon Miller, Amy Chow, all these great kids, but they were trained in so many different ways. When we got them together, they were still a beautiful bouquet of individual athletes rather than a team, and that made a big difference tonight."

When Wieber left the arena floor on Sunday, she was in tears. The 17-year-old was all smiles on Tuesday, both when the competition began and after she pulled off an impressive vault as the first competitor to kick off the event.

The girls all took the right approach following Sunday's disappointment for Wieber, who wanted to get through the emotions on her own. Some words were said, pep talks given. Raisman, Wieber's best friend and roommate, may have handled the situation the best.

"I just tried to act like nothing happened because I wouldn't want to be treated any differently. It makes it worse when you feel like people are tying to be extra nice to you," said the team's 18-year-old captain. "We were just kind of all there for each other. I tried to get everyone pumped up and excited because we've been working so hard and we definitely knew that we could do it."

And so they did. If 1996 was any indication, none of these young gymnasts' lives will ever be the same. The talk-show circuit and Wheaties boxes and national tours will come.

And along the way, the "Fab 5" is sure to help spawn the next generation of gymnasts. Fitting, seeing as the motto of the London Olympics is "Inspire a generation."

"I would hope that we will be able to inspire a generation," said Wieber, who has gone through the highs and lows in a quick 48 hours. "I know that we all had role models. We all sacrificed a lot, but it's been worth it to become gold medalists."

Tough to find better inspiration than that.