LONDON — Every now and again, you get lucky in this business.
I know almost nothing about gymnastics. Oh, because of my mother I’ve been watching Olympic gymnastics since I was a kid, since watching a skinny 14-year-old named Nadia. I know that falling off the beam is bad. I can spot a bobble, maybe, and I know that sticking the landing is important. But that’s pretty much it. I watch Olympic gymnastics the way a fan does — through emotion and through wonder at what these athletes can do. That’s always been good enough. That’s how I was going to watch Thursday’s remarkable all-around final.
Then, every now and again, you get lucky in this business. I ended up sitting next to a man named Paul Ziert. He is at the event in his role as publisher of International Gymnast Magazine, which claims to be “the authority on gymnastics since 1956″ — a claim I don’t believe is often challenged.
But, beyond that, here’s Ziert’s story: He was an All-American gymnast at Stanford. He taught high-school math and coached gymnastics in Chicago for a while before becoming the gymnastics coach at Oklahoma. There, he recruited a gymnast named Bart Connor, and together they won a couple of national championships and some Olympic hardware (and later, co-wrote a book). Ziert gave a home and job to a Romanian defector named Bela Karolyi, who had coached Nadia Comaneci and, of course, has become the doyen of American gymnastics. He was a coach for the 1980 U.S. women’s gymnastics team, which did not get to compete because of a boycott. He tried for a while to start a gymnastics tour.
And so on. It’s been a gymnastics life — for more than 50 years. The point is, I ended up sitting next to somebody who saw gymnastics not only as a fan, but also as someone who has lived inside this sport. And through his eyes, well, watching this gymnastics event was unlike any I had seen before.
There are, in Ziert’s mind, four gymnasts who have a legitimate chance at gold. Yes, of course he says it is possible for someone else to surprise and emerge. For instance, there is the tall and graceful Romanian, Sandra Raluca Izbasa. There are the two Chinese gymnasts, Linlin Deng and Qiushuang Huang. There is the gutsy Italian, Vanessa Ferrari, who had won the World Championships in 2006 but later dealt with weight issues and injury issues.
“But look at her now,” he says. “She made it all the way back. What an inspiration.”
Still, he knows that unless things go wrong, there are four competitors who are one step up from the rest. Two are American: Gabby Douglas and Aly Raisman. Two are Russian: Viktoria Komova and Aliya Mustafina.
Douglas is first on the vault. Both Americans and one of the Russians, Komova, are attempting the same vault, the toughest in the competition, a vault with a 6.50-degree of difficulty. Ziert explains that this means the highest possible score they can get on the vault is 16.50; most of the other vaults have a 5.8 degree of difficulty, meaning they can not get anything higher than a 15.8, and realistically they are unlikely to get more than a 15.3.
Douglas scores a very high 15.966 — what will be the highest score on vault all night — despite a bit of a choppy landing where she almost steps out of bounds.
“She will be great tonight,” Ziert predicts. Before the day, he says he had been talking with Nadia Comaneci, and she thought that Douglas had an advantage over the other three super competitors because she is younger. She is only 16, while the two Russians are 17 and Raisman is 18. Nadia said what she had going for her in 1976, when she had touched perfection, was that she was so young she did not know enough to be nervous. In 1980, once Comaneci had become a worldwide icon and she understood the scope of what was happening and felt the nerves, it was not so easy. She won silver.
Raisman is next and she also scores very well, a 15.900. Ziert says her strength comes from her extreme will. She is not necessarily a naturally graceful gymnast, like the Russians or her great friend Jordyn Wieber. Raisman’s brilliance comes from her consistency, and her refusal to give away anything. “She sticks everything,” Ziert says.
This, he says, makes her very different from the third gymnast to vault, Russia’s Komova. Ziert says that, without question, Komova is the most gifted gymnast in the world. But, for whatever reason, she does not dig in like Raisman or Douglas or her fellow Russian, Mustafina. He says she gives away points with avoidable mistakes. He says she is just not quite competitive enough.
