As per tradition, the gymnastics competitions at the 2012 Olympics were filled with hit routines and unique skills, as well as stumbles, falls, wobbles, and everything in between. The U.S. Olympic gymnastics teams leave London with a combined six medals, five on the women's side and one for the men. While both teams have plenty to celebrate, there are also some lingering disappointments that cannot be taken back. Here are the highlights, lowlights, and total shocks for the U.S. gymnastics teams at the 2012 Olympics.
In 1996, the Magnificent Seven won the United States' first team gold medal in front of a home audience in Atlanta. In 2012, the Fierce Five finally garnered the U.S.'s second. Team USA hit every single routine, even on their combined weakest event, bars. After every gymnast survived beam, it was clear they would win the gold. Their only real competition, Russia, was consistently in second place. In both 2004 and 2008, individual U.S. women took home gold medals, but for only the second time, every U.S. female gymnast brought home a gold medal in 2012.
While the U.S. has struggled to win team gold, it has a recent trend in the women's all-around: in 2004, Carly Patterson won gold, and Nastia Liukin repeated for the U.S. in 2008. In 2012, Gabby Douglas continued the streak. Douglas had a perfect competition, especially shining on bars and beam. Her focus was spot on and evident on her face, and she performed at her absolute best to win a well-deserved gold.
At 18, Aly Raisman has been a competitive gymnast for years, but at this Olympics, she finally became a household name. She started her great run with the qualifying performance that sent her to the all-around competition. She hit all four routines, including her weakest event, bars, and wound up finishing ahead of eventual all-around champion Gabby Douglas. Her consistency carried through to the team finals, where her signature floor routine guaranteed the gold medal for the U.S. Raisman really shone in the event finals. She qualified on beam and floor; she is the national champion on both and has a bronze medal on floor from the 2011 world championships, so she had a good chance to medal in both events. And medal she did. She had to wait out an enquiry and a tiebreaker due to a missed connection in her beam routine, but her gymnastics prevailed and she won a bronze on balance beam. Luckily for her, the floor competition was later that day. Boosted by her beam success, she performed the absolute best floor routine we've seen from her yet, sticking every landing. And she was rewarded with a huge score of 15.6. That easily gave her gold: Romania's Catalina Ponor, who Raisman actually beat out for bronze on beam, was a distant second with a 15.2. Raisman's been praised again and again for being steady and consistent. Now she can be praised for being an exceptional gymnast.
Another U.S. gymnast made a name for herself in London: McKayla Maroney. She stunned her teammates, the audience, and even the judges with "the vault seen around the world" in team finals: she threw the most difficult vault, an Amanar, with incredible height and perfect form, and to cap it off, she stuck the landing. Normally stoic, Maroney couldn't help letting a smile and a wiggle escape as she hugged her coach after vaulting. Her massive score of 16.233 helped propel the U.S. to team gold. Maroney was put on the team solely for her vault skills (she did not compete in any other apparatus at the Olympics), and she certainly delivered.
Another U.S. gymnast deserves a nod: Kyla Ross. Ross did not qualify for the all-around or event finals, so she was not given the same media attention as her teammates with busier schedules. Just 15, Ross was the youngest member on the team. Though her talent is undeniable, she hasn't always been consistent in competitions. Not so in London. Ross just needed to hit two routines for the U.S. in the team finals: bars and beam. She performed both beautifully and confidently, and even cried happy tears when she exited beam, knowing she had done her job for Team USA.
Two pieces of equipment really affected the U.S. women in this Olympics: balance beam and floor exercise. Balance beam is always a killer, and this Olympic cycle we saw it derail two of the top U.S. gymnasts. In the all-around final, Raisman had a chance to capitalize on Russian rival Aliya Mustafina's fall off beam to move into third place. Raisman is normally rock solid on beam and excels at the event, but on her front somersault, she lost her balance and quickly put her hands on the beam, a serious deduction. A big step on her landing brought her score down to 14.2, and she finished the all-around in fourth place.
Douglas is also a strong beam worker, but she too struggled during the week of competitions. It's understandable: after doing routine after routine in practices during the week, then in front of a worldwide audience in a major competition, Douglas was bound to miss one routine. Her qualifiers, team final, and all-around beam performances were all solid, but during the beam final, she cracked. She had a few balance checks at the start of the routine, nearly falling off on one of them, but when her foot slipped after she landed a leap and she fell off the beam, she knew it was over. Douglas hopped right back up and finished her routine, but it was a disappointing close to the Games that gave her two gold medals.
