RIO DE JANEIRO — As Simone Biles delivered a full-twisting double back dismount that ended a performance that ascended through previously unknown standards of gymnastics excellence, her United States teammates watching behind her began to bounce around and hug. This was the realization of what they had just done and the excitement of what is to come.
The Americans showed up at the Olympic qualification here on Sunday and delivered a level of dominance unknown to the history of the sport, qualifying first for Tuesday’s team final with a gap of 9.959 over China.
It was simply an unprecedented score at this level – USA’s gold-medal-winning team in 2012 qualified with a 1.434 advantage and beat Russia by 5.066. That was considered an epic blowout. The previous five gymnastics team finals were decided by an average of 0.937. What happened Sunday is the equivalent of a 222-0 football game. Yes, these scores get thrown out for the team final, but the possibilities after qualifying with a nearly 10-point lead are unprecedented.
“Incredible,” Biles said.
Individually Biles, Aly Raisman and Gabby Douglas finished 1-2-3 overall. So the Americans have the three best in the world (and with Laurie Hernandez, maybe the top four). The only thing preventing the U.S. from owning the all-around podium is the sport’s unfortunate rule that caps a country with two participants in each individual competition.
So only Biles and Raisman are allowed to compete for all-around gold, although the competition may not last long. Biles qualified a massive 1.759 ahead of Raisman, who in turn was an even more massive 1.875 ahead of the best non-American, Brazil’s Rebeca Andrade. For comparison, the average gap between the top two all-around qualifiers over the last eight Olympics is 0.146. Biles’ qualifying lead over Raisman was more than 12 times that number.
Again, unheard-of, impossible stats.
Douglas, who won Olympic all-around gold in 2012, could be comforted by missing out on the all-around by qualifying for the bars final, coming in third behind American specialist Madison Kocian, who finished first.
In both vault and floor, Biles and Raisman qualified 1-2. On beam, it was Biles and Hernandez who went 1-2.
“Every one of us qualified for an event final so I don’t think you could ask for anything more,” Biles said.
If it weren’t for Russia’s Aliya Mustafina qualifying second on bars, the Americans would have delivered the literal perfect meet, 1-2 on every apparatus and 1-2-3 overall. It was that ridiculous, which even Mustafina acknowledged.
“They are unbeatable at the moment,” Mustafina said.
Even the frustration of the rules prohibiting more than two gymnasts per country in all-around was seen as part of the reason for the success. Douglas was third and Hernandez very well could have been top five, too.
Yet the battle to get into that top two helps push everyone upward – Douglas in particular rebounded considerably from struggles at the U.S. Olympic Trials.
“It helps,” said team coordinator Marta Karolyi. “A healthy competition is always very good so that obviously brings the level higher and higher.”
It’s just the Americans are mostly left competing against themselves. Higher and higher this goes and goes, more and more talent, more and more pressure.
It wasn’t too long ago that the U.S. could only produce one or two internationally competitive gymnasts at a time, hoping for one medal contender. The Russians and Romanians and Chinese had greater depth. But each year of Olympic glory produces another generation of inspired little girls hitting gymnastics halls around the county.
Mary Lou Retton beget the magical 1996 Atlanta Games team, which helped produce Carly Patterson in 2004, then Nastia Liukin and Shawn Johnson in 2008 and then the Fierce Five gold medal winners (Douglas and Raisman among them) four years ago. Now here comes this.
What was once a national program of hope and then confidence is now a full-on juggernaut, everyone else in the world competing for second.
Karolyi, who at 73 is set to retire after these Olympics, isn’t even sure how to judge this group. She tries to avoid looking back because the bar keeps getting raised and raised.
“I think they are extremely strong and they are not just extremely strong with their gymnastics, they are extremely strong-minded,” Karolyi said. “And I feel the combination between the physical and mental is extremely important.
“I never think about [the scores, such as a nearly 10-point qualifying lead],” she continued. “[I tell them,] ‘Don’t talk about scores or places, all we talk about is keep your routine, your job is that. Keep your routine and if you do that you contribute to the team success.’ ”
Biles said after proving what they can do, Tuesday’s team final and the ensuing various individual days of competition are just about “consistency.” If the 19-year-old can manage that, she’ll walk out of here with five gold medals – team, all-around, floor, beam and vault. No one has ever done more than four, and the last time that occurred was 1968.
“Simone is Simone,” Karolyi said. “She is a big talent, but she proved how she is also controlling herself and how she is able to perform under pressure. There is a reason she is three-time world champion, and what I told them before the competition is, ‘Even though it is Olympics, it is no different gymnastically. It is the same thing. Around us is different, but our expectation is the same.’”
They’ll have to deliver Tuesday and beyond, although the way gymnastics works, with degree of difficulty a factor, they needn’t be perfect. They just need to be. All around the gymnastics competition Sunday people marveled at what the American system has produced, what they’ve done to control the sport.
“We train awesome, we have great coaches and we have a great national staff that helps the coaches bring up the next generation of talent,” said Aimee Boorman, Biles’ personal coach.
Boorman shrugged. She said she isn’t surprised and never will be.
“The team after this will be even better,” Boorman said.
She’s probably right. For now, crank up the steamroller. America is coming.