It was pretty clear after the Sydney Games that something needed to change for the U.S. women’s program. Drastically.
Between the team gold in 1996 and finishing off the podium four years later, the U.S. women struggled on the international level, resulting in the beginnings of the camp system at the Karolyi Ranch in Texas. The problem was that there were too many cooks in the kitchen and none of them really knew what they were doing, and so they traveled to Sydney as a group of individual gymnasts with individual goals and no cohesion that would help them perform well as a team.
With Bela Karolyi out of the picture and Martha taking over the reins in 2001, she made crucial changes that turned the program around, putting an emphasis on teamwork over anything else. Coaches now have the opportunity to learn from one another, the gymnasts forge relationships and friendships that go beyond their monthly meetings, and while there are still dreams of all-around and event medals, nothing is more important than team gold.
The effects of the new system were almost instantaneous, with the U.S. women winning the team gold at worlds in 2003, and they haven’t finished off the medal podium since, including five consecutive team gold medals from 2011 to 2016. Though this was Martha Karolyi’s final Olympics, her system has become a machine, putting in place a structure that not only ensures success from the current crop of elites, but that the program will be secure for the generations to follow.
With a total of nine medals in Rio, the “Final Five” — a name chosen by team members Simone Biles, Aly Raisman, Gabby Douglas, Madison Kocian, and Laurie Hernandez to reflect their standing as the final Olympic team to be coached by Karolyi — earned the most medals for any country at a single Olympic Games since the Soviet team brought home ten in 1972, and the most ever by a U.S. team (the maximum currently up for grabs in women’s gymnastics is 11). Karolyi will go out with a bang, and the team dynamic she designed will continue to forge toward a level of dominance once seen by the Soviets and Romanians.
Beginning with qualifications, the U.S. women were about as good as we could have expected, finishing ten points ahead of the second-place team, taking the top three all-around spots with Biles and Raisman qualifying over Douglas into the all-around final, and qualifying two gymnasts into every event final except vault, where only Biles competed the two vaults required to advance. If the two-per-country rule didn’t exist, the team would’ve had three gymnasts in the all-around, Hernandez would’ve reached the floor final (she qualified fourth to Biles and Raisman’s first and second), and all four who competed beam in qualifications would have made it, as Raisman and Douglas tied for seventh with matching D and E scores. In other words, they killed it.
Results aside, the U.S. women were calm and confident, with even the weakest gymnast on each event performing routines that would’ve been among the top routines for most other countries. If there were nerves, no one showed them, with Biles looking perhaps a bit more serious than she would at any other meet, though she had four years worth of expectations on her shoulders.
Biles followed through beautifully, doing her job to lead in every field but bars, her “weak” event, if you can call a 14th place finish in the most stacked bars field ever “weak.” She’s gotten so good there, in fact, that she was ultimately tapped to perform on the event in the team final, something Karolyi had never done.
While an injury to Hernandez was the official reasoning, I honestly believe Biles is actually a better bars worker than her young teammate when it comes to consistency. Though she’s gorgeous there, Hernandez has shown all season that she’s not the most reliable on the event, fully hitting only about three of her seven routines performed prior to the Games. Because her form is so solid, she covers up well, but at the Olympic Trials less than a month before Rio, Hernandez had a costly mistake in one set and left out a skill in another, lowering her start value by four tenths.
With the Olympics her first major international competition, Hernandez had enough to deal with, and risking her on bars was never going to be an option. As we saw with the U.S. women’s qualification performance at worlds in Glasgow a year ago, one mistake can have a domino effect, and while nothing could’ve really threatened the team’s massive lead, it still sets a poor tone for the meet, and that’s not something Karolyi wanted to happen in her final Games before retiring.
Competing bars in the team final meant Biles would be the team’s only gymnast to perform on all four events in the team final, just as Douglas did four years earlier. Like Douglas, Biles tackled the challenge like a pro, leading the team once again on all events but bars, where her 14.8 — a good score given her comparatively low difficulty there — was the lowest the team would count in the final. Aside from that and Hernandez’s 14.833 on floor, every other score surpassed 15.