While the floor exercise turned out to be a highlight for most of the U.S. gymnasts, there were moments where it looked like it would surpass the balance beam in terms of casualties. In qualifiers, Kyla Ross, Gabby Douglas, and Jordyn Wieber all stepped out of bounds on tumbling passes, leading to worries about their performances in the team finals. The gymnasts got their adrenaline under control and all stayed in bounds when it counted for gold, but their qualifying performances were definitely worrying.
Wieber's step out of bounds cost her an all-around spot, but she had a chance to redeem herself in the floor finals. Unfortunately, she again stepped out of bounds on a leap and finished out of the medal hunt. Wieber was expected to leave London highly decorated, so it was hard for her to not win any individual medals (though that team gold should help). After her floor performance, her coach announced that she's been battling a possible stress fracture in one leg, so that could explain some of her uncharacteristic errors. Hopefully Wieber will get back into top form soon and continue to show the world why she is a top-ranked gymnast.
It has already been alluded to, but by far the biggest shock of the Olympic gymnastics competition, men's or women's, was Jordyn Wieber being knocked out of the all-around. She qualified right behind teammates Aly Raisman and Gabby Douglas, but since only two athletes from each country are allowed to compete in the all-around, there was nothing she could do. It was heart wrenching to watch Wieber quietly crying into her hands as NBC interviewed Raisman about her surprise all-around qualification. When it came time for Wieber to speak to the press, she showed the same class she did when Gabby Douglas beat her at the Olympic Trials and accepted the results. She complimented Raisman on her strong performance and said exactly the right thing: that she was looking forward to the team finals. Though Wieber was individually disappointed, she competed like a true team player and was rewarded with a team gold medal.
Gymnastics rules are constantly being adjusted or changed, and one rule that was consulted many times in the various competitions was the tiebreaker rule. We first saw it used in the all-around, when Raisman's floor score tied her for third place with Mustafina. The crowd and Raisman had no idea what to expect next-- would they both get bronze? Unfortunately, the judges broke the tie by dropping each gymnast's lowest score, and Mustafina's total was higher than Raisman's. Many called the rule unfair, even more so because Raisman received such a low floor score- 15.133 instead of her usual 15.3. It was frustrating to see Raisman come so close to joining teammate Douglas on the podium, only to see a possible medal taken away at the very end. Raisman finally got her medals in the event finals and even benefitted from a tiebreaker herself, but it will be hard to forget losing that all-around bronze.
In my blog post previewing the gymnastics event finals, I stated, "Barring a horrific fall, there is no way world vault champion McKayla Maroney should not win gold in the vault final." As the universe works, my musing came true. Maroney landed her first vault, the Amanar, with just a small hop and received a 15.8, easily the highest score in the entire vault final. On her second vault, an easier vault, she did the unthinkable and landed off-balance, falling onto her behind. I don't know which was more surprising: that Maroney didn't win gold, or that even with a fall, she still scored high enough for silver. That speaks to both the lack of depth of the vaulting field at this Olympics and to Maroney's incomparable skill. She'll continue to rack up medals on the world stage, and perhaps someday she'll get the individual gold she so deserved.
Dannell Leyva won the only medal for the men's gymnastics team: a bronze in the all-around. The all-around is the toughest event to medal in, but Leyva wasn't rattled by his impressive competitors. He got his weakest apparatus, pommel horse, out of the way early and spent the rest of the competition building on his score. On his final event, high bar, he excelled in his releases and pirouettes. When he finished the routine, he let out a yell and a grin, knowing he had delivered a performance that would keep him in contention for a medal. Leyva was favored to win a medal coming into London, and he leaves as the only U.S. man with one in hand.
The high bar also gave the U.S. team an ego boost at the end of a dismal team final competition. The men struggled through normally strong events like vault and floor, but they came alive when they hit high bar. John Orozco, Jonathan Horton, and Leyva each gave a superb performance, with Horton and Orozco sticking their landings for extra impressiveness. Their combined score on the apparatus wasn't enough to give them a medal, but they ended the competition on a high note and had something to celebrate.
