By Jo-Ann Barnas, Special Contributor
One last gymnast to go, one last routine, and then the U.S. Olympic team gold medal celebration wouldn’t just begin, it would explode.
It doesn’t matter which teammate raced to Simone Biles first after she struck her finishing pose, her back arching like a rainbow on the floor exercise mat. They were all there to greet her, mob her, shouting and screaming, each and every one of them: Aly Raisman, Gabby Douglas, Madison Kocian and Laurie Hernandez.
In a matter of moments, they would engulf their leader, Martha Karolyi, who would sob so unabashedly in front of them when Raisman delivered the news: They were naming their Olympic gold-medal winning team after her, in part to honor Karolyi’s fifth and final Summer Olympics as the retiring longtime matriarch of USA Gymnastics women’s program, and also as a way to commemorate that the group was Team USA’s last five-member team because team sizes will be reduced to four at the 2020 Tokyo Games.
What else: The Final Five.
It was Karolyi’s Final Five, and it had followed the golden footsteps of the two other U.S. Olympic women’s team champions before them: the Magnificent Seven (1996) and Fierce Five (2012).
“We need to go and sleep and wake up, before we see that it’s real,” Biles said.
It’s real alright.
The U.S. women did much more than defend the team title it had won in London, becoming the first back-to-back Olympic gold medalists since Romania in 2000 and 2004. They crushed the competition. Their score of 184.897 points was more than eight points better than Russia (176.688), which edged China (176.003) for the bronze medal.
The Americans won every single event – vault, uneven bars, balance beam and floor – in jaw-dropping style, the distance between them and the rest of the rest growing with each passing rotation. They had a .700 lead after vault, 4.026 after bars, then 4.961 after beam. Their lead was so large that before Olympic rookie Hernandez, 16, led off on floor in the three-up, three-count final that she reminded Raisman and Biles that “we don’t have to do it perfect; we just have to do a regular floor routine.”
“That was it,” Raisman said. “We just had to be normal. We would have won with a couple of falls, but I’m glad that we didn’t because we had that magical moment of hitting 12 for 12.”
There had been signs that the U.S. had been building toward this kind of romping performance – even before they rolled through team qualifying last Sunday, finishing nearly 10 points higher than the second-best team, China.
Since winning gold in London, the U.S. women have been going nowhere but up, especially when Biles became age-eligible to join the senior national team shortly after those Games. With her as their anchor – Biles has won the last three World all-around titles and has a chance to win a record five gold medals before the Rio Games are over — Team USA hasn’t missed a beat, winning World team titles in 2014 and 2015 (the team event wasn’t held in 2013).
“At this moment, I can say the United States dominates the world of gymnastics,” Karolyi said after the medal ceremony with a smile.
Although the Americans were confident from the get-go, that didn’t mean they didn’t experience pre-meet jitters before marching into the arena in their patriotic red, white and blue leotards.
Raisman, who was shown on the scoreboard screen blowing out a deep, calming breath, said: “Before walking out, we were nervous, and someone said, ‘Wait, we won by 10 points the other the other day, we don’t have to be perfect. We just have to be our normal selves.’’’
When she heard that, Raisman, captaining her second straight Olympic team, said she responded: “We all worked so hard. We deserve to have a good competition.”
London Olympic returnees Raisman and Douglas became the first women gymnasts from the U.S. to capture three gold medals at the Olympics, each owning team golds in London, as well as Douglas’s all-around and Raisman’s floor titles.
“It took a lot of hard work to come back,” said Raisman, who said she was allowing her tearfully happy coach, Mihai Brestyan, to wear her gold medal for 20 minutes after the gold-medal ceremony. “I think a lot of people looked at me and Gabby like we were crazy. It’s cheesy, but don’t let anybody ever tell you can’t do something.”
Competing in the same rotation as China, the U.S. women’s goal was to follow Karolyi’s advice and to attack each apparatus the way that they’ve been trained. It had worked two days earlier in qualifying. And it worked Tuesday.
They began on vault, with Hernandez – remember, the Olympics are her first major senior international competition – racing down the runway like a steely vet. The result produced a veteran-like result; she performed her double-twisting Yurchenko with relative ease, only a slight step to the side on the landing, for a 15.100.
Then came Raisman, who soared through the air performing one of her best Amanar’s of the year (15.833). The closer came a few moments later with Biles’ soaring even higher than Raisman on her Amanar, taking only the smallest hop on her landing for a 15.933.
On the uneven bars, the U.S. team was efficient: Biles had a slight arm bend but scored a 14.800. That was followed by Douglas’s 15.766 and then Kocian, 2015 World champion, making the apparatus look effortless, sticking her landing for a brilliant 15.933.
“I just to tried to keep the same mentality as qualification,” Kocian said. “It’s just really exciting to be a part of this team.”
Next up was balance beam, and Karoyli had a front-row seat in the stands above the apparatus to see the action (only Olympic coaches are allowed on the floor).
Raisman went first, landing her first series like a cat after being slight off in the air, scoring 15.000. Hernandez was better: 15.233. Then came the closer, Biles, who competed her routine in workmanlike fashion for a 15.300.
Somewhere in the stands was Nellie Biles, Simone’s mother, who had taken to social media to wish her and Aimee Boorman, Simone’s personal coach and the U.S. Olympic team coach, an hour before the competition: “Wearing out my rosary beads/Coach you got this/Simone just be the best Simone/love you Mom”.
Raisman said Biles is part of the reason why she has improved in some aspects of her gymnastics the last four years.
“Her difficulty is so high, I had to upgrade my floor routine,” Raisman said. “Usually, when you’re coming back for a second Olympics, it’s not ideal to do double layout (on your) third pass, but I had to step it up because of Simone. But we’re all grateful that she’s so good because she pushes us to the next level, and we kind of feed off each other’s energy.”
By the time the U.S. women reached the last rotation, floor exercise, the “USA! USA!’’ cheers were already beginning to build.
“The crowd was awesome,” Raisman said.
Gold within sight, Hernandez went first and posted a 14.833 for her sassy, energetic routine. Next came Raisman’s 15.366. By then, Kocian, Douglas and Hernandez had all moved in for a closer look. When the anchor, Biles, delivered for team USA with another hit routine – making it 28 straight over two days, including the qualifying – the party was already well underway.
The Final Five had arrived with a flourish.
“I can’t believe what we did tonight,” Biles said. “I mean, I can believe it, because we’ve been putting in five weeks of hard work for this moment, and I know all of our hard work has paid off tonight. But we still don’t believe it. We need to go and sleep and wake up, before we see that it’s real.”
Now about that nickname: It should be known that the U.S. women settled on the name via a texting team chat. It also should be known that no tears were shed by them. As for Karoyli? That was another story.
“I’m very proud, yes, and I cried,” she said. “I’m not sentimental, but when Aly told me the name of the team is the Final Five, that was the moment I started crying again.”
Asked why, Karolyi’s eyes rimmed with tears.
“It’s crushing,” she said, her voice cracking.
Crushing because it’s the end of her reign, yes. But not of Team USA’s.
Raisman said Karolyi told them, “This is why I make you workout so much. I know sometimes it’s boring or you want to go on strike, but this is why I do it, for these moments.”
Raisman smiled. Karolyi also told the team that she loved them.
“We knew where she was sitting tonight, so we’d always look for her and make eye contact with her,” Raisman said. “And before floor, she was giving us a little talk from the stands when she was up there. Without her, this wouldn’t be possible.”