TOKYO — Gathering her young teammates before they took the floor, Aly Raisman told them this was going to be a night they'd remember for the rest of their lives, so they better make it count.
Did they ever.
With a performance that was part coming-out party, part coronation, the U.S. won its third title at the world gymnastics championships on Tuesday, letting everyone know it is the team to beat next summer in London. Even runner-up Russia had to applaud the Americans, who never missed a beat despite losing Beijing Olympics captain Alicia Sacramone to an Achilles injury.
"No, I'm not surprised," said Raisman, whose quiet leadership on and off the floor gave the Americans strength after Sacramone's injury. "Even though this is a really young team, we're all so prepared and we all have such a close bond. I had a feeling we were going to do really well here."
And they might be even better next year.
This was the first world championships for Jordyn Wieber, McKayla Maroney, Sabrina Vega and Gabby Douglas, and only Raisman's second. Olympic gold medalist Shawn Johnson will anchor the Pan American team later this month. Olympic champion Nastia Liukin just announced her return, and the Americans should get Sacramone, six-time world medalist Rebecca Bross and former world champions Chellsie Memmel and Bridget Sloan back from injuries.
Oh, two-time U.S. junior champ Kyla Ross is waiting in the wings, too.
"The USA program takes a lot of knocks, but when it comes down to it ... it's obviously working," U.S. coach John Geddert said. "I only see it getting better."
That's bad news for everybody else, because the Americans were a class above Tuesday night.
The U.S. scored 179.411 points and beat defending champion Russia by a whopping 4 points. They didn't miss a single routine in qualifying or team finals – that's 32-for-32 – and counted just one score below 14.5 on Tuesday night. Eighth-place Australia, on the other hand, counted just three scores above 14.5.
By the time Raisman and Wieber finished making the balance beam look like child's play, everyone in the arena knew the Americans were going to be taking home some nice new jewelry – never mind that there was one event still to go. As the last notes of Raisman's floor music faded, the Americans jumped up and down and exchanged hugs. They gave a big cheer of "U-S-A!" as they waited for Raisman's score, then walked off the floor, index fingers held high in the air.
It was the third world title for the U.S., and first since 2007.
"It's all about opportunities and, when they knock, you've got to answer the door," said Geddert, Wieber's personal coach. "They did."
Olympic champion China was a distant third. Romania, which won five straight titles from 1994 to 2001, was fourth for a second year in a row.
Losing Sacramone to a torn Achilles last Thursday was a huge blow. Not only is Sacramone the unquestioned team leader, she puts up huge scores on vault, where she's the defending world champion, balance beam and floor exercise.
Yet instead of collapsing, the Americans got even stronger.
"I think they're oblivious," Geddert said. "They just have fun and go do what they're supposed to do. I didn't see one ounce of nerves out there. They were just doing gymnastics."
However, team finals are a different type of pressure-cooker. Scoring starts from scratch and the format changes, with three gymnasts competing on each event and all three scores counting. There is zero room for error – or growing pains.
Oozing confidence as they strutted onto the floor, the Americans immediately threw down a challenge to the Russians with three huge scores on vault. Raisman had the "weakest" vault – any other country would have been thrilled to count it for their highest score – and executed it perfectly. Then came Wieber and Maroney, who each do one of the hardest vaults in the world – a roundoff onto the takeoff board, back handspring onto the vault and then 2.5 twists before landing.
Wieber's was possibly the best she's done all year, soaring high above the vault and needing only a small step to the side to control her landing. The Americans had barely finished slapping hands when Maroney did her one better. She got such great height the folks in the lower section had to crane their necks to see her, and her legs were pencil-straight in the air. Despite all that power, her feet hit the mat with a solid thud and stayed put, not budging a centimeter.
There was no way the Russians could match the U.S. effort – they don't have the difficulty – and they didn't come close. Neither Ksenia Afanaseva nor Viktoria Komova got much height, and Tatiana Nabieva was so low she nearly landed hers on her knees.
"I thought we just needed to keep doing what we were doing," Raisman said. "If we all stayed on the events, we would have the gold medal around our necks. But I tried not to think about it too much because I didn't want to put too much pressure on myself or the other girls."
The teams moved to uneven bars and, if Russia was going to catch the U.S. anywhere, it would be here. Komova looked like a ballerina as she pirouetted on the high bar, and flitted from one bar to the other with the lightness of a feather. She had a slight hop on her dismount, but her score – 15.566 – helped the Russians pare the American lead down to about 1.5 points midway through the meet.
It was as close as they'd get.
Raisman could have been flustered when she was made to wait for what seemed like 10 minutes before starting her balance beam routine. Instead she opened with a front aerial somersault that was done with more ease than most people manage cartwheels. On flat ground. Every element was done with precision and perfect control, and she trotted off with a look like, "What? That's what I expected to do."
That brought up Wieber, who has only solidified herself as the favorite to win another gold medal in Thursday's all-around final. The beam is a mere 4-inches wide and 4-feet in the air, yet Wieber makes it look as big and wide as a parking lot. She appeared to land one aerial series with one foot hanging over the side of the beam, yet never even wobbled. She flowed from one difficult element right into the next as if to say, "Oh, you liked that? Here's another one."
"We just came in as confident and aggressive as we could," Wieber said. "We knew if we just did our routines the way we could do them, we'd be fine and the outcome would be great."
Any last doubts were erased by Komova's meltdown on the final two events. The Youth Olympic Games champion swayed on the landing of a front aerial somersault, then tumbled off the beam at the end of a back handspring series. The crowd gasped, and what little light was in Komova's face disappeared. She then underrotated her first tumbling pass on floor, and had to stumble backward, crablike, to keep from falling over completely.
Still, Russian Alexander Alexandrov insisted he was more than "satisfied" with second place. Anna Dementyeva had been running a fever in recent days, and the Russians were without defending world champion Aliya Mustafina, who blew out her knee in April.
But the Americans had challenges, too, and rose above them – right to the top of the podium.
"Oh my gosh, it was amazing. One of the greatest feelings ever," Wieber said, clutching her medal. "I'm so proud of our team. We basically wanted to come out today and not only hit our routines but also have fun, just enjoy this experience. I'm so happy it turned out awesome."