RIO DE JANEIRO – The U.S. women’s gymnastics team won the Olympics by the largest margin in this scoring era. More impressively, they made Martha Karolyi cry.
“From my nature, I’m really not a sentimental person, honestly,” Karolyi said, deadpan, about 30 minutes after she wiped the tears. “I’m known for being really tough, so I felt like, what’s happening to me, really?”
Karolyi’s assembled squad of Simone Biles, Aly Raisman, Gabby Douglas, Laurie Hernandez and Madison Kocian delivered her overwhelming retirement gifts at the Olympic Arena on Tuesday afternoon.
First, they made good on everyone’s prediction of a gold-medal cakewalk, hitting 12 for 12 routines. They prevailed by 8.209 points over Russia and by 8.894 over China.
The surprise came after the competition, between Biles’ final floor exercise and the victory ceremony.
Team captain Raisman walked up to Karolyi and confided in her the team nickname so many had been asking them to reveal. Anticipation had built to learn the follow-up to the popular Fierce Five moniker of 2012.
This year it’s the Final Five, Raisman told Karolyi.
The name honors the impending retirement of Karolyi, who at 73 will cede her national-team coordinator role following these Games after 15 years in charge. A successor hasn’t been named.
“I’m very proud and, yes, I cried,” were Karolyi’s first words to a group of American journalists after the victory ceremony. “I’m not sentimental, but when Aly told me the name of the team is the Final Five, that is the moment.”
The name was Biles’ idea.
And fittingly, as the Texan has been the cornerstone of the program in this Olympic cycle, winning world all-around titles in 2013, 2014 and 2015 and leading the U.S. to dynasty status – five straight Olympic or world team titles dating to 2011.
Biles said Karolyi means “the world” to her.
“She’s pushed us harder than anyone else, harder than our coaches,” said Biles, who performed on all four events Tuesday and is the massive favorite for the Olympic all-around crown Thursday. “Every day in practice, even if you’re so close to perfection, she still tells you that you can be better. … She does it because she loves us. She just wants the best for us.”
Karolyi, who defected from Romania in 1981, is a walking history book of gymnastics. Her first of 11 straight Olympics were in 1976, when she and husband Bela coached Nadia Comaneci to gold in Montreal.
When Karolyi cried in front of Raisman on Tuesday, it marked her first time shedding tears at a Games since Comaneci’s perfect-10 performance 40 years ago.
“Because that was my first Olympics and first Olympic medal,” she said. “So those are so remarkable moments.”
Many will call this team the greatest ever after Tuesday night. Karolyi is inclined to agree.
“I almost would like to say yes, just if we think that we have the eight-point [margin over] the next team,” she said.
The current scoring system was implemented in 2006, so it is hard to compare eras.
It wasn’t that long ago that the U.S. women struggled during Romania’s reign.
After finishing sixth at the 1999 World Championships, Bela was lured out of retirement to revive the program.
He passed the baton to Martha in 2001, and slowly the Americans surged past the Romanians, Russians and Chinese. Monthly national-team camps at the peacock-and camel-filled Karolyi Ranch in New Waverly, Texas, provided the foundation.
The U.S.’ streak of five straight Olympic or world team titles is the best stretch of success since Romania won seven of nine Olympic or world titles between 1994 and 2004.
Before that, the Soviet Union won eight straight Olympic team titles from 1952 to 1980.
The Russian pipeline has been drying up. Romania didn’t even qualify a full team for Rio. China put all its eggs in the 2008 Beijing Olympic basket and then dropped off.
“I think at this moment we can say that United States dominates the world of gymnastics,” Karolyi said. “I think that’s probably comparable with the other era when first Russia was dominating and then Romania took over and dominated for several years.”
But can the U.S. sustain this level of dominance under the scrutinizing eyes of a different coordinator?
One constant will remain – those team camps at the Karolyi Ranch. USA Gymnastics recently purchased 36.2 acres of gymnastics facilities at the 2,000-acre ranch.
Martha and Bela plan to visit Romania in retirement, but the ranch will remain their permanent home.
“Maybe I pop in the gym and see if they are going in the right direction,” Karolyi said.
It wasn’t totally clear if she was kidding.