LONDON — Aly Raisman can almost feel the eyes on her as she and her U.S. gymnastics teammates finish their training session. Sure enough, she’ll look up and see a couple of heads in the doorway.
Russians, usually. Sometimes the Romanians.
“We always try and do a little better,” Raisman said with the hint of a smirk, “maybe intimidate them a bit.”
If there were any doubts the American women are the ones to beat at the London Olympics, they’ve been erased by the amateur espionage the last few days.
When the Americans opened Thursday’s podium training session with a barrage of Amanars, the high-scoring vaults that might very well decide the gold medal, a Chinese coach made sure he had a front-row seat. Russian coach Alexander Alexandrov just happened to make his way to the bathroom when the Americans were doing vault one day, and couldn’t resist stopping for a minute or two.
“They watch us, we don’t watch them,” U.S. coach John Geddert said.
Now, before the Americans are accused of being overconfident, they’ve had their London plan in mind for a while now. The gymnasts upgraded their routines months ago, and those monster vaults have been in the works for several years. If the Russians, Romanians or defending Olympic champion Chinese unveil some new tricks, there’s not a whole lot the Americans can do about it now.
The women’s competition begins Sunday with qualifying. The team final is Tuesday night.
And, let’s be honest, the Americans have earned the right to strut a little. They are, after all, the reigning world champions, beating Russia by four points last fall in a rout.
Jordyn Wieber is the world all-around champion, and her only two losses since 2008 have been to American teammates. McKayla Maroney won the vault title at worlds, while Raisman took home a bronze on floor exercise and was fourth in the all-around. Gabby Douglas upstaged Wieber at the Olympic trials, and her uneven bars performance is a better show than anything those circus acrobats can do.
“To me, it doesn’t make a difference what they’re doing if we do what we do,” said Geddert, also Wieber’s personal coach. “We’re not going to change anything because they’re doing something else. We’re going to do what we do.”
Despite winning three of the last five team titles at the world championships, the Americans have won only one Olympic gold medal, and that was back in 1996 with The Magnificent Seven. But this is the deepest team, top to bottom, the U.S. has had since Atlanta, and those show-stopping vaults could give the Americans a decisive advantage.
The Amanar is worth 0.7 points more than most other gymnasts’ vault. Execution scores still have to be factored in, of course. But assuming each American does an Amanar in team finals, where three gymnasts compete on each event and all three scores count, the U.S. could build a sizable lead over Russia, Romania and China with just one event.
“We’ve been working so hard on them, and it shows we really want this,” Raisman said. “It’s a huge advantage.”
So is their attitude.
Rather than curling into a ball or hiding in a corner, the Americans have embraced the attention and the expectations. They thought it was cool to make the cover of Sports Illustrated’s Olympic preview, and they’ve spent more time with Ryan Seacrest than those celebs angling for judging gigs on “American Idol.”
They take the spying as a compliment — those who acknowledge noticing it, that is. They even managed to steal the spotlight from that gaudy floor at the O2 Arena, showing up to podium training with leotards that were, if you can imagine, an even brighter shade of pink.
Don’t let their flashy fashion fool you. The Americans’ focus remains on an entirely different color: gold.
“We’re like soldiers,” Maroney said. “We just come to get the job done.”