On July 29, millions of Americans watched as a 17-year-old world champion held back tears. Jordyn Wieber, the leading U.S. women’s gymnast since 2011, was the victim of an unforgiving rule.
The reigning world all-around champion and the fourth best all-around gymnast in the Olympic qualification round would not move onto the all-around finals four days later. Although 24 gymnasts qualify for the finals, only two per country could move on. And on this day, teammates Aly Raisman and Gabby Douglas were better.
Wieber kept it together as she waited for a television interview before being whisked through the media mixed zone.
“It was hard because, of course, I wanted that spot,” said Wieber, who did not speak publicly afterward but issued that message in a statement.
If Wieber’s teenage dreams were indeed crushed that night in east London, she didn’t show it two days later in the team final. Almost as if a weight was lifted off her sturdy shoulders, Wieber appeared loose. Was she having fun?
Wieber, Douglas and McKayla Maroney, opened the competition on vault with each performing an Amanar, the most difficult vault women gymnasts execute in competition. And they all came out firing.
The “Fierce Five” never looked back, cheering each other on as they cruised to the team’s first gold medal since the 1996 Atlanta Games. After Raisman landed the final pass of her floor routine, Wieber’s disappointment from two days earlier had melted into joy. Next to the floor, she and her teammates hugged and stood watching as Raisman’s score finally flashed. It was 14.933. And more important, it meant Team USA had clinched the country’s first gymnastics team gold in 16 years.
The London 2012 Games were filled with such dramatic, emotional, inspirational moments.
“I really had to pull myself together and just keep moving on and be strong in this competition for the team,” Wieber said.
In the ensuing two days at the North Greenwich Arena, Cuban-born Danell Leyva came back from a disappointing team final to claim an Olympic bronze while Douglas gave the United States its third Olympic all-around gold medal in a row, becoming the first black woman to win the crown in the process.
There was no shortage of emotion in the Aquatic Center. On July 31, swimmer Michael Phelps touched the wall first in the 4x200 freestyle relay to win his record 19th Olympic medal. On Aug. 4, he closed out his Olympic career with another gold medal in the 4x100 medley relay. The total: 18 gold, two silver, two bronze. It made him the most-decorated Olympian.
“I’ve been able to put my mind to the goals I wanted to achieve, and (coach) Bob (Bowman) and I have been able to somehow manage to do every single thing,” Phelps said.
Meanwhile, the next generation proved it was ready to take over. Take 15-year-old Katie Ledecky, the youngest member of Team USA, who won the gold medal in the 800 free while breaking Janet Evans’ 23-year-old American record. Or 17-year-old Missy Franklin, who won four gold medals and one bronze while also breaking two world records.
In diving, David Boudia earned the 18th and last qualifying spot in the preliminary round for the 10-meter platform. Yet he came back the next day to win gold, becoming the first U.S. man to win gold in diving since 1992, and the first man to win gold in the 10-meter platform since the great Greg Louganis did so in 1988.
Next door at the track, as the hometown fans were celebrating “Super Saturday” in which three British athletes won gold medals within 44 minutes, something amazing was happening for Team USA, too. The crowd roared when Somali-born British runner Mo Farah ran to a gold medal in the 10K, and his American training partner Galen Rupp was right behind him, becoming the first U.S. medalist in the event since Billy Mills won in 1964. Later, Mexican-born American Leo Manzano earned a silver medal in the 1,500, becoming the first U.S. medalist in that event since 1968. Afterward, he cried on the track.
“Ever since I was maybe 12 years old, I've had this major gift from God,” he told USA Today, referencing the blazing kick that propelled him to second.
Team USA certainly had its success on the track. The women’s 4x100m relay team won the gold medal with a time of 40.82, shattering a 27-year-old record set by East Germany by .55 seconds. Then there was the decathlon, where Ashton Eaton took gold and Trey Hardee came back from Tommy John surgery less than a year ago to finish second.
Yet one of the most inspiring moments was before a medal was even on the line. In the preliminary round of the men’s 4x400 relay, Manteo Mitchell broke his leg 200 meters into the race.
“I heard it,” he told USA Today. “I even put out a little war cry, but the crowd was so loud you couldn't hear it. I wanted to just lie down.”
But he didn’t lie down. Mitchell continued to run the next 200 meters to help the team qualify for the final. In the final, the United States earned the silver medal.
Also on the track were gold-medal moments for Sanya Richards-Ross in the 400 and Allyson Felix, who after twice finishing with the silver medal in the 200, came up with the gold in London.
Then there was the women’s soccer team, which, in its semifinal game against Canada, was tied 3-3 in the final minutes of extra time. It appeared as if the United States and Canada were on the way toward a penalty-kick shootout, until, in the 123rd minute, with the final seconds ticking away, Abby Wambach pushed the ball out to Heather O'Reilly on the right side, who crossed it to Alex Morgan. Morgan then put just enough on a header to direct it over Canadian goalkeeper Erin McLeod’s hand and into the back of the net to put the U.S. into the gold medal game.
In the gold-medal game, the United States was able to overcome Japan, the same team that defeated Team USA in the FIFA Women’s World Cup final last year. Playing in front of 80,203 fans at Wembley Stadium, an Olympic record for a women’s soccer game, the two teams showed why they are the two premier teams in the world. Carli Lloyd scored early in both halves for the United States, and goalie Hope Solo made several lunging saves to keep Japan from tying the game. At the final whistle, many players paraded with American flags and put on celebratory T-shirts that read “Greatness Has Been Found.”
The U.S. women’s soccer players were just some of many women who shined at the first Olympic Games in which each delegation included a female athlete. Of Team USA’s 46 gold medals in London, women won 29 of them. Only China had more gold medals than the U.S. women, who had the same number as the entire Great Britain team.
Two Olympic medals came from the historic Horse Guards Parade, where Team USA icons Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh won their unprecedented third gold medal in beach volleyball. And the team they beat? Fellow Americans Jen Kessy and April Ross.
The U.S. women’s water polo team also won the country’s first Olympic water polo gold in Brenda Villa and Heather Petri’s fourth and final Games. In the first Olympic women’s boxing tournament, Claressa Shields was the lone American boxer to win a gold medal after she defeated Russian Nadezda Torlopova 19-12 for the middleweight title. Then there was Kayla Harrison, who overcame sexual abuse trauma to win the first U.S. Olympic judo gold medal.
It was fitting that on the last day of competition in London came yet another inspiring moment for Team USA. Even though Meb Keflezighi finished the men’s marathon in fourth place, considered by many as the worst place to finish in the Olympic Games since it is one spot off from the medal podium, fourth place was a terrific showing for the American distance runner. Keflezighi, at 37, overcame a hip injury and the loss of his training partner, Ryan Shay, and battled from 17th place to finish fourth.
"Did I want to finish fourth - no," Keflezighi told reporters. “But at the world (championships) or Olympic Games I'll take it, especially considering that I did not make the Olympics in 2008. I am very proud of myself and our country to finish fourth."