In the team final, Douglas and Kocian performed only on bars, but still managed to prove their worth by nearly reaching 16 on the event with their excellent execution, while Hernandez and Raisman were their opposites, going up on vault, beam, and floor. I was a bit surprised to see Hernandez on vault, to be honest, if only because her DTY can look a bit short at times…but she showed in qualifications that she could outscore Douglas, even if just by a tenth.
Beam was Hernandez’s standout, as predicted, and she also put up clean work on floor. For such a young gymnast — Hernandez turned 16 this summer — she performed admirably and without letting the pressure get to her, enjoying the ride and smiling bigger than anyone when she stood up on the podium with the gold around her neck.
Team leader and veteran Raisman put up the second-highest vault and floor scores, her Amanar landings continuing to improve as the meet went on. Remember Jesolo, when she sat this vault and fans begged her to downgrade? Somehow, somewhere, Raisman somehow got complete control over the mental aspect of the sport in just a couple of months, building with each meet until she got to Rio and dominated.
In the all-around final, the silver medal was Raisman’s to lose. Even with a comparatively weak bars set and a wobble on beam, Raisman had a fabulous day to finish 1.5 points ahead of bronze medalist Aliya Mustafina, the Russian she tied for bronze in 2012 but then lost out on a medal due to a tiebreaker decision. That decision and an elusive all-around medal was Raisman’s biggest reason for coming back, and at the end of the day, she delivered.
After missing out on all-around medals at worlds in 2010, 2011, and 2015 in addition to that Olympic medal in 2012, the fifth time was a charm for Raisman, who burst into happy tears before she’d even finished her final pass on floor. At 22, Raisman, who always competed for her team first and put her best performances on the line when a team medal was at stake, was finally going to stand on the podium with an all-around medal around her neck, an achievement that was hard-fought and well-deserved.
I expected tears from Raisman, but was shocked to see Biles — who was always so cool and nonchalant about her achievements in the sport — begin to cry when she saw her name go up in the gold medal position. Even though she was unbeatable, winning the title by more than two points, that moment of finally realizing her dream must have been such a rush of emotions, from pride to relief and everything in between.
Competitively, it was one of her best all-around performances. I am often very “ho-hum” about Biles as a gymnast because she is so good, you get used to her unmatched level of excellence, and really the only time things get interesting is when she makes a mistake…and then still wins. But there were no real mistakes in this final, and with an all-around gold at stake after casually walking through this quad with all-around titles at every world championships since 2013, this was the culmination of everything we wanted from Biles since she emerged on the senior scene.
With two golds already under her belt, Biles went into event finals as the favorite on three events, and came away with two more golds to tie the world record for most gold medals by a female artistic gymnast at the Olympic Games, joining legends Agnes Keleti of Hungary (1956), Larisa Latynina of the Soviet Union (1956), Vera Caslavska of the Czech Republic (1968), and Ecaterina Szabo of Romania (1984). She also smashed the domestic gold medal record, which to this point was set by several U.S. gymnasts at two golds in a single Games, last held by Gabby Douglas and Aly Raisman in 2012. Biles’ four golds doubled what any American had been able to achieve prior to Rio.
On vault, Biles won by over seven tenths thanks to her clean and solid efforts on her Amanar and Cheng, the latter a vault she waited to unveil until this year, opting for the easier Lopez at previous world championships. Her combined difficulty level came up behind two of her competitors and tied two more, so she really proved how important it is to come in with clean execution.
My favorite thing about her vaults was that she actually looked consistently better on her Cheng than on the Amanar, where she has been taking several large hops on the landings. The Cheng may be the more difficult of the two, but the landing is a bit easier to spot, and Biles nails it almost every time. Her execution score on the Cheng actually outscored her Amanar execution score by 0.033, so I hope if slash when she returns to competition, she makes that her all-around vault.
