It can be a tricky balancing act
LONDON — This is how it happens in this sport and in the Games. One step too far, one untimely wobble, and a lifetime dream vanishes in a puff of chalk. So it was Sunday afternoon for Jordyn Wieber, who came into North Greenwich Arena as the world gymnastics champion and left without making the field for Thursday’s all-around. The numbers went up after the final rotation of the qualifying round and it was Aly Raisman who suddenly found herself cast as America’s best hope for an individual gold medal.
“It was such a surprise at the end,” said the Needham, Mass., native, who jumped from third to first when she nailed her floor exercise, and finished second to Russia’s Victoria Komova in the standings.
The surprise wasn’t that Raisman, who was fourth at last year’s global meet, grabbed one of the two spots along with trials champion Gabrielle Douglas. It was that Wieber went from first in the world to third on her own team in a flash of the scoreboard. “She has trained her entire life for this day and to have it turn out anything less than she deserves is going to be devastating,” said her coach, John Geddert, as Wieber went to the dressing room in tears.
It was the first time since the all-around was added to the program in 1952 that the reigning queen hadn’t made the 24-athlete field. If Wieber had been competing for any other country, she would have been one of the top two. “In this system it’s a shame that the world champion doesn’t get to compete in the all-around finals at the Olympics because of a stupid two-per-country rule,” said Geddert.
On the US team, which includes four members from last year’s world championship team, placing fourth overall gets you only a comforting hug. “What can you say?” shrugged Martha Karolyi, the national team coordinator. “It’s almost [like] when someone passes away.” And what could the winner say to her roommate and best buddy? “The first thing I said to her was that I felt really bad for her,” said Raisman. “I had no idea that I was in the position to outscore her.”
Not after Raisman posted the lowest of the team’s four scores on vault and uneven bars, both of which were discarded. But her floor score was by far the best, and on a night when Wieber was unsteady on beam and stepped out of bounds on floor, that was enough to keep her on the sidelines. “I am very sad to see that,” said Karolyi, “but I’m very happy about two girls making it.”
The golden lining for the Americans is that they have so much talent that they have two gymnasts who can, and did, beat the world champ. That’s exactly what they need if they’re going to claim the team title for the the first time at an overseas Games. Though the US has produced three Olympic all-around champions — Mary Lou Retton, Carly Patterson, and Nastia Liukin — it has won the sport’s big prize only once, at the 1996 Games in Atlanta. At both Athens and Beijing the Yanks came in as world titlists and settled for silver. “We have to win the team,” said Mihai Brestyan, who coaches Raisman at his Burlington, Mass., gym. “We have to.”
Though the US won the qualifying round by nearly a point and a half over Russia, those scores don’t count toward Tuesday’s finale, which determines the medals. “We have to turn the page and keep going,” said Raisman, who’s the team captain and its most experienced member. That means that she’ll have to help her roomie forget her dashed dream and focus on the big prize. Because if Wieber can’t pull it together, the US likely will have to settle for a medal of a different color.
Since McKayla Maroney only will compete in vault, where she’s the global titlist, the Americans will have to spread 11 starting spots among four gymnasts. That means Wieber will be up on at least three events, if not all four. What she needs, more than hugs from teammates, is amnesia.
This is a sport calculated to the thousandth of a point and at this level the distinctions are every bit that fine — Wieber edged Komova by only 33-100ths for her title. “It was always going to be close between the three of us doing all-around,” she acknowledged, “and in the end it is what it is.”
Nobody would have bet that the US, with four Olympic rookies, would win Saturday’s men’s qualifying and that the Chinese, who won seven of the eight gold medals in Beijing, would be buried in sixth place. And few would bet on it happening again on Monday with precious metal on the line.
Wieber came to the trials fresh off winning the national title and was beaten by Douglas. Raisman, who was third at trials, was first this time. This is how it happens in this sport and in the Games. “I hope she will do it again one more time, just one more time,” said Brestyan. “All-around is another day, another competition. You never know.”
John Powers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.