They are the greatest! U.S. are best women's gymnastics team ever
RIO DE JANEIRO -- Martha Karolyi, the U.S. women's gymnastics national team coordinator since 2000 and overseer of the American Olympic team's transformation into a world power, is an exacting taskmaster. She talks about perfection as if she's never heard the axiom about perfection being the enemy of good.
But Tuesday, even Karolyi, a woman with 54 years in the sport, had to admit -- after the American team defended its 2012 team gold medal in a rout of Russia and third-place China on Tuesday at Rio Olympic Arena -- that she could find little fault with this squad.
This five-woman group is the best women's gymnastics team that has ever been.
"I would have to say yes," Karolyi said, knowing that the Americans' 8.209-point victory over second-place Russia was the largest in an Olympic women's team final since the Soviet Union defeated Czechoslovakia by 8.997 points at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome. But the USSR's margin comes with an asterisk: Back then, six athletes' scores were counted in each event, and the degree of difficulty can't compare to what female gymnasts do today.
So when the American team's gold medal was finally won Tuesday, in the most impressive way possible, the 73-year-old Karolyi -- who has announced that she will retire after these Games -- burst into tears when the gymnasts told her they had adopted the nickname "The Final Five," partly as a way of honoring her.
"It's hard to make Martha cry," said 22-year-old Aly Raisman, the captain of the team, who has said that she can feel Karolyi's demanding presence in the gym before seeing her.
Laurie Hernandez, the 16-year-old baby of the U.S. team, said the team's search for something to replace "The Fierce Five" nickname of the 2012 gold-medal squad started with a text chat among all five members of the U.S. team -- three-time world champion Simone Biles, Hernandez, Raisman, Gabby Douglas and Madison Kocian -- after they survived the U.S. Olympic Trials last month to earn their spots in Rio.
"I think [the final pick] was Simone Biles' idea," Hernandez said.
Karolyi said when the team sprang it on her after their final event Tuesday, it was only the second time in her gymnastics career that she cried. The first, she said, was when Nadia Comaneci and the Romanian team that she and her husband, Bela, coached dominated the 1976 Summer Games in Montreal. Five years later, Martha and Bela sought asylum in the U.S., and beginning with Mary Lou Retton, their first U.S. champion, the American program has never been the same.
"I am not a sentimental person. I am known as a very tough person," Martha told a crowd of reporters Tuesday, laughing along with everyone else at the enormous understatement. But once the tears started, Karolyi said, "I was like, 'What is happening to me?'"
Biles said, "It was so cute. She told us, 'See? This is why I made you do all of those repetitions in the gym all these years.'"
Numbers can sometimes seem like a dry way of making a case for best ever at anything in sports. When it comes to greatness, it's often anecdotal evidence or images in the mind's eye that we remember more.
But by any measure --- the scores, the eyeball test, the consistently spectacular routines these five women threw out, the amplitude of the skills they perform, their imperviousness to pressure -- it's easy to make the case that this team is the best women's team ever assembled. This was such a total domination that by the halfway point of the event, the U.S. was competing only against itself. It was Them vs. What's Possible, Them vs. Perfection, just as Karolyi had always preached.
This is how they responded: They went a perfect 12-for-12 on their routines, without a notable bobble. They posted the winning team score on all four events.
We believe success comes from not only doing well for yourself but for your team.Simone Biles
"I heard we still would've won [the gold] if we had a couple falls, but it's still better when you have that magical moment of hitting 12-for-12," Raisman said.
But the 12-for-12 wasn't the most impressive thing about this romp. Someone calculated that if Biles' four scores, which easily qualified her first for the individual all-around event on Thursday, were removed from the American team's total and replaced with the fourth-best American scores in Sunday's qualifier, the U.S. still would've won the gold medal. The margin would've been "just" two points, instead of the mind-blowing 8.2. That is beyond remarkable.
Also noteworthy is that Douglas and Raisman became the first American women to repeat as Olympic team champions. Biles and Raisman could now go 1-2 in the all-around competition, and Kocian, the reigning world co-champ on bars, is a favorite to win gold when the individual events are held.
Biles, a powerful 19-year-old with an old soul and bone-dry sense of humor, finally has her first Olympic gold medal in her first try to add to her three world all-around titles and four U.S. national championships. Just as significantly, everything she did Tuesday augured well for the likelihood that she'll win the individual all-around as expected. Her soaring performances on the floor exercise and vault in particular drew gasps from the crowd.
Karolyi said one of Biles' "sky high" tumbling passes on the floor "was the best tumbling pass I've ever seen in women's gymnastics."
"But I'm pretty sure if she [Karolyi] sees anything start to crack on the team, she'll be back" out of retirement, Biles said with a mischievous smile.
Karolyi insisted not so. Then she allowed, "I might take a peek in the gym now and then" when the national team returns to the ranch just north of Houston that she and Bela own for the monthly training sessions that were also the Karolyis' idea.
In hindsight, the Karolyis' ability to push through their idea of a semi-centralized U.S. system that has allowed the national team members to train at home most of the time but reconvene five or six days a month at the ranch, which is now an official national team training site, was the flash point that started this all.
Once there, gymnasts are required to perform "pressure sets" with Karolyi and a team of evaluators watching them. Their personal coaches come along to the camp, which sparked an unprecedented level of cooperation and an exchange of ideas, rather than the club vs. club mentality that used to prevail. As Karolyi has often said, it doesn't hurt that the gymnasts get to look at what their competition is up to and then say to themselves, "Uh-oh, this one over there is gaining on me." Or "I better get stronger at this."
In the end, perhaps the most remarkable achievement is how everyone -- the gymnasts, their coaches, Karolyi herself -- bought into the idea of subjugating individual ambitions for the good of the group.
Bela Karolyi has said that under the old U.S. system, the clubs created "only queens of their own little gyms" who "collapsed" when they faced the rest of the world. Those days are gone.
"We believe success comes from not only doing well for yourself but for your team and then putting a lot of hard work behind that," Biles said Tuesday. "We all support each other. We all get ready together. We're like sisters. ... And I think we'll share a bond forever."
Why not? For now and until further notice, they're the best there has ever been.