Biles also got gold on floor, which was probably more of a sure thing than her all-around gold, if that’s even possible. Coming into the competition, Biles was a half point stronger than Raisman on this event, and a full point ahead of literally everyone else. Because she’s so perfect at literally everything, I always get on Biles about her landings, and that was really the only issue she had in this final, but given her degree of difficulty and just how solid and confident she was with the routine, I think I can forgive them. She was awesome, and secured her spot in history with this final win of the Games.
Beam was the one event I thought would be where Biles would struggle, based on the fact that when she’s tired or a little nervous, beam is where she makes mistakes. It happened a couple of times this summer, and it’s happened at worlds in the past, so after making it through her wolf turn and barani, normally the skills she finds tricky, I assumed she was in the clear. Perhaps she did as well, or maybe she was understandably exhausted, or most likely, she’s a 19-year-old human being who isn’t going to be perfect at everything she does.
Either way, after putting her hands down on her punch front, Biles still earned a 14.733 for her routine, locking up a bronze medal. It wasn’t the five golds she was expected to reach, but Biles didn’t really care, telling the press that this was her first Olympic Games and she was leaving with five Olympic medals. “I think you guys wanted the five golds more than I did,” she joked, alluding to the pressure put on her months before she was even named to the team.
In addition to Biles, every U.S. woman earned event finals spots and all but Douglas brought home hardware. On bars, Kocian gave one of her standard robotically beautiful routines to earn a 15.833, less than a tenth away from gold behind Mustafina, who was slightly behind in execution but had a tenth in difficulty over Kocian after adding back her eponymous dismount. Still, Kocian couldn’t have done better if she tried, proving repeatedly this summer how good she is there, and she was more than happy with the silver.
Douglas was consistently leading the field in bars execution at the Games, but in her final routine, a muscled handstand out of her toe full got the best of her, and she finished seventh. Douglas did a great job to get the mistake under control and continue on with no issues, but because everyone was so close in this final — the expected D scores were all within the 6.5 to 6.8 range — Douglas would’ve needed perfection to medal, especially coming in with the lowest D score in the bunch.
Unfortunately, it didn’t happen for her, but she made it through these Games with her head held high, not easy when people are criticizing every single thing about you. Douglas went to Rio with people questioning her inclusion on the team, and while there, she was under fire for everything from her hair to not holding her hand over her heart on the podium to not standing and applauding her teammates, choosing to sit while clapping instead.
What people aren’t talking about, however, is how graciously Douglas accepted her defeat when it mattered. After missing out on the all-around final due to the two-per-country rule despite finishing third in the world, Douglas was the first to congratulate Biles and Raisman. She did her job in the team final, putting up a 15.766 on bars. And when she didn’t win a medal on that event in finals, she congratulated Kocian and her fellow bars competitors with a smile on her face.
I am admittedly not the biggest fan of Douglas’ gymnastics, and I still personally wouldn’t have added her to my team if I was in Martha Karolyi’s shoes. But I do recognize that Karolyi could’ve justified literally anyone she wanted for one of the team spots. The U.S. women finished so far ahead of everyone else, the lowest-ranked all-arounder at Olympic Trials would’ve been a viable option. The hatred toward Douglas for every little thing she did or didn’t do has been disgusting, based on nothing but bias against her for how she’s painted in media portrayals. Like her or not, she did what she could for the team under tremendous pressure as the returning Olympic all-around champion, a historic achievement in itself. Her comeback maybe wasn’t ideal (you know, world all-around medal and Olympic team aside) and based on what her mom has said, she also has some personal stuff going on that has limited how she was able to enjoy her experience this time around. But either way, Douglas rose to the occasion and deserves way more respect than people give her.
In addition to Kocian’s silver, Hernandez and Raisman would add another silver each with Hernandez placing behind the Dutch gymnast Sanne Wevers on beam with a 15.333 and Raisman finishing second to Biles on floor with a 15.5.
The baby of the team, Hernandez handled her Olympics like a true pro, and the beam final was no different. She’s so solid on this event aside from a couple of the tiniest adjustments possible, and while she did have the potential to go for gold after Biles’ mistake, Wevers had an extra two tenths in difficulty, which was ultimately the deciding factor.
