By Jo-Ann Barnas, Special contributor
Rio De Janeiro – Their eyes met right before Simone Biles mounted the balance beam, and the three-time world champion could feel a sense of calmness come over her.
Here was Biles, about to perform the 20th and final routine for the U.S. Olympic women’s gymnastics team during team qualification Sunday at the Rio Olympic Arena. And there was the matriarch of Team USA’s women’s program – 73-year-old Martha Karolyi – watching from her seat in the stands, a stoic look on her face masking the pride and happiness she felt inside.
“Before beam, I couldn’t see her – but right before I went up and did my routine, I looked straight at her,” Biles said. “She said, ‘You got it, Simone.'”
Less than two minutes later, Biles hit her dismount and her teammates hit the celebration button: A perfect finish to a magnificent day of gymnastics.
The U.S. women dominated not only their subdivision but the rest of the field, taking the top ranking into Tuesday night’s team finals after amassing 185.238 points – nearly 10 points more than second-place China (175.279). And although the Americans finished 1-2-3 in the individual all-around qualification, only Biles (62.366) and runner-up Aly Raisman (60.607) will advance to Thursday’s all-around final while third-place finisher Gabby Douglas (60.131), the defending Olympic champion, will be left out because of the two-per country rule.
In addition to the U.S. and China, rounding out the eight-team field in the finals are Russia, Great Britain, Brazil, Germany, Japan and the Netherlands.
Raisman and Douglas are the lone returnees from the Olympic team that won gold in London, and Raisman is looking forward to trying to add more medals to her resume beginning Tuesday. She also the reigning Olympic champ on floor exercise and returning bronze medalist on balance beam.
“Besides the little thing on beam, it was the best meet I’ve ever had,” Raisman said with a smile. “I’m very excited. I finally did the vault the way I’m capable of doing (an Amanar, scoring 15.766). I’ve worked so hard on it, and the barswas the best score I’ve ever done (14.733) so I’m very proud.”
The U.S. women delivered the highest scores of the day on all four events – Madison Kocian on uneven bars (15.866), and Biles on vault (16.050), beam (15.633) and floor exercise (15.733). They’ll be joined in the event finals by Raisman on floor exercise (second, 15.275), Douglas on uneven bars (third, 15.766) and Laurie Hernandez on beam (second, 15.366).
“I think everyone out there, we all performed how we trained, and that’s all very special – something we have to keep for team finals and any event finals that we qualified for,” Biles said.
In the last five years, Team USA has won every Olympic and World Championship team and individual all-around title. And it’s hard to imagine the wheels falling off anytime soon, even though Karoyli is set to retire after Rio, her fifth Olympics in charge of the women’s program.
U.S. Olympic coach Aimee Boorman, who is also Biles’ personal coach, said the team was a delight to coach Sunday.
“They were not only physically prepared, but mentally prepared, and that’s a nice place to be because you don’t have to snap anybody into place,” she said. “It was fantastic. They were in a great state of mind, their energy was up.”
Wearing their razzle-dazzle, sparkling red, white and blue leotards – stars one arm, stripes on the other – the U.S. built its lead from two points after floor exercise – their first event – to more than eight by the time they ended on balance beam.
For certain Biles – and even Kocian and Hernandez – didn’t show any signs of nervousness of being first-time Olympians.
“When I first walked out there, when we were marching in for our first event, it hit me, “‘Wow. We’re at the Olympics!’ I got a little bit of butterflies,” Kocian said. “But I took a deep breath, and prayed a little bit. This is a dream come true. This whole experience is amazing.”
From her view from her seat in t he stands, Karolyi could only marvel at what she saw, especially from Biles – from sticking both of her vault landings like lawn darts to motoring through her floor routine to a solid 15.000 and whipping through her balance beam routine with ease.
“Simone is Simone,” Karolyi said. “She is a big talent, but she proved also at controlling herself and how she is able to perform under pressure. There’s a reason why she’s three-time World champion. Simone is doing gymnastics because she wants to prove to the world how good she is. She’s not doing it for mom, dad or the public – or for me. You’re doing this gymnastics because you want to be the best you can be. Simone just demonstrates that. She’s able to block out the other things and she’s able to set her own expectations and she’s not bothered by other people’s expectations.”
Despite not advancing to the all-around final, Douglas said she was pleased of the way she came back this season – and the way she competed on all four events Sunday.
“It’s not really a bummer,” she said. “I wanted to go out there and defend my title, but it is what it is. I’m still rejoicing. I’m pretty pleased with everything overall because there’s nothing to be ashamed about.”
Biles, who closed out her set on beam with a smile, said: “Every one of us qualified for an event final so I don’t think we could ask for anymore. We have team and then event finals, and that’s really special for all of us. It’s been an incredible journey. I think tonight we made everyone proud.”