Martha Karolyi
AP

‘Final Five’ moniker — and gold– delights Martha Karolyi

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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.

MORE: ‘Final Five’ run away with gold in Rio

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.”

MORE: How would Karolyi describe her Olympic gymnasts?

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.

Chock, Bates charge to second U.S. title; Hubbell, Donohue charge the wrong way

Madison Hubbell, Zach Donohue
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GREENSBORO, N.C. – Evan Bates, who had just won his second U.S. ice dance title with partner Madison Chock, put it best.

“Ice dance is a strange sport in some ways,” he said.

Chock and Bates have had their share of unusual mishaps in their near 10-year career, but on Saturday night at the 2020 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Greensboro, North Carolina, everything was smooth sailing.

The couple’s exotic “Egyptian Snake Dance” free dance went off without a hitch, gaining the highest possible levels for nearly all of its elements and impressing judges with its intricacy, synchronization and striking lifts. It earned 134.23 points, giving the Montreal-based team the win with 221.86.

“It was (our coach Marie-France Dubreuil’s) idea for me to be a snake, and Evan a traveler who finds me,” Chock said of the routine. “It was just such a fun process, cool new characters for us to dive into, and we’ve really been enjoying it. It shows when we skate.”

Greensboro has been lucky for the skaters, who teamed up in 2011; they won their first U.S. title here in 2015. The five-year title gap is the longest in history for U.S. ice dance champions.

“It feels longer than five years,” Chock said with a breezy laugh. “It feels so much has changed, and in us as people as well (as dancers). We’re in a very good place, we could not be happier with the way the season has been going.”

If Chock’s humor was lighthearted, Madison Hubbell’s can only be described grim.

Hubbell and her partner, Zach Donohue, trailed their long-time rivals and Montreal training partners by about 1.3 points following Friday’s rhythm dance. A stellar outing of their Star is Born free dance might have won a third consecutive U.S. title; instead, it became a living nightmare.

“Out of the first element, the dance spin, we got turned around somehow and came out the wrong direction,” Hubbell said. “The next four elements, which are pretty valuable elements, all were facing the wrong direction.”

(Video available here for NBC Sports Gold subscribers; Hubbell and Donohue skate at the 1:06:50 mark.)

Not until their fifth element, a step sequence, did the skaters get back on track. In between, there was a world of hurt, likely unnoticed by many members of the audience but readily apparent to the judges, who had seen the free dance in  practice.

“Our twizzle sequence, it’s a high-scoring element, is supposed to charge right at the judges, and today it charged away from them,” Hubbell said. “In the rotational life, there’s a large leg flare that looks very cool going the opposite direction, and today I just opened my crotch right in front of the judges.”

The score was far from disastrous; Hubbell and Donohue’s 130.88 points for their “wrong-way” free dance gave them 217.19 overall. But it was a missed opportunity to show judges, and fans, the improvements they had made to A Star Is Born since the Grand Prix Final in December.

“It was probably one of the hardest performances, and not the most enjoyable,” Hubbell said. “It was a really thoughtful focus on the elements, and somehow putting one portion of the brain aside to fix things as best we could.”

The silver medal was Hubbell and Donohue’s first. They also won bronze medals in 2012, and 2015-17.

Kaitlyn Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, whose rhythm dance to Saturday Night Fever stole the show on Friday, felt their Flamenco-style free dance didn’t pack the same punch.

“Yesterday was such a high for us, in terms of (audience) reaction and performance, that tonight didn’t have the same euphoria when we finished,” Hawayek said. “Both Jean-Luc and I see the potential for it being much higher than what we were able to put out today.”

Despite the disappointment, the third team in the Montreal troika earned 118.57 points and won a second consecutive bronze medal with 201.16.

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Coco Gauff eliminated from Australian Open by Sofia Kenin

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Coco Gauff‘s run at the Australian Open ended in the round of 16, foiled by fellow American Sofia Kenin on Sunday.

Kenin ousted the 15-year-old phenom 6-7 (5), 6-3, 6-0 to reach her first Grand Slam quarterfinal. Gauff, too, was bidding for her first major quarterfinal after a sterling seven months ignited by her march to the Wimbledon fourth round.

Gauff, ranked No. 684 this time last year, will near the top 50 after the Australian Open. She beat Venus Williams in the first round at Wimbledon and the Australian Open and took out defending Australian Open champion Naomi Osaka in the third round on Friday.

Gauff’s play catapulted her to fifth in U.S. Olympic singles qualifying, but she has half the points as fourth-place Madison Keys, and a country can’t qualify more than four players in singles. The Olympic field will be determined by the WTA rankings after the French Open in June.

The 14th seed Kenin, who beat Serena Williams in the 2019 French Open third round, ranks second behind Williams in U.S. Olympic qualifying. She will face No. 27 Wang Qiang or Ons Jabeur in the quarterfinals.

Kenin and Alison Riske are the two remaining U.S. women in the draw.

AUSTRALIAN OPEN DRAWS: Men | Women

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