LONDON — Jordyn Wieber stood at the end of the vault runway and waited for the green light. Then she took off and twisted high above the pink of North Greenwich Arena — a Yurchenko two-and-a-half, one of the hardest vaults out there.
She landed perfectly, two feet together with nary a wobble and threw her hands in the air.
And she smiled too. A huge smile of victory and determination, and no doubt relief.
With that close-to-perfect vault, Wieber set the tone for Team USA for the rest of women’s gymnastics team competition. The Fab Five, as they were dubbed, proceeded to destroy their competition, winning their first Olympic team title since 1996.
“When Jordyn went out there and nailed that vault, it was contagious,” said Gabby Douglas. “We all were like, ‘OK, I’m going to nail this vault too.’ And we all nailed it!”
They carried their momentum over to the bars, then the beam. By the floor routine, they had the gold medal all but locked up. All they had to do was “stand on two legs, that’s it, not to fall,” said Mihai Brestyan, Aly Raisman’s coach.
With Olympic gold medals hanging on purple ribbons around their necks, the Fab Five —Douglas, McKayla Maroney, Raisman, Kyla Ross, and Wieber — all proclaimed that it felt awesome.
The gold medal was a testament to teamwork and to teenage resiliency. And though Maroney earned the highest score of the night — a 16.233 for her vault — and Douglas did not score lower than a 15.066 — Wieber’s ability to pull it back together from the devastation of not making the all-around competition was a main ingredient in the gold medal mix.
After Douglas and Raisman qualified for the all-around competition on Sunday night, leaving reigning world champion Wieber astonishingly out of the mix, the team returned to the Olympic Village. But Wieber did not sulk alone in her room. She sought solace from her teammates.
“McKayla was really helpful,” said Wieber. “She gave me a pep talk, and it really helped me.”
Wieber also remembered that all-around gold at these Olympics was not her only goal. The team medal was also a goal.
“I really had to pull myself together and just keep moving on and be strong in this competition for the team,” said Wieber.
“She had her five minutes of disappointment and began focusing on tonight,” said John Geddert, Wieber’s coach. “Her teammates helped pull her up a little bit, Aly and McKayla specifically. She reciprocated back, and it became a team effort focused on tonight.”
To psyche themselves up — and to remember what it’s like to work as a team and win — the five gymnasts gathered on Tuesday morning and watched a YouTube video of the U.S. winning team gold at the 2011 World Gymnastics Championships in Tokyo last October. The video ends with the group on the podium, arms raised overhead, gold medals around their necks. Four of the five women competing in the team competition at the Olympics were on that world championship squad.
Shortly thereafter, Wieber tweeted, “TEAM FINALS TODAY! Really feeling the USA spirit, and we are ready to go!”
Their strategy was to use the U.S. team’s strength in the vault to take a 4/10th or 5/10th lead. Wieber’s 15.933 vault got the team started, followed by even higher-marked Yurchenko two-and-a-halfs by Douglas and Maroney.
“That was our secret weapon,” said Bela Karolyi, former Olympic coach and husband of national team coordinator Martha Karolyi.
Karolyi enthusiastically added that had the old scoring system been in place, Maroney’s vault would have scored a perfect 10.
The Americans then headed to bars — their weakest rotation — with a 1.766 lead. Though the Russians gained back all but 4/10ths on bars, the Fab Five were not deterred. While the Russians wobbled on the beam, neither Douglas, Raisman, or Ross flinched. By the end of the third (of four) rotations, the U.S. was over two points ahead.
In comparison, every other team — the 2008 Olympic champion Chinese, the once dominant Romanians, and even the Russians — looked like amateurs.
Before heading to the floor rotation, the U.S. gymnasts huddled near the beam and talked. The Russians had Kseniia Afanaseva, the reigning world champion coming up on floor. She could be Russia’s secret weapon.
“We told ourselves to go out there and really hit the routines, be confident, and have fun, just perform them,” said Wieber. “That’s all we needed to do was our normal routines, and we would be fine.”
When Afanaseva stumbled in her routine, falling on her head and rolling sideways, everyone knew who would win.
As each American took to the floor, the cheers became as loud as for the British team (performing on bars nearby).
After Raisman nailed her final tumbling pass, Douglas ran over to her coach, Liang Chow, gave him a hug, and thanked him.
“That made me tear up,” confessed Chow. “All your hard work put into this kid, and I helped her reach her dreams, her goals, and then she was very appreciative. That will be one of my lifetime moments.”
Douglas moved to Chow’s gym to train only two years ago, and at first, he did not see her as Olympic material. She heads to Thursday’s all-around competition as a favorite.
But tonight, the word was “team,” and Martha Karolyi called this the best American team ever.
“It feels amazing to know it’s not just one of us, it’s the five of us,” said Wieber, a smile still on her face.
Peggy Shinn is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.