U.S. gymnasts searching for gold
But group's fate will rest in how individuals respond to qualifying highs and lows
It's been 16 years since the U.S. women's gymnastics team won an Olympic all-around gold medal, but this year's team is poised to reset the counter. Instead of focusing on individual all-around favorite Jordyn Wieber not making the finals, this team should be locking in on the positive: The current world champion and three of the top four finishers in the Olympic individual qualifier will take the floor Tuesday for Team USA. Here are five things to watch when they do.
1. How Wieber responds. The current world all-around champion, Wieber walked into individual all-around qualifying on Sunday believing that she could be the first gymnast since the Ukraine's Lilia Podkopayeva in 1996 (and only the second gymnast ever) to follow up a world title with an Olympic win the next year. She left North Greenwich Arena in tears after failing to qualify for the finals. (She finished fourth overall behind her best friend, Aly Raisman, and Gabby Douglas. Only two athletes from each team may qualify for the finals.) Team USA, however, qualified first, and that is where Wieber must turn her attention. Her team needs her to shake off Sunday's disappointment and be a leader if it is to win its first overall gold medal since 1996. That year's team, dubbed the Magnificent Seven, is remembered as the greatest U.S. team ever -- but few people remember that none of those gymnasts medaled in the individual all-around. Wieber still can leave these Games a role model and a star, as the stoic leader of the new Fab Five.
(A hopeful sign: Wieber started the day with this 10 a.m. tweet: "TEAM FINALS TODAY! Really feeling the USA spirit and we are ready to go!!!")
2. How Raisman responds. Named the team captain earlier this month, Raisman, too, must wipe away the tears. She had the meet of her life Sunday to qualify second overall in the individual competition, but that performance cannot be a one-time thing. Qualifying scores do not carry over, so Raisman will need to perform equally well in Tuesday's team competition. She must juggle the responsibilities of best friend, captain and competitor.
3. How the rest of the team responds. For the past year, there has been order on this team. Wieber was the "it" girl and the squad's "next Mary Lou." Raisman played a supporting role, often competing in her best friend's shadow. And Douglas was the team's up-and-comer. From the outside, that's all changed. But how the team views itself internally -- remember, these are teenage girls -- is what matters here. Internally, if too much has shifted in this team's well-balanced chemistry, the mixture could combust.
4. How the Russians respond. As a team, the Russians finished second to the Americans in qualifying, but Viktoria Komova, who finished second to Wieber at last year's world championships, qualified first overall and ahead of all three Americans. Komova is the best Russian gymnast in years and leads a talented squad with a real chance -- and a definite hunger -- to reclaim its role as the top program in women's gymnastics. On paper, this American squad is simply too deep and too confident, but more than half the team left the arena in tears on Sunday, their swagger stifled. The Russians have certainly spent the past two days figuring out how to take advantage of a U.S. team that's been thrown off its game.
5. Douglas on bars, and in the mix zone. Before Douglas performs her first release move, take a breath -- because it's quite possible you won't for the remainder of her routine. The gymnast coach Bela Karolyi nicknamed the "Flying Squirrel" is brilliant on bars. But over the past year, she also has emerged as a rock for Team USA and the athlete to beat in Thursday's individual all-around competition. Douglas has been gaining momentum and confidence over the past year and will be a leader during this team competition. But while her talent will win her medals, her personality will make her a star. At the USOC media summit in Dallas in May, Douglas was still virtually unknown outside the gymnastics world. But it was more than her story -- at 14, Douglas moved away from her home in Virginia Beach to train with Shawn Johnson's coach, Liang Chow, in Des Moines, Iowa -- that made her the star of those Dallas interview sessions. She was engaging, outspoken and downright funny everything young, sheltered gymnasts usually are not.