Gymnasts looking for team gold
SAN JOSE, Calif. -- How fast life moves on in an Olympic year.
Less than three hours after 17,526 fans screamed as red, white and blue confetti rained around the newly named U.S. Olympic women’s gymnastics team Sunday, the HP Pavilion in San Jose, Calif., was empty except for two journalists and a handful of arena workers. The gymnastics apparatuses were long gone, and the podiums they sat on were all but dismantled.
The attention now is on July 28, when the gymnastics competition begins at the London 2012 Olympic Games. Both the U.S. men and women enter the competition with chances to win their first Olympic team titles since 1984 and 1996, respectively.
“I absolutely believe 100 percent that we can win the gold medal,” said Jonathan Horton, the only returning Olympian among the five men and five women selected over the weekend (each team has three alternates as well).
Horton’s men’s team faces a more uphill battle. Although the United States earned the team bronze at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games and the 2011 world championships, Japan and China are the heavyweights in men’s gymnastics. Kohei Uchimura of Japan is as close to unbeatable as they come after in 2011 becoming the first gymnast to win three consecutive world all-around titles. He was the all-around silver medalist in Beijing and led Japan to a team silver medal in those Games as well.
The women, meanwhile, bring back four gymnasts who helped win the 2011 world championship, including world all-around champion Jordyn Wieber. Yet in a sign of the team’s strength, Wieber only finished second in the U.S. Olympic Trials all-around competition, just barely behind fast-rising Gabby Douglas.
The two 16-year-olds will go into London as favorites to win the coveted all-around title. That means, just as was the case four years ago in Beijing when the United States featured Nastia Liukin and Shawn Johnson, Team USA will have two of the top gymnasts in the world pushing each other in London. Liukin went on to win the all-around gold medal in Beijing, while Johnson earned four medals, including the silver in the all-around.
“That’s a great thing, that’s a very, very great thing,” said Bela Karolyi, who has coached many of the world’s most notable gymnasts, Nadia Comaneci, Mary Lou Retton and Kerri Strug among them. “Actually it’s a blessing, having such a closeness.”
The latest two leading American women already have pushed each other for months. Until Sunday, every time Douglas made a run the all-around title, Wieber came out just a little bit better (Douglas scored higher than Wieber at a meet in May but Douglas’ score did not count as she was competing as an alternate).
Wieber’s second-place finish at Trials — only the second time she hasn’t won an all-around competition since 2008 — is not the end of the story. Part of the reason Wieber was able to hold off Douglas for so long was because the down-to-business Wieber doesn’t make the mistakes that the youthful Douglas is prone to do.
“(Wieber) is a calculated machine,” said Karolyi, whose wife Martha Karolyi is the U.S. national team coordinator. “She is a thoughtful person. She is a super, super strong gymnast, probably the strongest I’ve seen for a long, long time.”
Bela Karolyi also likes the chances for the team his wife helped select. The squad, which also consists of McKayla Maroney, Aly Raisman and Kyla Ross, is young, but it is proven in its own way. Martha Karolyi admitted that she had these five in her mind coming into Trials, but wanted to see how each one of them performed in front of the sold-out house in San Jose.
The biggest question going into the Games remains uneven bars, but the United States has what might be the world’s strongest floor exercise corps and a gold-medal favorite in vault (Maroney).
Since the 1996 Games when “The Magnificent Seven” won America’s first — and only — Olympic women’s team gold medal, the United States has earned two silver medals in the team competition and was awarded the bronze for the 2000 Games.
“We will be fighting for a place on the podium, absolutely,” Martha Karolyi said.
The men’s team plays by a slightly different narrative.
Ever since Horton stood alone on the podium as the 2008 high bar silver medalist and with his teammates as the team bronze medalist, he has been determined to get Team USA back to the top spot in 2012.
And over the past four years, something crazy happened: The more Horton talked of his goal, the more and more realistic it became.
Horton, for his part, lost his domestic all-around supremacy last year, when Danell Leyva emerged as the new No. 1 for the United States. Now Horton ranks as the third or perhaps even fourth best U.S. all-arounder after the emergence of 2012 U.S. champion John Orozco and 2011 NCAA champion Sam Mikulak. But that was all part of the plan.
Many consider this American Olympic men’s team — which also includes 2012 NCAA champion Jake Dalton — to be the deepest in years. Over the past four years, as national team members top to bottom pushed each other, the difficulty of routines went up and execution followed.
“Now we’re expecting that not only they are going to hit great routines but that they are going to stick the dismount,” U.S. men’s national team coordinator Kevin Mazeika said. “That’s the exclamation point that we’re looking for, and I think the guys are there. You see these performances at Trials, where I hope everybody was impressed. I was impressed!”
The team is also one of the closest-knit U.S. gymnastics teams in recent history. It’s a team that prides itself on its spirit and camaraderie, which is at least in part due to the shared NCAA experience most have.
“College is all about team,” Horton said. “There are individual awards and things like that, but it really comes down to becoming an NCAA team champion. So we’ve all been kind of brainwashed into this.”
Though Leyva and Orozco bypassed the college route, “You’d be surprised how we’ve kind of brainwashed those two guys as well, to believing,” Horton said.
Now the team goes into London believing something else: It can win an Olympic gold medal.
“We just know that we have the same level of difficulty as any other team out there,” Horton said. “So now we just have to go out, have a good time and showcase what we’re actually capable of.”