RIO DE JANEIRO – You know those fairytale Olympic performance that every athlete dreams of? The U.S. women’s gymnastics team had that Sunday in Rio.
Expected to take home a second consecutive Olympic team gold medal in the final on Tuesday, the Americans were better than their best selves at preliminaries inside Rio Olympic Arena, winning by the football equivalent of several touchdowns as they outperformed second-place China by nearly 10 points (185.238 to 175.279). Russia, Great Britain and Brazil rounded out the top five.
Three-time reigning world champion Simone Biles made her Olympic debut in high-flying fashion (literally), going a flawless four-for-four, qualifying in first place in three different events and leading the individual all-around competition by nearly two points.
Reigning Olympic all-around champion Gabby Douglas will not get a chance to defend her gold medal, however, the 20-year-old bested by fellow Fierce Five member Aly Raisman (who was fourth in London) by less than one point (60.607 to 60.131). While Douglas finished qualifying in third place, only two women from each country can compete in the all-around final, meaning Biles and Raisman have advanced for Team USA.
“I can’t even tell you how hard we’ve been working in the gym every single day,” said team captain Raisman, 22. “Our routines have been so consistent. We really have been a team from start to finish. We just have to keep that going.”
Biles was the last to go on the final rotation for the U.S. women on balance beam, and hit a full-twisting double back on her dismount before letting out all of her emotions, dancing off the podium to her awaiting teammates, who came together in a group hug as chants of “U-S-A! U-S-A!” exploded around the arena.
With the team final on Tuesday, scores in both the individual and team events – as well as the event finals – will be wiped clean for the finals.
For a team with three first-time Olympians, U.S. leadership has tried to remind the athletes that they’ve been on a similar stage at the world championships, only that the Olympics is of a different concept.
“The Olympics are no different, that’s what I’ve been telling them,” said national team coordinator Martha Karolyi, comparing this competition to the world championships, where the U.S. women won gold as a team the last two years.
The U.S. took the top spot in all four events: Biles was first place on vault, floor exercise and beam, while Madison Kocian, the reigning co-world champion in her event, qualified first on uneven bars. All five of the Americans – Biles, Raisman (floor), Kocian and Douglas (bars) as well as Laurie Hernandez (beam) – have made individual event finals, which take place later next week.
It was the Olympic moment Biles had been waiting for for three years, having won her first world championship all-around crown in 2013.
“Simone is Simone. She is a big talent, but she also proved how she is handling herself and how she is able to perform under pressure,” Karolyi said.
“I’m feeling very good,” said Biles, a smile burst from her face. “I’m super confident. Out of all the competitions that we have, this was the most nerve-wracking for all of us because you’re trying to qualify into event finals and into team. Since it’s out of the way, we feel very good.”
She looked beyond good on her floor routine to start, then delivered two eye-popping vaults in a row, both of them scoring north of 16.000, which is as close to a modern-day “perfect 10” as you can get in gymnastics.
Douglas, who opened the evening’s competition as a whole with her floor exercise, improved as the night went along. She will make the uneven bars final, scoring a 15.766 which put her just a tenth behind Kocian. While the disappointment was apparent, she was solid throughout, a much-improved version of herself after struggling at Olympic Trials one month ago.
“She brought it all today,” head coach Aimee Boorman said. “She knew she had to bring her A-game. Unfortunately, because we can’t put three up in the all around, she fell short.”
“This has been an amazing journey,” said Douglas, who took nearly two years away from the sport before coming back in 2014. “There’s nothing to be ashamed about. I would have loved to go back and defend my title; however, the support around me has been great. I put it all out there.”
The Americans put it all out there from start to finish, starting with four dazzling floor routines and then going to vault, where all four of them scored over 15.000 and Raisman hit the always-difficult Amanar, nearly sticking the landing for a 15.766.
“I’m very proud of myself and very proud of the team; we’ve all made an event final,” Raisman explained. “I think we all try to enjoy it. We have been having so much fun. My stomach is so sore from laughing too much.”
The tone was serious for much of the night, including as the team made its way from vault to uneven bars, where Kocian executed on her specialty and Douglas delivered her biggest routine of the night.
Then the finish was on beam. Only Raisman had a small wobble, her coach, Mihai Brestyan, hugging her at the conclusion. When Biles finished, they welcomed her off the podium with open arms, the women proving – emphatically – that they are the best in the world, which they hope to show again on Tuesday.
“She’s always said that she wants to compete beam like she trains it and she’s a rock star in training,” explained Boorman, who has coached Biles for over 10 years. “(This spring) was the first time she had a rock solid beam routine in competition, so I think this is her second best routine in competition.”
“I was just excited how calm I was, how I didn’t let the stress or the nerves get to me,” Biles explained of being overcome with excitement at the night’s conclusion. “I was like, ‘Oh my, gosh, we’re done! We’re all Olympians!’ We were all really happy.”
Karolyi, in her last Olympics as national team coordinator, was happy, too. The girls ran to the side of the arena for pictures together and hugs from a usually stern-faced Martha. They’ve softened her with their gymnastics – and their laughs – and are four rotations from winning her another gold medal on the Olympic stage.
It’s the kind of fairytale script that we think you might know the ending to.