The other high point from the men's team final competition was Sam Mikulak's routine on pommel horse. Even though Mikulak injured his ankle at the end of June and only competed in one day of the Olympic Trials instead of both, he was put on the Olympic team partly because of his consistency on horse. He hit a solid routine, free of major errors, and was ecstatic as he left the apparatus. His confident pommel horse routine was an achievement in the midst of the U.S.'s error-filled team performance.
The other male gymnasts may not have medalled, but the U.S. did a solid job of qualifying plenty of men to event finals. The U.S. sent four out of five gymnasts to event finals, which is impressive considering how strong of a field they were up against. None of the U.S. men medalled in an event final, but they placed well and showed they were not afraid of some of their more experienced competitors.
In the team finals, the most important event for Team USA was going to be pommel horse. This is by far the team's weakest apparatus, but as long as they hit clean routines and stayed on the horse, they could make up their low difficulty scores on stronger events like vault and high bar. Mikulak delivered a hit routine, but Orozco and Leyva, the overall strongest members of the U.S. squad, faltered. Both had poor showings: Leyva actually came off the horse, but he still scored higher than Orozco, who fell onto the horse and managed to stay on. The U.S.'s inconsistency on this event cost them a team medal.
While Mikulak did a great job on the pommel horse in team finals, he also made a major mistake on floor. He landed a tumbling pass too low and was forced to put his hands on the floor, inciting a large deduction. The floor exercise was the first event for the U.S. in team finals, so that unexpected mistake likely rattled the team and prompted later errors.
Leyva is the world champion on parallel bars, but in qualifiers, he had an off day and finished in twelfth, just two places out of qualifying for the event final. He still qualified for the high bar final, but it was disappointing that he lost the chance to try and defend his parallel bars title.
Going into the Olympic Games, the U.S. was expected to be a strong contender for a team bronze medal, behind powerhouses China and Japan. Team USA's standings from qualifiers and team finals were both surprising. The U.S. men actually qualified in first place for the team competition, thanks to shockingly error-filled performances from both the Chinese and Japanese teams. Previously, all teams' qualifying scores carried over to the final competition and were a factor in that score, but new rules mandate each country's score be wiped clean for the team final. Maybe the U.S. men came into the team competition with too much confidence, because they were not the same team from qualifiers. At qualifiers, Team USA knew they were the underdogs and fought their way to the top, but at team finals, they made error after error and fell from first to fifth.
It's cruel to point fingers, but it's unmistakable that John Orozco was responsible for many of those errors in the team final. Orozco had received plenty of media attention heading into London: he beat Leyva to win the U.S. national title in June, and he was expected to contend again at the Olympic all-around competition. Before the all-around, he had to get through team finals--and this is where Orozco faltered. He bungled his pommel horse routine and fell on his vault, two major errors that we typically don't see from this accomplished gymnast. His disappointment in himself was clear as he struggled to fight back tears. He again fell short in the all-around final, placing eighth. Orozco has some more soul searching and training to do before his next international competition, but his performance in the Olympics is not indicative of his true capabilities.
Predictions For the Future:
The U.S. teams did well with their six medal haul, but after scoring ten in the Beijing games, there is room for improvement. 2012's women's team had the most depth of any Olympic team in recent years, but there were fewer standout performances like the ones given by Nastia Liukin and Shawn Johnson in 2008. The women also need to work on their consistency: watching the Chinese athletes perform on balance beam versus the U.S., it was clear that the Chinese were better trained and prepared to hit their routines every time. Most gymnasts peak before they're 20, so it's hard to say if any of the 2012 Olympic gymnasts will return for the Rio de Janeiro games in 2016. The team that is chosen for the next Olympics will certainly have a large legacy to live up to, all thanks to the Fierce 5 and their success.
The lone medal won on the men's side shows that this program needs help, but one positive is that the current Olympic team is very young. Most male gymnasts compete well into their 20s, like Horton, who is 26. His four teammates are all 19 or 20, so they should have many more Olympic chances in the future. They have the next four years to up their difficulty, work on managing their nerves, and improve their consistency on key events like pommel horse. The international experience and exposure gained from the Olympics is invaluable, and I expect to see many of these male gymnasts return in 2016.