LONDON — The U.S. women were atop the Olympic gymnastics standings, as expected, with little standing in their way — except themselves.
More than the Russians, Romanians and Chinese, the biggest challenge for the gold medal may come from how they deal with world champion Jordyn Wieber losing out on the all-around event Sunday and how she lost it — 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.”
Considered a heavy favorite for the individual all-around title — plus the attention and riches that go with it — Wieber instead lost her chance with a series of uncharacteristic mistakes. Countries are limited to two gymnasts in the all-around and event finals, and Wieber finished behind pal Aly Raisman and Gabby Douglas.
Russia’s Viktoria Komova, who was runner-up to Wieber at last year’s world championships, is ahead of all three Americans.
The Americans were 1.4 points ahead of Russia, scoring 181.863 points despite a weak finish on floor exercise. Defending Olympic champion China was a distant third (176.637) with European champion Romania still to compete. Britain is fourth.
The team final is Tuesday.
The Americans have only one Olympic title, winning it back in 1996 with the Magnificent Seven. They arrived at the last 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, a collection of gymnasts who do the most difficult tricks in the world yet make them look like child’s play. 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 Wieber is devastated now, and the shock waves rippling through the rest of the squad has the potential to threaten its chemistry.
“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 and Wieber’s personal coach. “The job’s not done yet. Team USA has got a big day on Tuesday.”
The 17-year-old Wieber was sobbing as she made her way through the mixed zone, so distraught she couldn’t speak to reporters. A quote attributed to her and distributed by the London Games’ internal news agency said: “It is a bit of a disappointment. It has always been a dream of mine to compete in the all-around final of the Olympics.”
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 last 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 is in the running to make 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 (who) surpassed her. So we will give her all the support.
“What can you do? Sport is sport.”