U.S. women's gymnastics 'Final Five' wins gold

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Rio de Janeiro —  The gold medalists didn’t cry. But they made sure their coach did.

And that’ll be part of their legacy, too, as the U.S. women’s gymnastics team paid their retiring coach, Martha Karolyi, the 73-year-old architect of this new American dynasty, a golden tribute Tuesday at the Rio Olympics.

With another dominant performance in women’s team final — posting the largest margin of victory at an Olympics since 1960 — the Americans won their second consecutive Olympic title. And after they’d made good on that promise, they let their coach know just what she’d meant to them.

For weeks, everyone had been asking the U.S. women if this seemingly unbeatable team had a nickname like their 2012 predecessors, dubbed the “Fierce Five” after their Olympic triumph in London, or the “Magnificent Seven,” who’d won the country’s first-ever gold in 1996.

They kept saying they didn’t, but it turns out they did finally decide on one last week.

Simone Biles had suggested the idea in a group text message, and the rest of the squad had happily endorsed it. And soon after the last results had flashed on the Rio Olympic Arena scoreboard here Tuesday — another monster number for Biles’ bounding, mind-bending floor exercise routine made it official — they rushed over to let Karolyi, who took over the U.S. women’s program in 2001, in on their little secret.

“We’re the ‘Final Five’,” said Biles, the three-time reigning world all-around champion, “because we’re the last of a generation.”

The last Olympic team Karolyi will coach, and the last one with five members as a rule change will limit rosters to four gymnasts beginning with the 2020 Tokyo Games. And since this was the first Karolyi had heard of this new moniker, her reaction was as good as gold.

“We made her cry, so that’s very exciting,” laughed Aly Raisman, who along with Gabby Douglas became the first American women ever to repeat as Olympic champs.

The typically stoic coach admitted to a few tears later — “I said, 'Oh, what's happening to me? What is this?’” she laughed — and said it’s only the second time she has cried at an Olympics. The first came 40 years ago at the 1976 Montreal Olympics, when the young gymnast she and her husband, legendary coach Bela Karolyi, had tutored, Nadia Comaneci, won three gold medals for Romania.

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Biles, 19, could win as many as five here, with the individual all-around competition Thursday and three event finals after that. Her teammates likely will add to that medal haul. And when asked Tuesday evening if this was the greatest team in history, Karolyi smiled and said, “That’s what I feel.”

It’s hard to feel otherwise when you watch them in action. They rarely stumble. They barely wobble. And they certainly don’t lose.

Not anymore. And not here in Rio, where the Americans again left no doubt from the start of Tuesday’s competition, vaulting to a big early margin and then methodically extending it through four rotations. By the time they were done, they’d won their second straight Olympic gold by a whopping 8.209-point margin over Russia and China.

After decades of dominance by Russia and eastern European countries, the Americans have now won a medal at every Olympics since 1992. They've won every world championship title since 2010. They’re alone on top, and no one else is even close, really. The Americans might’ve won two medals in the team competition here if they’d been allowed to send a second roster to Brazil.

"We're going farther and farther,” said Mihai Brestyan, Raisman’s personal coach. “Right now, it looks like we've run away from everybody else.”

In Sunday’s qualifying, Biles, Raisman and Douglas ranked 1-2-3 in the all-around, which means Douglas, the reigning Olympic champ, won’t even get to defend her all-around title Thursday. She only competed in one of the four rotations Tuesday. And in another sign of the dazzling depth of talent on this roster, after Douglas wowed everyone with her graceful uneven bars routine, scoring an impressive 15.766, her teammate Madison Kocian did her one better, earning a 15.933.

Just for good measure, the Americans’ final rotation Tuesday was on the floor exercise, with 16-year-old Laurie Hernandez — nicknamed the “Human Emoji” for her exuberant personality — leading off and the reigning Olympic (Raisman) and world (Biles) champs in the event finishing things off 
Hernandez had the crowd clapping along with her routine, and Raisman’s brilliance had them chanting “U-S-A! U-S-A!” as she finished her final pass.

Then Biles, who packs more explosive power in her 4-foot-8 frame than this sport has ever seen, brought down the house. Karolyi called the tumbling on that routine “the best I have ever seen in women's gymnastics.”

But it’s the precision and poise — the hallmarks of the Karolyis’ semi-centralized national team program — that puts the Americans over the top. The talent on this team is extreme, and the individual coaches deserve credit for building the foundation of this U.S. success. But it’s Karolyi’s insistence on the details, and the persistence with perfecting these routines in pressure situations at team camps that really shines through on the big stage.

“Before we even got out on the floor today, Martha told us, ‘Look, just do what you’ve been doing in the gym,’” Hernandez said. “And we did just that. And she was right.”


Twitter: @JohnNiyo