While he talks, Komova vaults, and it is a beautiful vault. She does have a different look than any other gymnast in motion, like a ballerina. But she lands awkwardly, and she is off balance, and she drifts out of bounds. Then she does something Ziert cannot believe: Instead of holding her ground after her stumble, she keeps drifting until she has stepped off the mat completely and is standing on the arena floor. Ziert is stunned. He thinks this has to be a major deduction. Sure enough, she scores a 15.466 — almost 0.5 behind Douglas.
Mustafina is the last of the four to vault. She had a serious injury last year and so does not try the difficult vault the other three try. She is good on her more conservative vault, but the degree of difficulty is too much to overcome and she scores a 15.233. “That’s her worst event,” Ziert says. “Watch out for her now.”
Raisman is first on uneven parallel bars … and she struggles a bit. She is at her best in events where she can be explosive and full of life, like the vault and the floor exercise. The bars require a bit more precision. She scores a 14.333, well off the pace needed to stay in the gold-medal chase.
Komova is next … and her performance is extraordinary. They say that Jascha Heifetz was so brilliant on the violin that just one note could make other violinists cry. Well, Ziert looks like he might break down as he watches Komova perform. Every move is fluid, graceful … “perfect,” Ziert says softly.
And then Komova dismounts, and she lands a little bit off and does not hold her ground. “She just gave away another three-tenths of a point,” Ziert says. “Amazing.”
Mustafina goes third, and Ziert starts talking about how her father was a great Russian wrestler and her mother a gymnast. He believes she took the best from both — the elegance and agility of her mother, the extreme will of her father. Like Komova, her performance is astounding. Everything is in rhythm. She lands her dismount and, unlike Komova, refuses to buckle. Her score, 16.100, is the highest any gymnast will get in any of the events. She has worked her way back into the gold-medal picture.
Finally, it’s Douglas. Against her coach’s wishes, she has been keeping an eye on the scoreboard. She knows she shouldn’t, that she should focus on her own performance, but she cannot help it. “She’s a jock,” Ziert says. “She’s a competitor.” He says he has heard that at practices, she never stops talking. She loves the game of it. “It’s go time,” is one of her favorite sayings. She nails the bars, too, scoring a 15.733. She leads Komova in the all-around, but now by less than three-tenths of a point.
“Three tenths of a point is just one deduction,” Ziert says. “That’s nothing.”
Komova is first on the beam, and Ziert admits he is doubtful about how she will hold up. He seems to look at Komova the way a baseball scout looks at a pitcher with everything — a 100-mph fastball, a dazzling curveball, a biting slider, a tantalizing changeup — but one who, when it matters, cannot throw strikes.
She surprises him on the balance beam. Though she wobbles just a touch in a couple places — setting off my keen ineptitude to judge gymnastics — Ziert thinks she is quite extraordinary. On replay, it’s easy to see that he is right. On one move, she is so flexible she actually kicks herself in the back of the head. On another she almost seems to bend in two. And her dismount, Ziert says, is the most difficult in the world. The judges see it his way and give her a 15.441, by far the highest score up to that point.
Then comes Mustafina. This time Ziert expects nothing less than brilliance — “This is where her competitiveness comes out,” he whispers — but again he is off. It is Mustafina, the wrestler’s daughter, who gives way. She falls off the balance beam. She almost falls off again. Ziert is in shock. Two years ago, Mustafina won the all-around gold at World Championships, and people around gymnastics expected her to dominate the sport for a decade. This time she scores a 13.633. It’s the lowest score any of the four will have in any of the events. She won’t win the gold. She will have to fight for a medal.
Now, it’s the Americans and Gabby Douglas, who once again has defied her coach and looked at the scoreboard. She knows how well Komova did. Later, Douglas would talk about how she had learned to deal with these moments, learned that when the pressure is at its thickest the important thing is not to think about what can go wrong, but to think about what will go right. That sounds like the sort of Zen talk you might hear on the old “Kung Fu” show, but from the mouth of an ebullient 16-year-old girl who has given up all she knows to be the best gymnast in the world, it sounds just right. “It’s like, can I do it?” she would say. “Pressure should help us do better and greater things.”
