The Pure Joy of Watching America’s Greatest Women’s Gymnastics Team

Scenes from the Olympics.
Aug. 1 2012 8:30 AM

Absolutely Fabulous

The pure joy of watching the Fab Five, America’s greatest women’s gymnastics team.

USA women's gymnastics
McKayla Maroney, Kyla Ross, Alexandra Raisman, Gabrielle Douglas, and Jordyn Wieber celebrate after winning gold.

Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images.


So the Fab Five did it: They took home the gold in women’s gymnastics team finals for the first time since 1996. They won decisively over Russia—their main competitor—in a series of gorgeous, almost entirely rock-solid routines and vaults, ending up 5.066 points ahead. (That’s a lot these days.) I wonder if everyone else watching the proceedings in America felt as good as I did. The whole thing was in sharp contrast to Monday’s disastrous performance by the men’s team, which had John Orozco shaking with suppressed tears at one point. (I literally felt sick to my stomach watching him and Danell Leyva; their distress was so palpable. And Leyva is a beautiful gymnast.) The win also made up for the sickening fact that Jordyn Wieber, who placed fourth in team qualifying, won’t be able to compete in the individual all-around because of the rule that only two gymnasts per nation can compete. (More on this later.)

The Americans were clearly the dominant gymnasts on Tuesday, leading from start to finish. Wieber, whom the world last saw in tears (for quite a while, thanks to NBC’s tacky editing), pulled herself together to deliver a stunning vault, a so-called “Amanar,” which is the hardest vault around. She was the first of the Americans to perform, and she set the tone for the rest of the night. Gabby Douglas, the only member of the team to compete in all four events, turned in solid performances across the board, flashing her trademark smile on landings. (I saw her along with all the others back in March in the AT&T Cup; she was only the alternate, but I bet my brother that she’d be the star of the Olympics. She’s got more verve than Jordyn Wieber, who, as reigning world champion, was the star that day.) Douglas’ beam routine was especially good—she has a sense of rhythm and grace lacking in so much of today’s gymnastics. If she does this well in the all-around, especially on beam, she has a real shot at gold or silver.

Aly Raisman delivered an energizing floor routine to “Hava Nagila,” getting the crowd riled up, and Kyla Ross was simply a pleasure to watch—confident, fluid, sticking her landings. She looks like water: calm, flowing always in the right direction. And McKayla Maroney, the specialty vaulter, soared off with the highest score of the night, a 16.233, sticking her landing without a wobble.

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Put simply, this is the most consistent American gymnastics team I’ve ever seen. (U.S. head coach John Geddert told reporters he thought they were the all-time best.) The Americans left the first rotation—vault for them—1.7 points ahead, and never faltered. By the third rotation, they knew that all they had to do on floor, the final event, was not fall or step out of bounds, and they’d be golden. (This floor mat seems unusually bouncy; pretty much every gymnast stepped out on Sunday. Perhaps they’re dizzied by the strange Pepto-Bismol pink color scheme.) In any case, they managed to stay in-bounds on floor tonight. You could practically see the sweat rolling down their foreheads as they fought to stick those tumbling pass landings.

Meanwhile, the top Russians—among them Aliya Mustafina, Viktoria Komova, and Ksenia Afanasyeva—looked like they were performing a Russian tragedy (Chekhov’s Three Sisters?) even as they were firmly in place to get silver. I confess that while I always root for the Americans, I sometimes find myself preferring the balletic elegance of a Svetlana Khorkina to the fireplug power of a Shawn Johnson. But the Russians this year just aren’t as impressive as they’ve been in years past. And Douglas, Ross, and Raisman all have real grace, even if the Romanians do better split leaps on the beam.

By contrast, Mustafina, this year’s Russian “diva,” leaves me a little cold, though I think she should get a gold medal for her theatrical gaze alone. Between routines, her large, languid, well-made-up eyes kept tearing up vaguely. Then she’d wander over to Komova, or vice versa, and they’d hug, leaning on one another mournfully. The silver should have brought some consolation; Russia didn’t medal last time around. Gymnastics is so high-risk that strange things can happen. You don’t always feel that gold, silver, and bronze go to the right teams. But this year it was pretty evident that the medal order was spot on. China, after taking the gold in Beijing, offered a poor showing, performing awfully on vault; their new team just doesn’t have the necessary solidity. Romania, which took the bronze, was very bronzish—they performed well, but not spectacularly.

All the pleasure of the Americans’ all-around gold was soured just a bit by NBC’s terrible primetime editing of gymnastics. The men’s team finals was one of the most incoherent sports broadcasts I’ve ever seen. Basically, NBC showed the U.S. men—and only the U.S. men—perform on floor and pommel horse, then cut away to show swimming. When they came back, they ignored the American gymnasts completely, as they were out of the running for a medal after Orozco and Leyva both screwed up on pommel horse.

Tim Daggett and co. never explained clearly why these falls meant the United States had no shot, or how well the other teams had done in comparison. (After all, sometimes the other teams fall, and the U.S. men had finished first in the qualifying round.) Worse, the second half followed China, Japan, and, surprisingly, Great Britain in a fierce struggle for the medals but provided almost no context. They showed the score only once, and explained very little about a deduction for Japan’s “Superman” Uchimura on pommel horse that almost led his team to lose the silver medal. Watching, you had no sense of the natural drama of the competition. It’s one thing to control when you air the events; it’s another to control it and then do a shoddy, Reader’s Digest version that makes no narrative sense: Americans fall, China wins. (Oh, it’s a familiar enough story, I guess.)

NBC did better on Tuesday—even networks stumble. But I urge enthusiasts to boycott Thursday’s primetime women’s all-around and watch it live, as I did on Tuesday for the women’s team finals. You can see the various countries’ competitors in real time, which gives you a sense of the true arc of the competition. An added bonus is Shannon Miller, former gold medalist, as a commentator. She’s clear, warm, and cogent, a welcome change from Daggett & co., who have a tendency to lapse into silence just when they need to be explaining matters.

As for Jordyn Wieber’s not competing in the all-around: I’ve heard some people say this just makes room for the underdogs, and that’s what the Olympics are all about, etc, etc. I’d agree if Wieber had placed, say, 19th on Sunday. But she placed fourth. This is as if one of the three Jamaican women who swept the medals in the 100-meter dash in Beijing had been deprived the opportunity to run in the final. Would that have been a true Olympic race? Let’s hope that rule gets changed next time.

In the meantime: Kudos to the five fierce girls. No Chekhov tragedies for them. In fact, as McKayla Maroney told the AP, they’d like to ditch the “Fab Five” moniker, which is already taken anyway, and go by a different name: “the Fierce Five.”

Read the rest of Slate’s coverage of the London Olympics.

Meghan O'Rourke is Slate's culture critic and an advisory editor. She was previously an editor at The New Yorker. The Long Goodbye, a memoir about her mother's death, is now out in paperback.