RIO DE JANEIRO – There were smiles and hugs all around, even a celebratory chant. Winning gold felt good – awfully good – even if everyone in the arena knew this U.S. gymnastics team was simply too good to lose.
This was the U.S. basketball team – men or women – crushing an opponent by 50 points. This was Michael Phelps lapping the field in the relay.
“It was just like another competition for us,” said 19-year-old Madison Kocian. “It didn’t even feel like the Olympics.”
What might be history’s most superb collection of gymnasts put together – led by Simone Biles, a teenager who may one day be crowned the greatest gymnast – put on the show the sport had been waiting for Tuesday in a performance that was over almost by the time Laurie Hernandez finished the first vault.
In a sport usually decided by the smallest of margins, the U.S. women obliterated the competition, finishing a whopping 8 points ahead of the silver medalist Russians. They did it by winning every discipline, finishing it off when Biles bounded to a finish in the floor exercise that by then had been rendered meaningless.
Two of the members of the self-titled “Final Five” won gold medals for their second Olympics in a row. The three others pocketed their first, though there should be others to come before everything is wrapped up a week from now in Rio.
They did it for themselves and they did it for their country. They did it for national team coordinator Martha Karolyi, who is retiring after her final Olympics and enjoys fierce loyalty from her charges.
But they also did it for each other, for the long hours spent training and living together as they were molded into an Olympic team to behold.
“It is the hardest sport in the world and we make it so easy. At least that’s what people tell us,” Biles said. “The pride we show on the floor is really genuine.”
This is a team so deep that Gabby Douglas – the spectacular star in London four years ago – was a mere role player, going out for only a turn on the uneven bars. She sat, legs crossed, just watching as her teammates warmed up for the final floor performance.
Later she stood, fingering the gold medal she will add to the two she won in London.
“It never gets old,” Douglas said. “It’s so refreshing. It doesn’t feel different. It feels the same. Going out there and competing with these amazing girls and standing on that podium, it feels the same.”
Many on the team will now have to compete with each other as medals will be awarded in the individual events and the all-around. Led by Biles – who has a legitimate shot at making Olympic history with five gymnastic golds – they could win them all.
They’re all part of a team so good it had to have a name. The Final Five is a tribute to both Karolyi in her last Olympics and the fact that in Tokyo four years from now the teams will be limited to one less member.
For Biles, the Olympic debut couldn’t have gone any better. The 19-year-old is a three-time world champion and so dominant that she is a prohibitive favorite in her remaining four events, but still had to deal with the realization this is the world’s biggest stage.
“I slept OK, I had some weird dreams,” Biles said. “The moment we all woke up we were so happy and so excited. We’ve trained so hard for this. We expected to hit all our routines and be very confident because we did it in practice.”
Cool under pressure, they delivered what everyone expected and they delivered it in style. Thanks to NBC’s heavy coverage of their sport, they were introduced in prime time to America and America has to like what it sees.
There might be some tears later, maybe after everyone is done. For now, though, these are terrific athletes in search of more than just a team gold.
That doesn’t mean they aren’t happy, even if they find it a bit difficult to describe just how happy they are.
“I haven’t found the word yet,” Biles said. “I need a dictionary.”
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