LONDON — As Aly Raisman finished her floor exercise routine, the last strains of “Hava Nagila” thumping in the background, all of her teammates began to clap in rhythm. They were about to do something rare and remarkable, and they knew it. They were about to win the second team gymnastics gold medal in U.S. history.
There they all were, clapping in tempo, jumping up and down. There was Gabby Douglas, who moved to West Des Moines when she was 14, lived with a family there while her mother worked overtime back home to pay for it all, all so she could be here at the Olympics. There was McKayla Maroney, who just days earlier had aggravated a broken big toe and just an hour earlier had stuck a vault that people thought was perfection. There was Kyla Ross, who started competing when she was 3.
There was Jordyn Wieber who, two days earlier, had the heartbreak of her athletic life when she failed to qualify for the all-around final.
And they all clapped, and huddled close, and waited. Gymnastics is an individual competition. Oh sure, they can add up the scores and call it a team event. They do a lot of that at the Olympics. They try to expand individual events like swimming and sprinting and gymnastics … with mixed success. Sometimes, you get something breathtaking, like the United States’ 4×200 freestyle relay on Tuesday, with Michael Phelps touching the wall more than a body length ahead of everyone else. Sometimes, you get something lousy, like sprinters dropping the baton.
And sometimes, you get something magical. All their lives, these American gymnasts competed against each other. It wasn’t personal — several of them are close friends — but it was emotional. Heck, we saw it on Sunday. Wieber, the defending world champion, came up short in the all-around because her two teammates, Douglas and Raisman, scored higher. Wieber was devastated. That dream of Olympic gold, of being America’s sweetheart — of following in the footsteps of Nastia Liukin and Carly Patterson and Mary Lou Retton — that dream had driven Wieber all her life. Now two others were living that dream.
Two days later, those two others were her teammates. Nobody really knew how that was going to go. Nobody really knew how Wieber would respond to the disappointment.
Then, she went out in the opening round and absolutely nailed her vault. She scored a 15.933, the third-highest score on the vault (behind her two teammates) and it was clear that everyone on the team had been waiting to see that. “I was pretty disappointed after the first day, not to qualify for the all-around,” Wieber would say. “But I knew I had to turn it around and pull it together for the team.”
At the heart, even team gymnastics is individual gymnastics. They can’t help each other stay strong on the beam or focused on the uneven parallel bars. There are no assists in gymnastics. But you could see how they fed off each other. “The unity of this team is their main ingredient,” said Bela Karolyi, the grand poobah of American gymnastics.
Karolyi coached the 1996 U.S. team — the only other U.S. squad to have won the gold. But, he made it clear, that was just a team in name. “The 1996 team was a beautiful team made up from great individual athletes: Dominique Dawes, Shannon Miller, Amy Chow, all great kids. But they’d been trained in different ways. When we got them together, it was still a beautiful bouquet of individual athletes, rather than a team.”
This, he insisted, was a team. They fed off Wieber’s resilience. They fed off Maroney’s astonishing vault, which scored a 16.233, the highest score for any gymnast in any event. They fed off each other’s energy and emotion. Late in the competition, the Russians began making a lot of mistakes. The Romanians did not have quite enough to challenge. The Chinese, who won gold in 2008, never quite came together.
The U.S. team stayed strong. It needed just 40 points in its last competition, the floor exercise, to win gold. The gold medal was pretty much a sure thing. Gabby Douglas went out and had a terrific routine, scoring 15.066. Wieber followed with a great effort of her own, scoring 15.000.
That left Raisman, who needed just 10 points to win — and since the base score in gymnastics is 10 points, this was a certainty. But then Raisman went out and had one of the greatest performances of her life. With her teammates clapping along, with the crowd getting into it, she scored a 15.300, the highest mark of the night.
She began crying more or less the instant her routine ended. Then she rushed over to her teammates, and they hugged and hugged more, and together they waited for the score, the official confirmation. When that confirmation came, they all just kept looking at the scoreboard, as if to be sure that it was real. In a couple of days, they would go back to their individual dreams. On this night, they were the best gymnastics team in the world. They celebrated together.