Hernandez did submit an inquiry to attempt to get an extra tenth missing in her D score. Though she typically received a 6.5 at home, the judges rewarded her with only a 6.4 in all three of her Olympic beam appearances, and I’m assuming it’s for the slow punch front to wolf jump connection though I could also see her switch ring possibly devalued? The petition was denied, but either way, she wouldn’t have come in ahead of Wevers. Still, Hernandez seemed thrilled with the medal and was more than happy to hug and congratulate Wevers, telling her how much she enjoyed her routine.
I remember seeing Hernandez compete at the 2011 WOGA Classic, back when she was just ten years old. At the time, I was writing for The Couch Gymnast, and emailed my editor regularly, following Hernandez’s career as she fought to reach the junior international elite level. I found one of those emails from June 2012 after Hernandez competed at the American Classic, and I figured I’d share it with you because it showed how even then, before she had big difficulty, something about her suggested future star.
“I’m obsessed with this one kid I saw at the WOGA elite qualifier last year, Laurie Hernandez of Monmouth…she’s ELEVEN and hit around a 54 at yesterday’s qualifier! Super strong beam and amazing floor…unfortunately she fell and didn’t qualify to nationals, but I’m hoping she makes it through at the U.S. Classic! I am doing a little blurb about her anyway in my recap because she definitely seems like one to watch…and she’ll be turning 16 literally weeks before the Olympics in Rio. Yes, I’m already playing the 2016 guessing game!”
I was wrong about almost every other choice I made for 2016 (brb crying about Katelyn Ohashi forever), but seeing Hernandez go from a kid who struggled to make nationals to an Olympic champion and beam silver medalist has been one of the highlights of my gymnastics watching and writing career. With Hernandez, you just knew she’d get there, and seeing her enjoy such a fabulous Olympic Games after the ups and downs of her junior career brought everything full circle. I hope we can hold onto her for the coming quad as well.
Finally, Raisman’s silver on floor was probably one of my favorite routines of the Games. Yes, she has some form issues here and there and she’s not the most artistic gymnast in the bunch, but if you think a low back leg on a tour jete half should automatically disqualify you from a medal on floor, I have some serious issues with you. For me, Raisman exemplifies passion and hard work. Never the most naturally gifted, Raisman has spent most of her entire career working to improve, fully acknowledging her faults and weaknesses while trying to make them better.
I think this floor routine was the best she’s done it since her comeback, with a special focus on her landings and the overall value of her performance, which really had the crowd involved and loving everything she did. That’s the definition of artistry. She can connect with people in a way most gymnasts can’t, so while she’s not a ballerina princess and while there are always issues with flexed feet or bad leaps, she owns what she does and puts forth so much effort to showcase her strengths while embracing and working on her weaknesses.
Raisman is now a six-time Olympic medalist, the most decorated female gymnast in the United States aside from Shannon Miller, who earned a collection of seven between her two Games in 1992 and 1996. She still hasn’t ruled out 2020, and based on how well she came back this quad, if anyone can do it, Raisman can.
The U.S. women will stay in Rio through the closing ceremony before traveling home, where they’ll land in New York City for interviews and appearances as a pit stop on their way home. With nine medals between them, they will return as the most decorated U.S. women’s gymnastics team of all time, just 16 years after the team walked away empty-handed (though they later were rewarded with team bronze after the Chinese team was stripped of its team medal due to age falsification).
It’s the “started from the bottom now we here” aspect to their story that illustrates not only how strong this team is, but how much has gone on behind the scenes of the women’s program, and the two stories can’t be told separate of one another. The Final Five will go down in history as Karolyi’s last — and best — Olympic team, but the U.S. women’s program will continue on long after Karolyi’s retirement thanks to the efforts made to take them from a random collection of talented individuals to a true team. That is Martha Karolyi’s legacy, and why the U.S. women will continue to excel beyond her.
Article by Lauren Hopkins