GLASGOW, Scotland (AP) — In 15 minutes, it was over. Done. The message had been sent.
Five dynamic floor routines — one of them unforgettably done without the music — and whatever initial jitters the U.S. women’s gymnastics team felt heading into the 2015 World Championships vanished.
They were in their element. Packed arena. Bright lights. Ridiculous expectations. Even on a day the best team on the planet wasn’t always at its best, the six young women in the bedazzled magenta leotards left little doubt. The gap between the U.S. and the rest of the world shows no signs of closing less than a year before the 2016 Summer Olympics.
Led by two-time defending World champion Simone Biles and resurgent Olympic gold medalist Gabby Douglas, the Americans posted a team score of 236.611, more than five points clear of second-place Russia, the equivalent to a three-touchdown blowout.
Barring the unexpected, Tuesday night’s eight-team final is on pace to end just like every other major international competition has over the last four years: with the U.S. on top of the podium and the rest of the world looking up.
Biles, Douglas, Aly Raisman, Maggie Nichols, Brenna Dowell and Madison Kocian spent four rotations showcasing the depth that makes the U.S. nearly unstoppable. One of them would start each stop around the SSE Hydro with a solid set only to have a teammate come right out and top it. When the rare misstep popped up, the mistake was easily erased under a format that allowed each team to drop its lowest score.
“We’re all really strong,” said Douglas, who finished second to Biles in all-around qualifying. “We’re all really strong. We all have different things, different treasures we can contribute to U.S.”
And no gymnast has more to add than Biles. Part powder keg, part technical marvel and all boundless energy, the 18-year-old hardly seemed burdened by her quest for a three-peat.
Biles’ electric floor exercise ended with a bounce and a flourish. Her 15.933 was an exclamation point that the struggles endured by the so-so Russians, the sluggish Chinese and the injury decimated Romanians would not happen to the U.S. until things were well in hand.
“We love ending on (floor exercise),” said Biles, whose all-around total of 61.598 easily topped qualifying. “(But) to start off with a bang is pretty exciting too.”
One no other country can match.
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The Americans were so locked in they could do their routines blindfolded, which is basically what happened to Dowell on the floor. Her music played briefly only to cut out. Dowell walked off the floor only to race back on and give it a shot anyway, getting an assist from the crowd, which tried to clap along as she ripped through arguably the oddest 75 seconds of her competitive life.
National team coordinator Martha Karolyi‘s voice cut the silence.
“I heard Martha saying ‘Go! Go! Go!’ because the timing was all the way down, so I just went,” Dowell said. “I’ve done that routines so many times, I knew exactly how to do it.”
Though her mark of 13.966 was the lowest among her teammates, it hardly mattered. Dowell’s perseverance — she was an alternate on both the 2013 and 2014 world championship teams — proved emblematic of a team whose mental toughness is nearly as remarkable as its considerable skill.
At the moment, there is the U.S. and everyone else, which can lead to some awkward moments even among good friends. The only real drama came in the race to see which of Biles’ teammates would finish second to her in the all-around. Douglas and Raisman, a fellow member of the “Fierce Five” team that rolled to gold at the 2012 Olympics, spent four rotations shadow boxing each other.
The rules stipulate that only two athletes per country can compete in any one individual final, regardless of where they end up in the overall all-around race. Douglas and Raisman are well-versed in the stakes, though Douglas appeared to have the opening she needed when Raisman slipped off the uneven bars. Douglas then nearly squandered it, smacking her ribs onto the balance beam. Raisman followed moments later with a steady routine that put it in the hands of the judges.
The two oldest members of the team stood 15 feet from each other staring at the scoreboard. When Raisman’s mark of 14.066 posted — good enough for fourth overall but not quite enough to catch Douglas’s second-place total of 57.516 — Raisman stoically tried to mask her disappointment.
“It’s probably one of the worst meets I’ve ever had in my life and I’m still fourth in the world,” Raisman said, “so that’s pretty ridiculous.”
So is the mental edge the Americans seem to have over the field. China opened Saturday’s competition with a string of unusual slip-ups on bars, typically a strength. The ended up fourth behind the U.S., Russia and host Britain and more than 10 points behind the U.S.
“We have improvements to make as a team,” said Chang Sungchong. “We will try our very best in every step. Although we won’t (beat) the Americans, we should put up an air like the Chinese men’s team.”
One problem: the only squad with that kind of swagger is the one the Chinese women — and everyone else — are trying to catch
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