Jordyn Wieber finds redemption in leading Team USA to gold in women's gymnastics
LONDON – Jordyn Wieber's face was expressionless. She stood at the edge of the runway, rocking back and forth, the first vault of the women's gymnastics team competition awaiting at the other end.
She was back in the gymnastics hall less than 48 hours after the most disappointing meet of her 17 year-old life, one in which she failed to qualify for all around finals and wound up crying in a heap in the locker room.
Her teammates began pulling her out of her shell that night back at the Olympic Village, telling her how she needed to be at her best for America to win gold. By Tuesday, her coach, John Geddert, had whispered one word into her ear:
The go light for the vault finally lit up and rather than wait, as is custom, for the public address announcer to introduce her to the crowd, Jordyn Wieber was gone in an instant.
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Redemption couldn't wait. This was still going to be her Olympics. Right here, right now. To the side, a couple of her teammates held hands nervously. One prayed. Wieber just flew down that runway, sprung into her vault, flipped two-and-a-half times through the air, and stuck her landing.
And then she finally smiled.
And right then it was clear, the United States was going to win this, the United States was going to win gold.
"I knew I had to redeem myself a little bit from the disappointment of the other day," Wieber said. "But, in the end, this was my ultimate goal – to win with this team."
The United States won gold in team women's gymnastics for the first time since 1996 with a decisive, nearly flawless performance. The margin, 183.596 to 178.530 over the Russians, was absurd for this level of competition.
There was no doubt. No one else ever stood a chance.
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"Please look at history," said Bela Karolyi, the legendary former gymnastics coach. "I've seen a performance like this maybe once or twice, back in the old Soviet era."
It started with Wieber setting the tone and easing nerves with that first vault. Then McKayla Maroney followed it with an even more brilliant, truly perfect leap ["there is no better vault in the history of gymnastics," declared Bela Karolyi]. Soon a rotation of Americans was holding back the Russians on bars and beam, drawing inspiration from the rock-solid efforts of Gabby Douglas. Eventually their lead grew so commanding that they could lighten their final floor routines to avoid risk.
And by then Jordyn Wieber couldn't stop smiling.
This time it was from the top of a podium, surrounded by her four friends and teammates and saviors – Maroney, Douglas, Aly Raisman and Kyla Ross. Together they pulled her from the depths of her own competitive soul and rebuilt the confidence of a world champion.
And now there they were, gold medals around their necks, "O Say Can You See" on their lips, beaming joy coming out of their faces.
This is the greatest American team ever according to Bela Karolyi, who coached that 1996 gold medal crew but concedes it can't compare to this group, led now by his wife, Martha. The 2012 gold medalists showed greater unity, mental toughness and togetherness.
"That  was a beautiful bouquet of individual talent," Karolyi said. "This is a team."
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There was no greater display than how they lifted each other up, starting with Wieber.
This is a team competition amid an individual sport. Emotions and goals change in an instant. On Sunday, during individual qualifying, they all challenged each other to reach the individual all around. Raisman and Douglas made it. Wieber and the others didn't, caught in a rule that limits finalist to two-per-country.
Just two days later though, they needed to be a team. There could be no rivalries. There could be no jealousy.
Wieber came here to fulfill the individual goal of being crowned the greatest gymnast in the world. When that was lost, the team couldn't lose her too and expect to win. Any disappointment couldn't compound itself. No one knew it more than Jordyn.
By Sunday night she was mostly herself again. By Monday, everyone was gathered in front of the television to watch men's gymnastics and swimming like old times. By Tuesday almost all doubts were gone. She looked like the normal, intense, ferocious Wieber they knew.
While the team believed, though, the coaches still fretted. The Americans were paired with the Russians, with vault as the first rotation. All eyes would be on Wieber, everyone looking for weakness.
Maroney, the best vaulter in the world, was always going to go last in an effort to rack up the largest advantage. Wieber was always the steadiest member of the team. So why wait? Martha Karoyli wanted her to go first, to stick the vault and show the Russian opponents, show the American teammates, maybe most importantly show Wieber herself that she was back and she was back to win.
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"I knew I had to start the team off on a good note, get everyone excited," Wieber said of her vault, which delivered a 15.933 score. "I think it kick started the whole competition."
It kick started an epic performance. Douglas followed with a 15.966 and then Maroney landed a moon shot of what is called the "amanar vault" that Karolyi said was perfection in motion.
"They should change the name of that vault to ‘the Maroney,'" said Geddert.
The score: 16.233. The Russians and Chinese never caught up. Instead they crumbled under the pressure of trying by flailing about on the beam and the floor.
Near the end, the team gathered in a tight huddle. This wasn't unusual. They're always hugging each other, always shouting encouragement. Before every meet they gather and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Sometimes they pray. A lot of times they joke.
This time they talked about history. It was in their grasp, so the message was two-fold. Seize this opportunity. And enjoy every last moment of it.
"Just have fun," Maroney said. "You'll never, ever forget this."
In the final rotation, with an almost impossible-to-lose situation, Douglas delivered another beautiful routine. Then Wieber stepped out on the floor and took a deep breath. She's known as the stoic one. The rock. It's Douglas that never stops smiling. It's Maroney that's always screaming and cheering. Wieber is the worker. Not this time though, she thought.
[ Photos: U.S. gymnast Jordyn Wieber ]
Yes, her all around dream was gone. She might as well make this her Olympic moment.
"Perform for this crowd," Wieber said she told herself. "I know how to do this. I've done this a million times. Just go and have fun."
By the time she nailed her second combination, she was grinning wide, dancing with ease and excitement.
"Redemption," Geddert said he kept thinking as he watched from the side. He's known her since she was eight. Trained her forever it seems. Watched her go from small town Michigan to world champion to a crumpled mess two days ago who couldn't, or wouldn't speak.
And now he's never been prouder.
"That's the type of kid she is," he said.
The type of kid that was soon hugging her teammates, hugging her friends, hugging the other kids who had lifted her up when she needed it so they could all soar to heights they barely dreamed possible.
So when they needed her to set the tone of this meet, she was not going to wait for some introduction to roar right down that vault runaway, right back into the air and eventually right up onto that glorious, golden podium.
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