Vladislava Urazova, Angelina Melnikova, Viktoria Listunova, Lilia Akhaimova
Before the women’s team competition last night, I said “I don’t care what happens, I just want an exciting final.”
Coming into the meet, despite Russia leading by over a point ahead of the United States in qualifications, I thought the meet was still the U.S. women’s to lose, but I also wondered if being dealt their first major loss since world championships in 2010 would fuel them or rattle them. In a way, it was kind of both.
No one could have anticipated Simone Biles coming down with a case of the twisties on the morning of the final, though. She was able to do a double layout on floor, but couldn’t work through a full-in, and she balked her Amanar in both warmups and in the competition, getting lost in the air and completing only one-and-a-half twists with a rough landing instead of nailing the more difficult one she’s capable of.
Part of why I thought the U.S. would come back from qualifications and win was because it was clear that with cleaned up landings on basically every event, Biles alone could add more than two points back to the team total, but something no one has really addressed about Biles until now is that putting the weight of the team on her back all of these years is absolutely too much pressure, no matter how good and far ahead of the game she is.
Yes, it’s factual that Biles on a fully hit day likely would have carried the team to gold, but constantly hearing things like “it doesn’t matter who else is on the team if Simone’s there” or “it’s okay that qualifications was rough, all we need is Simone to hit in the finals” is a lot. Even though even she has now fully bought into the GOAT promotion the press has put on her since dominating in Rio and mounting a successful comeback, all of the hype in the world won’t make someone infallible, especially on top of everything she’s been through to get to this moment.
With all of the pressure on Biles in general, and then the additional pressure to come into this final to be perfect on all four events (and as the anchor on three of them), it shouldn’t have been as surprising as it was to watch her lose control. With the Russians, for comparison, I feared that no matter how good they looked in qualifications, they were going to crumble on beam, and I also worried about the younger members of the U.S. team, but with Biles, I didn’t even have a question – she was going to hit, because that’s what she does.
Instead, we got the shock of our lives to see her struggle with her vault, and then to withdraw entirely, knowing that it would be too dangerous to bring her mindset over to her other events. We’ve seen her do this once before, at the U.S. Classic in 2013 when she pulled out of vault after struggling on the three vaults before, but she’s also pushed through rough meets before, so it’s clear that she knows and trusts herself and her mind well enough to realize when she can keep going and when she knows she’s done.
This is a rare quality in an elite athlete. It’s in their blood to go for broke, and too often when they need someone to tell them to step away, it doesn’t happen because medals are valued over an athlete’s physical and mental health. It was refreshing both to see Biles make that decision and to have a choice in the matter – if the same thing had happened in 2016, I’m not so sure she would have been allowed to withdraw, and if she had, I can only imagine the hell that would have awaited her.
USA Gymnastics has just announced that Biles has also opted to withdraw from the all-around competition, taking place on Thursday night in Tokyo. The decision comes “after further medical evaluation” with the release also stating that she is prioritizing her mental health and will continued to be evaluated daily to determine whether she will participate in next week’s individual event finals. Jade Carey, the individual athlete for the U.S. who qualified in ninth all-around, will take Biles’ place in the final.
Without Biles in the team competition, the three young members of the U.S. squad – Grace McCallum, Jordan Chiles, and Sunisa Lee – had to step up and fight on their own for a medal, with Biles their biggest cheerleader on the sidelines. McCallum was expected to lead off on all four events, and as the first to go up after Biles withdrew, she did look a little rattled on bars, but she brought in a great set to start the team off on beam, and though she had a few iffy landings on floor, she was able to fight through, and that’s what matters.
Chiles was only expected to compete vault and floor here, while Lee was only slated for bars and beam, and both did incredibly well on the apparatuses they subbed in on. Chiles was heroic on bars and solid as the anchor on beam, while Lee ended up posting the top floor score for the team. Chiles did sit her second-to-last floor pass – the front double full to full-in, which has caused her some trouble earlier in the season as well – and with the fall and without Biles’ score to raise them up, the U.S. team finished last on this apparatus, unable to take advantage of the Russians dropping two routines on beam.
But despite all of the drama, and despite missing out on what everyone has called “guaranteed gold” for the past five years, the U.S. team looked resilient and heroic in their fight, aptly naming themselves the Fighting Four when all was said and done. The women instead proudly celebrated winning silver, taking what was an unexpected and terrifying situation and doing everything they could to turn it around.
With Biles’ mistake on vault, the Russians picked up an unexpected early lead on this apparatus, and it’s something they were able to hold onto for the remainder of the competition, despite counting two falls on beam. As a whole, the Russians just look tighter, cleaner, and better than the U.S. women, most of whom do not possess the same quality in the majority of their skills right now.
Even on beam, the Russians looked very clean and strong aside from the falls, so while it was not the rotation they wanted, they were still able to come away with relatively good scores because of how well they were able to come back from those issues. They had mistakes, but it was not a meltdown, so in a meet where it looked like every tenth was going to count, Russia did a fantastic job to fight for everything they could.
The Russians had the lead by just eight tenths going into the final rotation, and it looked like floor would be a pretty comfortable outing for them given that they had a half-point lead over the Americans in qualifications on this event, and that was with Biles’ score counting. But they continued to compete like every step mattered, opting for a simple but tidy routine from Vladislava Urazova over a potentially higher-scoring – but nerve-wracking – routine from Lilia Akhaimova, who contributed the team’s top score on vault in the final.