The pressure pushes her to a near-flawless performance. Her 15.500 is the highest score of the night, and it pushes her lead over Komova to just more than three-tenths of a point.
While Raisman struggles through her balance beam performance (14.200), Ziert talks about the excitement of the floor exercise. He says that Douglas’ floor exercise is full of life and joy. “It’s like a ride,” he says. “You just want to hold on.”
And he said Komova’s floor exercise was very different, pure grace — “When it’s right,” he said, “it’s like going to The Bolshoi (the historic theater that houses the Bolshoi ballet in Moscow).”
It sounds like the last event will be pretty fun.
Mustafina is the first of the four to go, and she knows that she needs an inspired performance to clinch a bronze medal. Her performance is solid, Ziert said, but not quite inspired. The medal is not hers yet. With some quick math (Ziert was a math major at Stanford) and help from the scoreboard, he realizes that Raisman needs a 15.133 to tie Mustafina for the bronze medal.
“She can do that,” he says excitedly.
Douglas is next, and she knows that a good performance will clinch the gold medal — everything she has dreamed. She seems to love the moment. She smiled throughout her performance, gives a little extra, never makes an obvious mistake. When she is done, Ziert cannot help himself. “She has won the gold medal,” he announces. “She is the Olympic champion.” The judge’s score of 15.033 is a good one. Ziert appears to be right.
Raisman walks on the mat, and she is terrific. It was her floor exercise that had clinched the gold for the U.S. team two nights earlier, and again she has the crowd clapping and cheering. Amazingly, she scores exactly a 15.133, which ties her with Mustafina. It appears, to those of us who don’t know the rules (like yours truly) that they will both get bronze. But they will not. The tiebreaker will be the sum of the three best scores, and Mustafina, once unburdened of her disastrous beam score, is the easy winner in the tiebreaker. She will get the bronze. Raisman, though her score is the same, finishes fourth.
“It’s wrong,” Ziert says. “They should both get medals. That’s ridiculous.”
Finally, it’s time for Komova, the last gymnast of the night. To win the gold, she will need 15.359 — by far the highest score of the night. Is it possible? “I don’t think so,” Ziert says. “I don’t think they would give a score that high.”
Then Komova performs … and based on Ziert’s reaction it is clear that she is breathtaking. Actually, it’s not hard to see even through an amateur’s eye. Ziert is right about her talent. She lands softly, and everything is elegant, and Ziert cannot find even one thing wrong with her performance, cannot find one deduction. “That,” he says, “might have been the greatest performance under pressure I’ve ever seen.”
Everybody watches the scoreboard closely. Ziert still does not believe that the judges will give her a 15.359 — it’s too high a score. But, he admits, “I would. I would give her that score and make it a tie.”
The judges are not quite so theatrical. They give Komova a 15.100 — a good score, but not good enough. Douglas is the Olympic champion. Ziert talks about how wonderful it is, how happy he is for her, how happy he is for gymnastics to have her as champion. “She’s so good for the sport,” he says.
After it ends, and I thank Ziert for making this night so much more interesting, I wander in to listen to the gymnasts who won medals. Mustafina says she is happy with everything except for her balance beam. “Any fall is very bad,” she says through an interpreter. Komova says she is proud of her night and a little disappointed that it wasn’t quite good enough. Both of them talk about how great Douglas was on this night.
“She performed beautifully,” Komova says.
“I agree,” Mustafina says. “She was absolutely fantastic.”
Then Douglas comes out, and she is fantastic again, talking about how much it all means to her, how she kept it together, how much fun she had. Someone asks her about smiling through her floor exercise, and she says that she had smiled more in other events but that when it was over, “I wanted to give a big smile for you guys.”
She is now America’s sweetheart, with all the endorsements and appearances that go with it, and I’m sure she will enjoy it. And she should. But what is striking was how much she enjoyed this whole night. Every four years, we see gymnasts strain under the intense pressure, and who can blame them? But not Gabby Douglas.
In the end, what Ziert had heard from Comaneci might be right. Maybe Douglas really was too young to know that she was supposed to be scared. If that’s true, well here’s hoping, in that way, she never grows up.