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US women grab team gymnastics gold

By Linda Robertson, McClatchy Newspapers –

LONDON—One after another, American gymnasts sprinted down the runway, flipped onto the takeoff board and soared over the vault.

They never really came down.

Building on a lead established with their first dynamic dismounts, the U.S. women’s gymnastics team twirled and tumbled through a succession of remarkably clean routines to win the country’s first Olympic gold medal in the event since 1996.

(PHOTO: USA’s Gabrielle Douglas performs on the balance beam in the women’s gymnastics team final during the Summer Olympic Games in London, England, Tuesday, July 31, 2012.)

At the Atlanta Games, the Magnificent Seven included Shannon Miller, Dominique Dawes and Kerri Strug, who vaulted the U.S. to victory on a sprained ankle.

In London, inside raucous North Greenwich Arena, the Fab Five of Jordyn Wieber, Gabby Douglas, Aly Raisman, Kyla Ross and McKayla Maroney won even more convincingly than their predecessors. They scored 183.596 points to beat silver medalist Russia by 5.066 points, a huge margin in a sport where the slightest wobble can decide scores carried to thousandths.

As they waited for the final order to be posted, the Americans in their sparkly red leotards clutched each other’s hands tightly and looked up at the scoreboard, though the outcome was never in doubt. When the numbers flashed, the gymnasts wrapped each other in tearful embraces as spectators chanted, “USA! USA!”

It was a long time coming. The Americans are defending world champions and were determined to affirm their No. 1 status, something the 2004 and 2008 Olympic teams failed to do. The U.S. not only dominated Russia, but also third-place Romania and fourth-place China, which won the 2008 Beijing Games team title with at least two underage athletes. China was back with a couple girls who barely looked old enough to be the lead in a sixth-grade play but this time was not even close, finishing seventh on floor and fifth on vault.

The only event the U.S. did not win was uneven bars. Aly Raisman earned the highest score of the night on floor exercise in the final rotation. McKayla Maroney was the only gymnast to surpass the 16-point barrier with a 16.233 on her specialty, vault. Douglas was the only gymnast to score 15-plus on all four apparatuses.

“I like the nickname Fab Five but I call us the Fierce Five because we were the fiercest, and we’re all babies,” Maroney, 16, said of her teenaged teammates, all competing in their first Olympics. “It was the best feeling in the world to watch that flag go up.”

Jordyn Wieber, the defending world champion, overcame the stunning disappointment of not qualifying on Sunday for Thursday’s all-around finals. She finished fourth, with teammates Douglas and Raisman ahead of her. Only two gymnasts per country can advance. So Wieber showed her versatile brilliance on Tuesday, and her opening 15.933 on vault set the tone.

“Today was pretty good redemption,” Wieber said. “I knew it was an important job to be first on vault. You work so hard for that one 30-second vault and to stick it was amazing.”

Wieber, Douglas and Maroney each performed the difficult Amanar vault, which includes a roundoff mount, back handspring and 2-1/2-twisting flip dismount. Most teams are fortunate to have one gymnast who can do it. U.S. coach John Geddert said it ought to be renamed the Maroney because of her high-flying execution of it.

“Those first three vaults, it was contagious,” Douglas said. “It carried over to bars, beam and floor.”

U.S. team coordinator Martha Karolyi’s strategy was to emerge from vault with at least a half-point cushion going into uneven bars, the U.S. team’s weakest event. The U.S. had the third-highest score on bars, good enough to hold off China, which was accumulating mistakes, and Russia. Karolyi’s preparations for the team included piping loud music and crowd noise into practice sessions.

Beam was the key, said Bela Karolyi, who last coached the U.S. women to gold. Martha decided to put Douglas on beam rather than Wieber. Douglas had a higher start value but she also carried higher risk of falling off. But she steadied herself through a couple lurches and flowed through her skills with surprising artistry.

“That’s when the Russians started to shake,” Bela said, and sure enough Victoria Komova had to take a big step off the mat on her dismount.

On floor, the Russians cracked. Anastasia Grishina flubbed a tumbling pass badly, taking extra, awkward steps. Then Kseniia Afanaseva wrecked an elegant routine by landing on her knees.

After Douglas and Wieber dazzled – Douglas with speed, Wieber with big air – Raisman needed only a basic 10.252 points to keep the U.S. in first. She earned 15.3 even playing it safe and it was only a matter of addition before the U.S. triumph was announced.

“It’s a fantastic achievement, but at the same time, we don’t need to get our noses up in the air because you are just as good as you are on your performance day,” said Martha Karolyi, anticipating the all-around and event finals to come. “This is the result of a lot of work for many, many years. We can’t think, ‘Just because we’re Olympic team champion, we can relax.’”

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