In 2012, the U.S. women’s gymnastics team won the team final by 5.066 points. It was a dominant performance by all accounts. In 2016, the U.S. held that lead through nearly two entire rotations. When all the routines were finished, the U.S. was 8.209 points above second-place Russia to claim its second consecutive team gold medal and third overall.
The U.S. team of Simone Biles, Aly Raisman, Laurie Hernandez, Gabby Douglas and Madison Kocian staked its claim to be considered the best gymnastics team of all-time during the team final on Tuesday. They didn’t match the 10-plus point advantage they had in the qualifying round, but the 8.209 margin of victory was the highest for a major international competition (Olympics or Worlds) in the open scoring era, which started in 2006.
Rightfully, the U.S. came into the competition as the overwhelming favorites and would have needed multiple major errors to not win. Those errors didn’t happen, in either qualification or the final, and through the two days of competition the U.S. was 28-for-28 in hit routines. With that type of consistency added with the difficulty in those routines, there was never a chance for another team to come close.
With wins in 2012 and 2016, the U.S. women became the first team to win back-to-back team titles since Romania in 2000 and 2004. Prior to that, it was the Soviet Union, who had won 8 consecutive team competitions from 1952-1980. It’s unlikely there’s a dynasty to that extent again, but the U.S. has now dominated the competition in two straight Olympics and should be a favorite again heading into Tokyo in 2016. This team was the second oldest the U.S. has sent to the Olympics since 1996, but it would not be surprising to see at least two repeat team members in 2020, namely the 19-year-old Biles, should she continue competing, and 16-year-old Hernandez.
The Final Five
The women of the 2012 team named themselves the “Fierce Five” during the London Olympics. The 2016 team came up with a name, but kept it a secret until after final routine was finished during the team final. That name was the “Final Five,” a moniker that has a few different layers.
First, is the ode to national team coordinator Martha Karolyi. Karolyi has been the national team coordinator for the women since 2001, taking the role over from her husband, Bela. Bela is seen in most of the videos replaying the glory of the 1996 women’s team finals as the one on the floor, but it was Martha who was actually that team’s head coach. Bela was named the national team coordinator following the ‘96 Games and his retirement from coaching, but after just one cycle, that position was turned over to Martha. Since she took over, the women’s national team has experienced its greatest era of success with now 44 medals between World and Olympic competition, counting this most recent gold.
Karolyi will retire as the national team coordinator after these Olympics, making this team the final one she will oversee. In her time as the coordinator, Karolyi has set up a system that has allowed the women’s team to prosper into an international power. The women selected to the national team each year train at home gyms, but take monthly trips to the Karolyi Ranch in Texas, for training camps, mock meets and other practices. This way of training has been so highly regarded, USA Gymnastics struck a deal with the Karolyis and monthly trips to the Ranch will continue under the new, yet-to-be-named coordinator after Karolyi steps away.
The other meaning for the Final Five name is that this is the last time a team of five will compete in the Olympics. In May, the governing body of gymnastics, the Federation of International Gymnastics (FIG) voted to change the way teams qualified for the Olympic Games. One of the changes was decreasing the size of each team from five to four starting with the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
This, of course, is not the first time FIG has decreased the number of gymnasts allowed on a team. In 1996, the gold-medal winning Magnificent 7 had seven members on the team. For the next Olympics, the team was cut down to six, which lasted through the 2008 Olympics in Athens. London was the first Olympics with a five gymnast team and Rio will be the last.
However, this is not supposed to limit the amount of gymnasts from each country. While only four will be allowed to compete in the team portion, up to six gymnasts from a country can will be allowed to go, with two in specialist roles. In terms of this year, that would probably mean Kocian, who was brought on for her bar work, would not have made the team, though she would have been able to make the Olympics in order to compete bars. This rule would also open an opportunity for someone like Ashton Locklear or MyKayla Skinner, who are alternates in Rio, but could have competed bars and vault, respectively.
Shannon Miller is the most decorated U.S. gymnast in the Olympics with seven medals. Of those seven, only two were gold—for team and balance beam in 1996. With the team win in Rio, Raisman and Douglas became the first two American gymnasts with three gold medals. Douglas, who won with the team and individual all-around in London, has a chance to make it four next week when she competes in bars finals on Sunday. Raisman has a chance to make it five with an appearance in the all-around final on Thursday and she’ll defend her Olympic title on floor during that final next Tuesday.
Of course, Simone Biles could leave Rio with as many as five gold medals. She’s the favorite to win the all-around competition, ahead of Raisman, and on the three events where she qualified for finals—vault, beam and floor—she qualified with the highest score.
Overall, the team could leave Rio with 10 total medals with the team, all-around and event finals combined. That would be the most since the 1968 Soviet Union team had nine total medals with a team gold. There’s no surpassing those dominant Soviet teams of that era, such as the 1960 Soviet team that won 15 medals, the team gold and every all-around and event medal except for the gold on balance beam. With the rules limiting two gymnasts per country to each final, medal sweeps like that are no longer allowed. It might not be a stretch, though, to think this U.S. could pull that off if there were no finals restrictions.
Tuesday was truly a historic day for U.S. women’s gymnastics. While it may seem like the climax of all the work done getting to this point, it’s really still just the beginning of what these women can accomplish in Rio. The team final was the first gold medal of what appears to be many more to come.
Dan Pizzuta is a freelance writer and former Division I gymnast at Temple University.