RIO DE JANEIRO — The nerves were there. Unmistakable. Unavoidable. Standing in the darkened tunnel before entering Rio Olympic Arena on Sunday night, the U.S. women’s gymnastics team felt the pressure that comes not from outside expectations but those held within.
Then the lights came on.
And just like that, the young women in the glittery red-and-blue leotards national team coordinator Martha Karolyi has molded into a global force relaxed.
On bars. On beam. On vault and floor too. Their not-a-typo score of 185.238 was nearly 10 points better than second-place China through four of the five subdivisions, a preposterous gap in a sport where the difference between first and second is measured in fractions.
“It’s never 100 percent perfect but I think we showed that our gymnastics is of the highest level,” Karolyi said.
One no opponent is close to reaching. If the U.S. had swapped out its highest score on each event with its lowest, it would still be up by six points.
Three-time world champion Simone Biles led the way. Her score of 62.366 was well clear of teammate Aly Raisman. So much for the butterflies in her stomach.
“I do a very good job at hiding it,” Biles said. “The team, we just calm it down.”
Consider it a luxury of being so far beyond the rest of the planet. All five women earned a spot in either the all-around or event finals, or in the case of Biles and Raisman, both.
Raisman, a three-time Olympic medalist four years ago, grabbed the second spot in the individual all-around for the Americans by edging reigning Olympic champion Gabby Douglas thanks in part to what Raisman called “the best bar routine of my life.”
Rules limit each country to two gymnasts per event in the all-around and event finals, meaning even though Douglas was third overall, she’ll miss out on a chance to defend the crown she won in London. Not that she was moping. When Raisman drilled her dismount on beam, Douglas rose from her chair and gave her a hug.
A controversial selection to the five-woman team after a so-so performance at Olympic trials, Douglas validated Karolyi’s choice with steady performances all over, including a bars set that earned her a spot in the individual finals.
“She said ‘I believe in you, and you can go out and do it,'” Douglas said. “At the end of the day that means so much … because she’s very precise. It feels good.”
The top eight teams in qualifying move on to Tuesday’s team final, where the U.S. is expected to repeat the gold it won easily in London and give it to Karolyi as a retirement present. Karolyi is stepping away after the games, though she’s hardly in a hurry to get there. There are still a few more lessons to teach.
“My expectations are higher for you than anyone else’s,” she said. “What I’m trying to do is get the most out of every single person.”
No wonder Russian gymnastics star Aliya Mustafina figures everybody is playing for silver.
“It’s going to be really difficult to compete against the American team,” Mustafina said through a translator after the Russians survived a sometimes shaky qualifying session. “They are unbeatable at the moment.”
China and Russia both struggled at times on Sunday, beset by mistakes they can’t afford to make if they want to make the team finals anything more than a coronation. While each have their strengths, the truth is the U.S. has few weaknesses. The margin for error will be thinner in the three-up, three-count final. Yet after the U.S. went 16 for 16 during an occasionally showstopping 90 minutes, they hardly seem overburdened by the stakes.
“I think all of our hard work was just to show the world,” said Madison Kocian, who put up the top score on uneven bars. “I mean we’re 10 points ahead.”
Something that’s not supposed to happen.
Good luck world. It’s up to China, Russia, Great Britain, Brazil, Germany, Japan and the Netherlands to knock the Americans off their throne. How difficult will it be? Consider this: the margin between the U.S. and the Chinese on Sunday was greater than the margin between China and 12th-place Belgium.
Romania failed to qualify for the Olympics as a team for the first time in more than 40 years but will have an event finalist after Catalina Ponor finished in the top eight on beam. Uzbekistan’s Oksana Chusovitina, competing in her record seventh Olympics, reached the vault final after finishing fifth in qualifying.
The 41-year-old played coy when asked by her 17-year-old son Alisher if this is her last go-around.
“Wait and see honey,” Chusovitina said with a laugh.