Both Viktoria Listunova and Angelina Melnikova handled their routines with ease, knowing that if they simply hit, the gold would be theirs, especially after Chiles’ fall. Reminiscent of Aly Raisman in 2012, Melnikova burst into tears at the end of her set, knowing she had done everything she could, and when her score came in as a 13.966, the team was finally able to celebrate, winning the competition with a 169.528, nearly 3.5 points ahead of the United States at a 166.096.
This is the first gold medal for the Russian women since the Soviet countries last competed as the Unified Team in 1992. Since first competing as Russia in 1996, the women have won silver four times, including in 2012 and 2016, but even though they are technically representing the Russian Olympic Committee in Tokyo due to the Russian federation being banned due to doping, the Russian women are the ones who earned this medal, not their country or their NOC, and they are the ones who have made history by doing it.
As exciting as the race was between gold and silver, things were even wilder with the nations fighting for bronze, as China counting multiple falls throughout the night left the four next-best teams all within eight tenths of one another at the end of the meet.
The British gymnasts, who had a few falls in qualifications to finish sixth, saw an incredible performance from Alice Kinsella, who hit all four of her events to lead the team to bronze despite counting a fall from Amelie Morgan on beam. Going into the final event, bars, I didn’t think the Brits would pull it off, especially with France going to vault, and I had my bet on either Italy or France coming in for the victory, but with a lead-off hit from Jessica Gadirova followed by stellar sets from both Morgan and Kinsella, it was clear that the Italians weren’t going to be able to do quite enough on beam.
In the end, Great Britain – which also featured Jennifer Gadirova, back from injury and contributing great scores on three events – won bronze just under half a point ahead of Italy, securing the team’s first team medal since 1928, the first time women’s artistic gymnastics was contested at the Olympic Games, where the Brits also won bronze.
It was a remarkable and unexpected podium finish for the team that came into the Olympics under so much controversy as the selection committee opted to leave specialist Becky Downie at home in favor of a team that could best pull off a team medal. When most criticized the decision, it was using the reasoning that this team had “no chance” at a medal, but these young women – all first-year seniors this quad – proved everyone wrong, showing that nothing is impossible in this sport, even for the biggest underdogs.
I’m incredibly proud of these young women not only for pulling off a finish this strong, but also for doing it after facing outrageous hate from those who were disappointed about Downie not making it. Kinsella faced the worst of the public criticism, and when she stumbled in prelims due to an ankle injury that was causing her pain, the people against her being here laughed and called it “karma.” But Kinsella and her teammates all faced this truly horrible situation with incredible strength and grace, and no one looked happier than Kinsella when she finally got to stand atop the podium and call herself an Olympic medalist.
The Italians had great rotations on vault, bars, and floor, and were actually pretty comparable to the British women on every event, but the Brits were able to gain a slight edge on both vault and bars, which ultimately decided the meet. While Italy hit beam, there were a few too many wobbles, mistakes, and technical faults that kept them from scoring well there, so while they had a better overall score than the British women there, it was only by a few tenths, leaving them unable to completely take advantage of Morgan’s fall.
Fourth place is still a massive accomplishment for Italy. It’s the team’s best finish since Italy won silver at the Olympic Games in 1928, with the team’s seventh-place finish in London the strongest in the modern history of the sport. Even without standout Giorgia Villa, who was injured just prior to the team’s departure for Tokyo, the group of veteran four-time Olympian Vanessa Ferrari and her three young teammates – Alice D’Amato, Asia D’Amato, and Martina Maggio – proved that they are still one of the best teams in the world.
Also getting close to the podium were Japan in fifth with a 163.280 and France in sixth with a 163.264. Both counted mistakes, including a miss on bars from Murakami Mai for Japan and a weak beam rotation for France, but they still both had moments of brilliance, and showed that they too were medal contenders in this incredibly close race for bronze.
Perhaps not as shocking as what happened with the United States, but pretty close to it, was China not hitting anywhere near what the team is capable of. It all started with a fall on bars from Lu Yufei and continued with a weak floor rotation and two crashes on vaults, from Ou Yushan and Tang Xijing on their Yurchenko doubles. The team put up the top overall performance on beam, but even there, multiple missed connections, wobbles, and form issues caused scores to be lower than expected, though Zhang Jin deserves recognition for hitting her three events as best as she could, leading the team’s scores on vault and beam.
The Belgians, who surprised by qualifying fifth to make the team final, ended up eighth here, working with lower difficulty and counting two falls on top of a number of additional mistakes. Still, Nina Derwael was fabulous on her three events, matching Lee for the best bars score of the night with a 15.4, while Lisa Vaelen hit a piked rudi and a huge bars set to stand out as someone with massive potential for the future.
Still, it was a historic night for Belgium. The program’s highest team finish up until now was 11th place in 1948, the first time Belgium appeared at the Olympic Games for women’s artistic gymnastics. This is only the third time Belgium has qualified a full team to the Games, and it was fantastic to see them make such a big improvement over the past five years after finishing last in Rio qualifications, especially with such a young team.
The men compete in the all-around final tonight, July 28, while the women come back to competition on Thursday, July 29.
Article by Lauren Hopkins