The USA Women’s Gymnastics Team may be more heralded than the all-time greats that performed in Atlanta in 1996, and they showed the world exactly why Sunday during qualifying. Unfortunately, they were so good all around that some of our girls will actually miss the all around.
First, let’s meet the Fab 5, as they’re now being called. Team Captain Jordyn Wieber, 17, from Michigan is considered the best in the world, and is in London as the defending World Champion from 2011. Gabby Douglas, 16 years old from Virginia Beach, may be the most flamboyant member of the team, having earned the nickname “Flying Squirrel.” Aly Raisman is the eldest member of the team at 18, from Massachusetts, and is a threat on balance beam and floor. Raisman trained with Beijing Olympian Alicia Sacramone. McKayla Maroney, from California has one of the best vaults in the world at 16 years old. Finally, Kyla Ross is the youngest member of the team at 15, born in Hawaii and hailing from California. They call her “Mighty Mouse.” Check out their bios here.
Athletes are competing in the qualifying events on three levels:
1) They’re competing to move on to the individual event finals. Athletes’ scores on individual events determine who qualifies for which events.
2) They’re competing for the individual all-around finals. Athletes’ scores from all events are totaled, and the top eight scores advance. However, there is a rule that states no country may advance more than two gymnasts into the competition. More on that later.
3) They’re competing for their country to advance to the team finals. Four athletes perform each event, but a country is allowed to toss out the lowest score in an event from among their athletes. These scores are then totaled, and the top eight countries advance.
ALL SCORES are reset following the qualifying rounds.
Team USA was absolutely phenomenal as a whole, posting the top score of 181.863, more than a full point ahead of traditional rival Russia and more than 5 points ahead of powerhouse China. Romania, host nation Great Britain, Japan, Italy and Canada rounded out the top 8.
The vault is widely considered the Americans’ trump card, and indeed it was USA’s best event. Each American gymnast performs what is called an Amanar vault, named for Romanian Simona Amanar who invented the vault and debuted it in 2000 in Sydney. It is considered one of the most difficult moves in gymnastics. Here is a video of Team USA demonstrating the move. USA began the evening on the vault and didn’t look back.
USA also posted the best team score on Balance Beam, finished second on floor only to Romania and finished third on bars behind China and Russia. These standings are unimportant, as the qualifying is determined by total scores only.
The girls came out in dominant fashion, with Raisman, Douglas and Wieber taking up three of the top 4 spots in the standings. Ross’s scores were not competitive against the field, and Maroney’s only recorded score was on vault.
It came down to floor exercise, and going into the final performance by Raisman, Douglas and Wieber were the top two scores on the American team. It was an awkward few moments as the judges tallied Raisman’s score, but she had a stellar performance which clinched her the No. 2 qualifying slot, and slotted Douglas at 3 and Wieber at 4.
However, Olympic competition rules state that countries may only field two gymnasts in the all-around. Because of this rule, the No. 4 qualifying score – belonging to Wieber – is not allowed to advance, and the defending world champion all-around individual gymnast will not be able to replicate her success at the Olympics. This was an overwhelming, emotional moment for Wieber, who considers Raisman her best friend and rooms with her in the Olympic Village. To their credit, all the members of Team USA are close, especially Wieber, Raisman and Maroney.
Wieber was visibly distraught, almost inconsolable, and was unavailable for comment until Team USA released a brief statement on her behalf and coaches offered their perspectives on the issue. She has since taken to Twitter to thank fans for their support and is seemingly prepared to compete her best for her country in the Team Finals. Wieber will be an incredibly important part of any success Team USA hopes to have going forward.
Raisman and Douglas will go into the All-Around as heavy medal favorites. Only 17-year-old Russian gymnast Viktoria Komova outscored the American pair in the qualifying round. Joining these three in the finals will be Russian Aliya Mustafina, China’s Deng Linlin and 19 other gymnasts.
Individual Event Qualifying
All is not lost for Wieber, however, as she did qualify to compete for an individual medal in the Floor Exercise. Apparently, the two-per-team limit also applies to individual event qualifying. Wieber has the second-best score on Team USA in the Floor event, where she’ll compete with Raisman – who scored best overall in the event – and six others, including two Romanian gymnasts.
Douglas and Raisman had the top two scores for this event with a 15.266 and 15.100, respectively, and will compete in the beam finals. Their scores were third and fifth overall, respecitvely. Ross JUST missed qualifying for this event with a 15.075; though her score was sixth-best overall, the two-per-country rule applies.
Douglas is the only American gymnast who qualified outright for the uneven bars final, and this may be her best event – the one from which she’s earned her nickname due to the incredible height she achieves in transition from bar to bar. Ross, with the second-best USA score, is listed as a reserve. Wieber finished behind Ross.
Maroney’s only scored event in the qualifying round was the vault, which she qualified in the top spot for. Douglas had an equal score on the vault, but is competing in two individual events already and I believe this is the reason for her exclusion from this event. Further, because Wieber scored lower than Douglas, perhaps this is why she is not qualified for that event, though it would seem that if one athlete is excluded from competing in an event because she’s already in two others, a teammate would be entered back into the pool for consideration.
To offer a subjective opinion here, I think the two-per-country rule is a ridiculous rule that must be changed. How can you determine who will win an individual gold medal for the best all-around gymnast if the world’s best gymnasts are precluded from participating in the finals because the two other best gymnasts in the world are your countrymen or women? That makes absolute zero sense. I realize this is opening a can of worms in my previous arguments against the BCS giving Alabama a slot in the National Championship Game (I still think if you can’t win your own division, you don’t belong, but whatever), but this is a different deal.
In swimming, there is nothing preventing a clean medal sweep, nor in track and field, and there’s no better sight in sports than having three Americans on a podium, hearing the Star-Spangled Banner blared gloriously through arena loudspeakers and beaming with pride as Old Glory hoists in triplicate, representing the Gold, Silver AND Bronze medalists who have performed so admirably in her honor. Figure skating can have this, and gymnastics needs it, too.
However, in terms of pure competition, sometimes it doesn’t work out for the consensus top athlete. Look at Michelle Kwan, who won all sorts of championships but never won an Olympic Gold Medal, finishing second to Tara Lipinski in Nagano and to Sara Hughes in Salt Lake City. Sometimes you’re just beat, and your conqueror happens to wear the same uniform.
I’m very excited to see what someone with Gabby Douglas’ athletic ability and power can do against some of these Russian and Chinese girls, and it’s great to see someone like Raisman, who wasn’t necessarily considered to make it this far, to have a shot at age 18. Remember, gymnasts have peak performing years, generally in their mid-late teens. This may be Raisman’s last shot on the world stage.
Douglas and Raisman are good enough to hang with Komova in the top three slots. I really believe Douglas has the best upside here, as Raisman outperformed her own expectations, but Aly does have the veteran’s experience. Douglas’ weakest performance was on the floor exercise with a major deduction on a stumble out of bounds, and she dominates at uneven bars, though Komova and teammate Aliya Mustafina is strong there too. If executed well, nobody will come close to the US vault scores, and the balance beam competition is, well, balanced.
Look for the individual all-around to come down to the Floor Exercise, and my prediction has Douglas winning gold (homer), Komova silver and Raisman bronze.