RIO DE JANEIRO — There was a moment at about 5:20 p.m. local time when a collective intake of breath sucked the air out the Arena Olimpico do Rio. For a fraction of a second, it seemed Simone Biles was losing her balance on the beam.
She began to topple a little to her right as she landed a flip.
Surely the world’s No. 1 gymnast would not repeat the mistake she made during the U.S. trials?
“When a kid is wobbling you are worrying,” U.S. coach Mihai Brestyan admitted to The Daily Beast afterward. “You have four inches you can play with—not too much—if you go one inch further you are out.”
There was no need to worry. The magnificent Biles soon steadied herself—and then nailed the rest of her routine.
In truth, even if she’d fallen flat on her face, there was virtually nothing that could stop Team USA sweeping to the gold medal. But that momentary hesitation was just enough to remind everyone that these extraordinary girls are human.
For the rest of the day, the Americans were on a different planet.
Every gymnast from each country in the finals is a supreme athlete, but the U.S. team is so much more powerful, elegant, and precise they look somehow otherworldly.
While the mere mortals challenging for silver and bronze strained every sinew to land their jumps with a minimal stutter, the U.S. gymnasts’ landed like darts in a dartboard.
They ran faster, spun tighter, jumped higher, and flipped further than anyone else.
Brestyan, who was wearing Aly Raisman’s gold medal around his neck, said this gymnastics team was the greatest in history. “This is the strongest team we ever had,” he said. “We've have good teams before but there were issues here and there. Physically and mentally, especially mentally, this is the strongest.”
Most of the routines the final five gymnasts sailed through were too difficult for rivals to even attempt.
The only real challenge for Team USA was keeping their concentration as they found themselves in the same rotation at the Brazilians whose every tumble, spin, and landing brought wave after wave of cheers.
The arena reached possibly its loudest point as Brazil’s Rebecca Andrade tumbled, leapt, and thrust her way through an unusually sexy floor routine set to Beyoncé. Boos rang out when she was awarded just 12.966.
While all of this was unfolding, surely no one could stay focused on a discipline as complex and nerve-wracking as the asymmetric bars.
Madison Kocian could. The asymmetric bars world champion produced a spectacular performance in the midst of the cacophony.
Her broad smile as she was congratulated by her teammates was a rare moment of levity for this team who were all business all day. As she arced through the air on her descent to the mat, they already knew she had an unassailable score and the judges confirmed that with a 15.933, which tied with Biles on the vault for the top score of the day.
By the time, the U.S. reached their final rotation the gold medal was already a lock, but there was still time to put on a show for the crowd.
Lauren Hernandez’s sassy floor routine elicited almost full hometown cheers. Aly Raisman raised the sound levels even higher with a technical routine that ended with a spectacularly powerful series of tumbles landed with immaculate precision.
It transpired that they were simply laying the groundwork for Biles.
To the backing of a samba beat, her awe-inducing and powerful tumbling brought the partisan crowd to its feet for a well-deserved ovation.
Her stern face during the medal ceremony was a reminder that she still has plenty more gold medal shots to come.
“We are so successful because we believe in ourselves,” said Biles afterwards. “Our team believes in each other. That is what helps us. It hasn’t been easy but we have done everything we could have done to get where we are.”
Coach Brestyan explained that the team had an unassailable position in the sport because their routines were so settled. Because they have already mastered routines with extremely high difficulty ratings, they were able to dedicate themselves to perfecting and honing their execution of those routines.
“The others are looking for more to catch up with us, and when you try to put more sometimes you pay the price for it,” he said. “We just need to make it happen every time in any condition, it doesn’t matter how many Brazilians are yelling in the gym and screaming.”
The U.S. team has also modernized their training techniques to suit the new gymnastics rules which reward higher difficulty. The sport is now about powerful athletes able to pull off extraordinary feats of strength.
“[The Chinese] are stuck in the old mentality—they are tiny, it’s not about tiny today you need to be like a tank,” he said. “You’re born like Simone or you need to remodel somebody to get her level.”