Gutting It Out for Gold
McKayla Maroney is certainly talented and adorable -- but also tough as nails. You can say that about her teammates as well: Jordyn Wieber, Aly Raisman, Gabby Douglas and Kyla Ross. Together they blew away the rest of the world yesterday in London to win the first Olympics team gold medal for USA Women's Gymnastics since 1996. That team from the Atlanta Games was known as the "Magnificent Seven" and has been forever immortalized by Kerri Strug's astonishing one-legged vault landing while favoring a badly sprained ankle.
There is a parallel between Strug and Maroney, who competed yesterday with a fractured big toe that she aggravated last week in training. Maroney is also the world's premier vaulter, who soars "about two feet higher than any other girl in the competition" according to NBC gymnastics analyst and former Olympian Tim Daggett.
Great concern pervaded the Team USA camp about Maroney's ability to perform this week. She won the vault at last year's World Championships, where the USA also scored the team gold by a wide margin. Those performances had placed a target squarely on the backs of Maroney and her teammates for this year's Olympics. The pressure was intense, not to mention the shadow cast by that 1996 team over all American women's gymnastics squads that have followed it. But Maroney was undeterred.
"Bad things happen, you just have to make the best of it," she told NBCOlympics.com. "It does hurt. It's broken. How is it not going to hurt? I just try to ignore it and I have worked so hard to be here."
She was true to her word. Team USA threw down the gauntlet to the rest of the world in the opening event yesterday -- the vault. Wieber and Douglas each nailed their difficult attempts before Maroney brought the crowd to its feet with a thrilling and seemingly flawless vault. The announcers openly speculated that it could achieve a perfect score of 16.5. Daggett was in disbelief that it "only" earned a 16.233 -- still by far the best vaulting score at the Games.
USA Team Coordinator Martha Karolyi later said, "It. Was. The. Best. Vault. Ever."
Team USA gained a lead it would never relinquish thanks to this tremendous opening salvo from Wieber, Douglas and Maroney. The gold-medal winners constituted a team in the truest sense of the word. Maroney fighting through the pain to dominate in her signature event. Wieber bouncing back from the disappointment of not qualifying for the all-around individual competition by emphatically scoring in three team events. Ross stepping up to compete in Maroney's place for the uneven bars, balance beam and floor exercise. Douglas showing her versatility by being the only team member to perform in all four events. And captain Raisman clinching gold with the final floor exercise, knowing full well that only a botched routine from her could keep the team from claiming the gold it had all but assured at that point. She actually started crying just seconds from the end, aware she had passed the difficult tumbling runs with flying colors and her team's rise to the top of the podium was now destined.
There is a famous hockey story that prior to game 6 of the 1974 Stanley Cup Finals, Philadelphia Flyers Coach Fred Shero wrote a message to his team on the locker room blackboard: "Win together today and we walk together forever."
The 2012 USA Women's Gymnastics Team will certainly walk together forever now, remembered as Olympic champions and among the greatest ever. To quote another American legend, Bruce Springsteen, here is my own salute: "Born in the USA!"