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A league of their own: U.S. gymnasts cruise to gold

RIO DE JANEIRO – On the day before the biggest meet of their young lives, the members of the U.S. women’s gymnastics team gathered for a group chat on social media. They wanted to come up with a team nickname for the Olympic final.

They considered GLAMS, an acronym of their five first names: Gaby Douglas, Laurie Hernandez, Aly Raisman, Madison Kochian and Simone Biles. But they quickly dismissed it as too soft.

“We said, ‘That’s a little too girlish,’ ” Hernandez said. “We’re like, a hard team. We’re go-getters.”

So they named themselves for the hardest one of all: This would be the final competition for Marta Karolyi, the team coordinator. They would call themselves “The Final Five,” in honor of Karolyi’s last go-round as their leader.

“She plays the biggest role,” said Hernandez, a 16-year-old from New Jersey competing in her first international event. “She believed in us, and I think that’s why we’re all here.”

They wanted to send out Karolyi – who has been national coordinator since her embattled husband, Bela, handed the job over to her in 2001 – in style. And boy, did they.

The U.S. team put on one of the most dominant, breathtaking, and predictable performances in gymnastics history, leading the competition from the opening routine and winning Olympic gold by the largest margin in more than half a century.

They finished with 184.897 points to 176.688 for silver medalist Russia. In a sport where titles are often won by fractions of a point, this wasn’t a competition, but a coronation. If it was 1996 in Atlanta, Bela Karolyi would have told Kerri Strug not to bother vaulting and call it a day.

Yogi Berra was wrong. This one was over before it even started. You knew that in Sunday’s qualifying, when the top three all-around scores were posted by Biles, Douglas and Raisman. And Hernandez, regarded by some as the second best all-around talent in the nation, could have challenged if Karolyi had entered her in all the disciplines as well.

The U.S. won gold in London without Biles, who was too young at the time and has won three straight world titles since. They could have won without her Tuesday. The U.S. national program is so deep they could afford to use Kochian, the world champ in uneven bars, in only that one event.

The U.S. has now won five straight major events, including the last three World Championships. They’re as predictable as credit card solicitation. The other countries knew they were battling for silver and bronze.

The American women’s gymnasts might provide even less drama than the men’s and women’s basketball teams, which have become glorified hoop exhibitions.

“No drama,” said Karolyi, who turns 74 later this month. “I don’t think it should be drama, you know? We are not in a theater; this is sport. It should be just strong and powerful and impressive, and I think that’s what these girls did, without the drama.”

It’s not their fault they’re so good, or that some of their historic competition has been diminished by poor economic conditions or political changes (the breakup of the Soviet Union). Romania, which medaled in every Olympics from 1976 to 2012, didn’t qualify a team for Rio.

Of course, that didn’t mean the U.S. women weren’t nervous and excited when it came time for the afternoon final. There’s pressure when you’re considered unbeatable. The women’s rowing eight has the same burden.

“They were a little more tense in the warmup area,” said coach Aimee Boorman. “I just reminded them to do what they’ve been doing in practice and to feed off the energy of the crowd, to do it from a place of joy.”

They did just that, performing with a glorious blend of athletic brilliance and creative joy, of elegance and sheer power.

“I think it’s our dedication to our sport,” said Biles, a heavy favorite in Thursday’s all-around. “It’s the hardest in the world, but we make it look easy.”

Before the event, Karolyi told them to do what they’ve been doing all along in the gym. All their hard work and training would pay off. “We did just that,” Hernandez said, “and she was right.”

All of the Final Five turned in terrific routines with the gold on the line. Hernandez was sensational on the balance beam. Kocian had a stunning 15.933 on the uneven bars, her only event. Douglas, the defending Olympic all-around champ, dazzled with a 15.766 on bars.

Raisman, who won team gold in London, nailed a 15.833 vault. Biles, whose vaults are already legend, topped it with a 15.933. By the time the Americans got around to the last of their four rotations, they knew it was over. The floor exercise was their triumphant victory dance.

First, Hernandez nailed the floor exercise, then Raisman and finally, the amazing Biles, the world’s best tumbler, who bounded through a happy 15.80 routine and then ran off the mat to embrace her teammates.

“Yes, I was having fun out there,” Biles said. “I knew that even if something happened, we’d be OK. That was kind of reassuring.”

The gymnasts then found Karolyi and told her about the “Final Five” name and how they had dedicated the performance to her. Karolyi, a tough cookie whose autocratic methods have been criticized at times, broke into tears.

“Final Five made me cry,” she said with a laugh. “Don’t remind me, because I don’t want to cry again. They told me after the competition ended, so that was really, really, really sentimental moment for me.”

Karolyi said the team was the ultimate expression of her gymnastics vision, the best she’s ever had and the greatest the sport has seen.

“That’s what I feel,” she said, “because year by year, ever since I started my job as coordinator – 16 years – every year we improved and improved, and finally we got to this point.”

A great way to go out, I told her.

“Way to go out!” she said with a roar. “Go out with a bang.”

email: jsullivan@buffnews.com

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