LONDON -- It was easy to hear American gymnast Aly Raisman arriving for her news conference: She clanked. The sound of a gold medal knocking against a bronze preceded her like a set of heavy wind chimes.
On the last day of an exhausting, drawn-out meet with as many turns of fortune as the child's board game of Chutes and Ladders, Raisman found the composure, energy and flair to win two individual event medals, gold in floor exercise and bronze on the balance beam, to add to the U.S. team gold she shares. Perhaps one of the reasons the Boston-area native is leaving London with all that weight around her neck is because she came in with very little weight on her shoulders.
Yet her day still embodied the carnival ride the Americans have been on. Her score on the beam initially placed her fourth -- the same unenviable spot she found herself in after being on the wrong side of a tiebreak in the all-around. This time, the judges reviewed a full turn at her coach's request and corrected their initial impression that the moves within it hadn't been connected. The new math put her in a tie for bronze, only this time the tiebreak favored her.
That medal put her in an excellent frame of mind for the finale in floor exercise. "I had nothing to lose," Raisman said of the strong, elegant routine that won her a gold to end the competition on a high note for the United States. "It was going to be my last memory from London, and I wanted to make it count."
The U.S. women had a glitzy Summer Games even though the teenager expected to lead them as recently as a few months ago was apparently competing injured. Jordyn Wieber, who somersaulted into prominence by winning world championships gold less than a year ago, did her part for the group but couldn't deliver for herself. Gabrielle Douglas supplanted her as the face of the team by capturing the individual all-around championship, while Raisman accumulated the most total medals.
Understandably fatigued-looking a few days after her coronation, Douglas fell on the beam and looked out of sorts, finishing seventh in the event. Wieber stepped outside the boundaries of the floor exercise mat after her second tumbling pass and gamely finished her routine, looking stricken afterward.
The women's total of five medals was fewer than the eight won in Beijing, but given that Wieber was competing at less than full speed, the end result here has to be considered successful.
Only after the work crews at the ExCeL arena began dismantling the pink floor and signboards to get ready for the late rounds of Olympic basketball was it confirmed that Wieber has been training with pain in her right leg, likely from a stress fracture. She will go from trying to spring and flip and plant both feet in an impossibly small landing zone under the world's microscope to hobbling in a walking boot back in her hometown in Michigan.
None of this should surprise anyone who follows this sport. It takes years to peak as a female gymnast, but often a matter of mere weeks to see the accumulated impacts break down joints and cartilage and spirit. Douglas, who had more problems with focus than with mechanics as an emerging talent, began to outkick Wieber in the homestretch of the Olympic lead-up a few months ago, while Raisman trailed quietly in the slipstream. Their timing was everything.
Male gymnasts have the benefit of a physical maturity curve that rewards rather than penalizes them and makes for continuity from one Olympics to the next.
There's no doubt the U.S. men, undone collectively and individually by one bad day at the worst time in the team finals, would have liked London to have been more than a stepping stone. They came here hoping to improve on last year's silver at the world championships but backslid from first in qualifying to fifth in the final and lost chances at individual event finals. The team came away with a lone medal -- 20-year-old showman Danell Leyva's individual all-around bronze.
But they also have a great chance of getting much of the young band back together for Rio 2016 with more difficult routines and a deeper understanding of how to be consistent in the Olympic crucible. The senior member of the group, 26-year-old Jonathan Horton, said he sees no obstacles to staying at the highest level until then. If he stays injury-free, he could be right.
"Mistakes were made, but it's only going to make us stronger," Horton said. "It's going to fuel our every move in workouts for the next four years. Our plan is to walk away with that gold medal."