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The Final Five, Finally: Team USA’s Golden Gymnastics Showing Was Close to Perfect

Getty Images
Getty Images

If you came in search of drama, there wasn’t much to find. There were no crumply-faced hysterics following a fall; no not-mad-just-disappointed coaches subtly freezing their athletes out. No American gymnasts were forced to stare down the vault or beam in silence, knowing they needed some certain score to edge a despised opponent by a sequin’s width. Even the opponents weren’t as despised as usual: The best place to find a good ol’ Cold War in these Rio games has turned out to be in the pool, not in the gym.

Instead, the five women on Team USA raised their glittering arms, smiled wide, and coolly stuck the landing. They used Tuesday’s team competition like an apparatus about which to expertly maneuver. The margin of 8.209 points separating their gold-medal finish from Russia’s silver was outside the normal realm of competition. It was a showcase for the world’s best talent and a coronation for Martha Karolyi, the U.S. national team coordinator, who will retire after Rio. And it was so utterly expected that the team members had an immediate branding plan.

Ever since the night the Rio team was selected back at the Olympic trials in July, they’d been repeatedly asked the question: What’s your name? History had the Kerri Strug–era Magnificent Seven and the 2012 Fierce Five. Suggestions that this year’s team be called the “Glam Squad” were mercifully rejected, but so far no sanctioned moniker had been announced. But moments after Simone Biles was given a score of 15.8 on her floor exercise, confirming the American gold medal, the five women huddled and half-saluted, half-anointed themselves. “FINAL FIVE!” they yelled.

This gymnastics equivalent to a band name, like all good art, can be interpreted in more than one way. It is a heartfelt tribute to the constantly evolving and always-confusing matrix of rules changes in the sport. (At the next summer Olympics, in Tokyo, the team competition will feature teams of four, not five.) It was a cheeky farewell to Karolyi, the team’s longtime queen. (Like so many former rulers, it’s probable she’ll still find ways to meddle.) And it sounded a lot like the word finally: Finally, they did it. Finally, after all this buildup, the American gymnasts proved worth the remarkable hype.

At U.S. trials, USA Gymnastics president Steve Penny said that for Karolyi in the Olympics, “her goal is for all the girls to hit.” This meant no out of bounds, no off the beam, no on your butt — this meant no drama. For years, her (and her husband, Bela’s) approach to training had been designed to find and shape the top performers, the people who could best be relied upon to entertain on command. It’s why she lets athletes train at their home gyms with their own people, but it’s also why she makes sure to test them, and push them, and sometimes upset them on a regular basis herself.

In the team finals, everyone did the duties they were selected to do. Madison Kocian and Gabby Douglas nailed it on the uneven bars, with Kocian’s 15.9333 the day’s top score in the event. Biles flew higher than anyone and led all competitors on the vault, beam, and floor, landing her tumbling runs and dismounts like she was being suctioned to the floor. Laurie Hernandez, the team’s youngest member at 16, was her usual vivid self on the floor and beam, while the 22-year-old captain known as “grandma,” Aly Raisman, was an elegant veteran. “Business as usual,” the NBC announcers said again and again about the United States, often over footage of someone from the Chinese team screwing up in the background. They also frequently talked about how they didn’t really know what to say: How many alternatives are there to the general concept of whoa, ha ha, once again that was awesome?

Going into the Olympics, there were a few loose threads here and there for the U.S. — nothing that threatened to unravel those beautiful red, white, and blue leotards, but the sorts of things that could have loosened a few crystals or left a few snags. Douglas’s inclusion on the team rubbed some observers the wrong way, considering she finished seventh at the trials. When her mother began mentioning a previously undisclosed injury to the media, it hinted at the kind of distraction that can take on a life of its own. And when Hernandez’s coach Maggie Haney, saddened by her pupil’s exclusion from all-around contention in favor of Douglas and Raisman, said that she’d spent a lot of time crying, it was hard not to worry that this signified some sort of discord.

But in the end, none of it much mattered. Raisman earned her all-around final spot in Sunday’s qualifiers in such a manner that it quieted any controversy about who should get a shot in Thursday’s final. (Well, except for the controversy about the very existence of the two-athlete limit.) Douglas’s uneven bars routine in Tuesday’s team final left her beaming and quietly pumping her fist. Hernandez charmed the crowd and demonstrated why she has a shot at medaling in the beam final next Monday, even if the all-around isn’t on her schedule. Biles was just, well — whoa, ha ha, once again that was awesome.

The U.S. was so dominant, and the Americans’ routines were so ambitious, that numerous women could have screwed up and they still would have finished first. But that was never the goal; as this U.S. team sees it, that’s what aspiring silver medalists like Russia and China do. (To Russia’s credit, its battle for second place, which Russia won by less than seven-tenths of a point over China, provided some of the day’s only tension.) For the Final Five, the goal was to do what was expected, and what was expected was close to perfection. It may not have been dramatic, but it was one hell of a show.