LOCALS IN LONDON
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LONDON — The U.S. women's gymnastics team has stressed for months their depth is the key to their dominance.
Now they have to make sure it doesn't accidentally lead to their downfall.
The Americans rolled to victory in Olympic team qualifying on Sunday, posting a score of 181.863 that only Russia came close to threatening.
Still, the image of world champion Jordyn Wieber leaving the floor in tears after failing to advance to the individual all-around final will be hard to shake.
Beaten by teammates Aly Raisman and Gabby Douglas, the ever-composed Wieber crumbled when she realized her dreams of joining the likes of Olympic gold medalists Nastia Liukin, Mary Lou Retton and Carly Patterson evaporated in a series of uncharacteristic miscues.
Now, Wieber has to regroup in time to help the U.S. capture its first team title since Atlanta 16 years ago.
"This is the beauty of our program," USA Gymnastics president Steve Penny said. "On any given day one of the girls on our team can do it."
True, except for the last three years, that one girl has almost always been Wieber. She's only lost twice in competition since 2009, both times to fellow Americans. And she's never finished behind two teammates in the same meet.
Not until Sunday at least. How she'll respond is anybody's guess.
"She's a strong gymnast," said teammate McKayla Maroney. "She can turn it around in two seconds."
Wieber will get two days.
The 17-year-old is the star the U.S. program has orbited around during the last three years, leading the Americans to a world title in Tokyo last fall.
She kept it going this spring and summer, with Douglas' emergence giving the U.S. a one-two punch few teams can match.
An all-around showdown in London between Wieber and Douglas has been looming for months. They've taken turns gracing the covers of national magazines trying to duplicate the showdown between Liukin and Shawn Johnson in Beijing four years ago.
Consider Douglas the winner by technical knockout.
The rules allow just two gymnasts per country to compete in the individual all-around finals. Raisman's rock-solid floor exercise on the heels of sloppy routines by both Douglas and Wieber allowed the U.S. captain to leapfrog her more heralded teammates and into the finals.
Even Raisman was stunned, barely blinking during interviews as she tried to balance the greatest day of her career against her best friend's bitter disappointment.
"It's really hard," Raisman said. "That was kind of like my first thought. I was really happy but then at the same time I feel bad just because I know how bad (Wieber) wanted it."
And if it's gold Wieber wants, there's still gold to be had.
Just like the U.S. men, who will go for their first Olympic gold since 1984 in the team final on Monday, the ultimate prize has never been individual medals but the one that ends up with five girls standing atop the podium singing "The Star Spangled Banner."
It's why national coach Martha Karolyi simply shrugged her shoulders when talking about Wieber's rough day.
"I'm very sad, but I'm very happy about the other girls," Karolyi said. "Hard work pays off ... we support Jordyn, but things happen."
One thing will almost certainly have to happen by Tuesday if the U.S. is to collect the gold it has been stalking since storming to victory in worlds by a whopping four points: Wieber will have to find a way to overcome the kind of adversity she's so expertly avoided during her lengthy reign atop the podium.
Scores are reset in the finals, where teams enter three competitors in each event, with all three scores counting. Wieber is a virtual certainty to stand in front of the judges and raise her hand several times. If she doesn't do it in the right frame of mind, gold could turn into a more modest color.
"I think that's a test of character," Penny said. "I think Jordyn's got a lot of character ... I think you'll see the best of Jordyn Wieber (in the finals)."
Wieber, her eyes blotchy from crying, declined to speak to reporters afterward but seemed to recover a few hours later, thanking fans for their support and insisting she "can't wait for team finals."
The rest of the world can.
Even with the world champion struggling and Douglas making a major error on floor — landing so far out of bounds during one of her tumbling passes she appeared to be jumping into the Thames — the U.S. remained very much the class of the field.
Maroney, nursing an injured right big toe, anchored an eye-popping vault rotation that seemed to send a message to perennial powers Russia, Romania and defending Olympic champion China that the Americans have only improved from their big win in Tokyo.
"We were awesome," Maroney said. "We just hit, hit, hit."
The Americans ripped through four Amanars — considered the most difficult vault currently done in competition — and never looked back. They finished their rotation a whopping 11 points in front of previous leader Great Britain and were never really challenged.
The Russians came closest, with Victoria Komova posting the highest all-around score of the day (60.632) to nudge Raisman out of the top spot. Former world champion Aliya Mustafina put up a steady if not spectacular 59.966 to place fifth, but the Russians will be hard-pressed to close the 1.4-point gap with the U.S.
China came in third, more than 5 points back. Romania, Britain, Japan, Italy and Canada will also head to the finals. If Wieber recovers in time, the rest of the field knows they're likely fighting for second and third.
"We knew the Americans were going to be up there," said Rebecca Tunney of Britain, which was in the same qualifying session as the Americans. "They're going to be unbeatable."
As long as they don't beat each other.