TORONTO -- The last time the Pan American Games were held in Canada, the U.S. women’s gymnastics team failed to defend its previous four titles, losing to the home country by 0.58 points. That was not the case Sunday night. Sixteen years later, Team USA avenged its loss and overcame Canada by 7.3 points to win the women’s artistic gymnastics team gold medal in Toronto.
“This being the Pan American Games, it’s bigger and all competitions are important but it’s a really great feeling that we all worked together as a team and came out on top here,” Madison Desch said.
The U.S. won with a score of 173.800 to mark Team USA’s 13th win in Pan Am Games history and fourth in a row. The 2015 Games also marked the first time in 20 years that Team USA won both the men’s and women’s gymnastics team titles.
“It definitely feels like it’s a big accomplishment,” said Desch, 17. “All of our hard work that we have been putting in for months before this event paid off and it’s a really great feeling.”
The road to Toronto was long for Desch and her teammates and consisted of a selection process that took place over several weeks. An 11-member training squad was selected then narrowed to eight in early June, followed by the final five earlier this month. Desch was joined on the team with Rachel Gowey, Amelia Hundley, Emily Schild and Megan Skaggs.
While it marked the first time any of the five competed at an international multi-sport event (or any event of this magnitude), hearing the national anthem play is becoming old hat to Desch, who was an alternate on the U.S. team that won gold at the 2014 World Artistic Gymnastics Championships.
“I don’t think there’s a better feeling. It’s the best feeling in the world,” she said, before adding, “I would like to continue that.”
Sunday’s team final also served as individual qualifications for the all-around and event finals, which Team USA will fill eight of the maximum 10 spots in. Desch qualified for the all-around and floor finals, finishing first on floor (14.650) and second in the all-around (57.300).
But it was Hundley who stole the show on Sunday, finishing first in all-around qualification (57.650), and also qualifying for the floor (14.300) and uneven bars (14.500) finals. She has been competing internationally for the U.S. since 2011 but the 17-year-old will look to win her first all-around title Monday night.
“I think I did really well,” Hundley said. “I just went out there knowing that I’ve done the numbers and we’ve been here hitting them, so I wanted to have fun and go out there confident and do what I love to do.”
The team final in Toronto marked the first time Hundley performed her floor routine in competition, which she has been working on for only a few months. Clearly, she was ready, finishing second behind Desch and qualifying for Wednesday’s floor final.
Hundley also finished first out of the U.S. athletes on vault (15.100), but did not make that final because she chose to perform only one vault.
“I know the team was depending on me because I was the last one up on vault,” she said. “They wanted me to pull out a big vault. I had been training them really well and I wanted to show the team that I could do it for them.”
Team USA’s other big performer in the team final was Gowey, who was the top American on uneven bars and balance beam with scores of 14.750 and 14.500 – though Gowey had no idea how she scored until she was informed in the media mixed zone.
“I didn’t see any of my scores today,” she said. “I just wanted to stay focused on what’s ahead of me and what I have to do next.”
With her first international gold medal under her belt, Gowey has her sights set on the ultimate prize – competing at the Olympics. And she has just the coach who can take her there, Liang Chow.
Chow coached Shawn Johnson to four medals at the Beijing 2008 Games and Gabby Douglas to two gold medals at the London 2012 Games.
A native of Des Moines, Iowa, Gowey has been training at Chow’s Gymnastics since age 5 but the 17-year-old has only been under Chow himself for the past three years, during which she has made the national team and competed at her first two international assignments.
“Having him as a coach is amazing because he knows what’s going on,” Gowey said. “He knows when to peak you and when to hold you back and say this isn’t worth it, I want you ready for bigger meets. …
“He just knows how to treat the gymnasts and how their body works, and not do overdo the numbers.”
To boot, Gowey spent time training with both Douglas and Johnson leading up to the 2012 Olympics and counts them as friends and mentors on her own Olympic journey.
“They always said stay confident and if we needed anything – any questions, any concerns – we could always go to them because they’ve definitely been through it all.”