U.S. women's gymnastics leaves competition in awe

Eric Adelson

RIO DE JANEIRO – At the end of the evening, when the gold medal was won and Simone Biles stood in the middle of Rio Olympic Arena to start her floor exercise routine, everyone stood around to watch. Everyone.

“It was so incredible, I don’t believe it,” said German gymnast Tabea Alt. “She is a hero for us.”

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“She’s amazing, amazing,” said Netherlands gymnast Celine van Gerner. “A really great legend.”

“She does everything right, everything perfect,” said Russian gymnast Angelina Melinkova. “I like her so much.”

“It was just incredible,” said British gymnast Amy Tinkler, “to be competing with her.”

These are opponents of the United States women’s gymnastics team. These are people who Biles and the Americans obliterated by a record margin in Tuesday’s team final. And instead of grumbling or groaning, their rivals raved.

Watching Biles and the “Final Five” was, to them, a treat.

[Related: Why the U.S. gymnastics team call themselves the Final Five]

“In quarterfinals, they won by, what, 10 points,” van Gerner said. “Tonight, 8 points? We will never beat them. I don’t know if it’s possible anymore.”

She said this with a grin. And not the plastic grin so many gymnasts show to match the glitter on their outfits. A real grin.

Over in the swimming venue this week, there has been side-eyed rivalry. Here, on Tuesday at Rio Olympic Arena, there was delight. Melinkova doesn’t even speak much English, but when she heard a reporter say “Simone Biles,” she took a deep breath and held back a giggle.

“Very impressive,” she offered, through a translator. “Very strong.”

The best praise came from outgoing American coach Marta Karolyi. When asked to name the best gymnast she’s ever coached, she said, “Nadia and Simone.”

She elaborated. “Nadia was super precise,” Karolyi said. “Simone is the most exciting.”

That’s how good Simone Biles is. Opponents turn to mush and her own demanding mentor subs out coach-speak for honesty.

“Sometimes, I wish she was someone else’s athlete,” said her coach, Aimee Boorman, “so I could just enjoy her.”

But it’s not just Simone. It’s the entire team. The Final Five was not one sun and the satellites. It truly was a constellation of stars.

[Photos: ‘Magnificent Seven’ gymnasts: Where are they now?]

Whether it was Aly Raisman nailing her Amanar on the vault or Laurie Hernandez bringing down the house with her floor routine or Madison Kocian providing a scintillating turn on uneven bars or Gabby Douglas making a lot of people forget she nearly got cut at trials.

“I feel like this is the top of all the teams,” Karolyi said. And that is both a remarkable statement and a completely obvious one. It is difficult to imagine any better team, either in the past or in the future.

The team final is supposed to be full of plot twists and turns to go with the actual twists and turns – a breathless event in which every single move or wobble changes outcomes and lives. Tuesday’s competition was nothing like that. It was just a display of excellence.

“I really enjoyed it,” said van Gerner. “You already know they’re going to win. They’re ridiculous.”

Then there’s the other part of the dominance: the poise. The Americans had to do leaps and landings on a beam the width of a credit card for all the world to see and judge. Any slip-up would stay with them for life. And yet they looked like they were practicing late on a Friday at the local Y, as the janitor swept up and turned out the lights.

“Some days it gets boring,” said Kocian, 19. “But [Karolyi] knows what will keep us champions.”

Boring.

“They didn’t seem so nervous,” said Maggie Haney, Laurie Hernandez’s coach. “Practice is sometimes mundane, so out here they don’t think so much. They kind of go on autopilot.”

Autopilot.

In the moments before Sunday’s qualification, Hernandez admitted to Nichols that she had some nerves. But when she got done with her flawless floor exercise routine, she returned to her coach and said she felt totally fine as soon as she stepped onto the mat. Maybe that’s the true proof of Karolyi’s genius: She somehow gets her gymnasts to channel their emotions in the biggest moment of their young lives.

“No drama,” Karolyi said. “I don’t think there should be drama. I always tell them, ‘Don’t be a drama queen.’ ”

No drama. Just dominance.

And so there it was, the last moments of team competition in Karolyi’s storied career that spanned from Nadia to Simone. There was the world watching, and all the fans watching, and all the rivals watching. There was Hernandez, standing with her teammates, dancing and jumping and clapping and sashaying with every move Biles did.

Then it was over, and gold was won, and the Final Five gathered in a big hug that maybe they had practiced along with everything else.

For the rest of those in the arena, there was a moment to appreciate what they had just witnessed – a performance that may never be matched.

“I have no words,” said British gymnast Ruby Harrold. “I don’t know what to say.”

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