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Rio Olympics 2016: how the US women’s gymnastics team is going to obliterate the competition

SAN JOSE, CA - JULY 10:  (L-R) (Front Row:) Lauren Hernandez, MyKayla Skinner, Simone Biles, Ragan Smith (Back Row) Ashton Locklear, Alexandra Raisman, Madison Kocian, and Gabrielle Douglas pose for a team photo after they were selected for the Olympic Team following Day 2 of the 2016 U.S. Women's Gymnastics Olympic Trials at SAP Center on July 10, 2016 in San Jose, California.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
SAN JOSE, CA - JULY 10: (L-R) (Front Row:) Lauren Hernandez, MyKayla Skinner, Simone Biles, Ragan Smith (Back Row) Ashton Locklear, Alexandra Raisman, Madison Kocian, and Gabrielle Douglas pose for a team photo after they were selected for the Olympic Team following Day 2 of the 2016 U.S. Women's Gymnastics Olympic Trials at SAP Center on July 10, 2016 in San Jose, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

The United States’ women’s gymnastics team has nothing to fear at the upcoming Rio Olympics. Barring some forces beyond their control, like China locking probable all-around champion Simone Biles in a restroom for the entire competition, they will win gold.

On Sunday, July 10, the US selected the five women who will win gold in Rio. Biles, Aly Raisman, Gabby Douglas, Madison Kocian, and Laurie Hernandez have made the cut.

They will prove that the United States is a gymnastics dynasty by defending the team event title they earned in London in 2012. Biles, one of the most fearsome gymnasts the sport has ever seen, is poised to be the fourth American woman in a row to win the all-around event and add another chapter to her novel on dominance.

Raisman and Douglas — the returning stalwarts from 2012’s Fierce Five — will each add at least one more gold to their medal haul. Indeed, the US team is so unbelievably deep that the alternates could compete as a separate sovereign team and take home silver or bronze.

There is no pep talk inspiring enough, no jock jam strong enough, to push China, Russia, or Great Britain to beat us. There will be no last-minute theatrics. No Kerri Strug having to land a vault on a bum leg to secure a gold medal win. No bungle required from the other countries. No need for perfection.

Our victory will be smashing.

There is no stopping the phenomenon of American women’s gymnastics. We are the best in the world. Here’s why.

1) We have Simone Biles, and no one else does

Biles is arguably the most dominant athlete in modern sports. She hasn’t lost an individual gymnastics all-around title since 2013 and is the three-time reigning world champion. She also is the reigning world champion in floor exercise and the balance beam. If you look up the definition of American excellence, it’s Simone Biles.

"We need to keep her in a bubble [to avoid any kind of injury]," jokes Dave Lease, editor of the gymnastics and figure skating news website TSL. "When you’re a point better than other people in numerous events, it puts you so far ahead."

Lease is referring to the way gymnastics is scored. Gymnasts’ routines are evaluated by combining a starting value (a score determined by the difficulty of the program) and an execution score (a score based on how well the gymnast performs the various elements of her routine). Biles is not only doing all the most difficult moves, she’s also doing them better than anyone else.

If you take stock of the best athletes of all time, they all do everything well, but each of them has a trademark skill that is exceptional: Steph Curry has his feathery jump shot, Serena Williams has her megaton serve, Jake Arrieta has his lethal slider, and Lionel Messi has his ankle-breaking creativity on the ball.

Biles’s trademark is her floor routine. Whenever she competes, It’s the beginning of the end of the competition. She opens with a double layout with a full twist, a display of sheer power — like an avalanche screaming down the side of a mountain:

Simone Biles's first tumbling pass: double layout with a twist (USA Gymnastics)

The basic strategy for the floor exercise is that you start off with your strongest tumbling pass, because that’s when your legs are freshest; then, as your legs tire, you ease up on the difficulty. What makes Biles so fearsome on this event is that her third pass is as good as, if not better than, many top gymnasts’ first:

Biles's third tumbling pass: a double twisting double back

For comparison, here is Ksenia Afanasyeva, who won the silver medal on the floor at the 2015 World Championships, performing her first tumbling pass. It’s similar to Biles’s first pass, without the twist:

Ksenia Afanasyeva's first tumbling pass at the World Championships.

Biles’s entire routine is 90 seconds long. In that minute and a half, it’s curtains for the competition. Her skill in the floor exercise makes her uncatchable, letting her build big leads over everyone else in the field. It’s where her domination begins.

Even in the rare instances when she falters, she’s still plenty far ahead of everyone else.

Case in point: During the all-around competition at the 2015 World Championships in Glasgow, Biles turned in an uncharacteristically shaky performance (which included a bobble on the balance beam). She stepped out of bounds on her bread-and-butter floor routine — a big penalty. Her score? Around seven-tenths of a point (big in gymnastics) higher than Gabby Douglas, the next-highest performer on the apparatus and eventual silver medalist.

Though Biles’s best event is the floor exercise, she’s also at the top of the world on the balance beam. And on the vault, she performs the Amanar, the premier move for women. Biles is the best gymnast in the world, and has been for the past three years. The US has her on its team, and no one else does.

2) The depth of skill on the US team is mind-boggling

The important thing to keep in mind about gymnastics at the Olympics is the structure of the team event. Each country chooses five gymnasts to compete; three of those five compete on each apparatus (the floor, the balance beam, the vault, and the uneven bars), and those three athletes’ scores in each event count toward a grand team total. For those keeping track, that team score is composed of 12 individual scores.

Having someone like Biles, who is untouchable on the floor and the beam and medal-worthy on the vault, allows the US team to be more flexible with its other four team members, and to bring in more specialists to perform their best skills. The US will count on Biles’s three big scores, allowing the remaining four gymnasts to work on the nine remaining ones.

Biles’s superiority provides a buffer that would merely be great on a more typical gymnastics team. But the United States isn’t at all typical. Biles’s supporting players are all world-class, too.

Biles is like Captain America. The other four members of the US gymnastics team are the Avengers.

When the team hits the floor rotation in Rio, Biles’s score will be enhanced by those of Raisman, the reigning Olympic champion in the event. And though Douglas isn’t sporting her 2012 form and has looked a bit shaky at times, she’s capable of turning in a big night — like when she took home the silver medal at the 2015 World Championships.

Rounding out the squad are two newbies: 19-year-old Madison Kocian, the world champion on the uneven bars, and the charismatic 16-year-old Laurie Hernandez, who placed third behind Raisman and Biles at the 2016 National Championships this past June. There’s also a trove of talented gymnasts — like alternates MyKayla Skinner, Ashton Locklear, and Ragan Smith as well as Maggie Nichols, who is recovering from injury — who didn’t make the cut.

"Realistically, [Martha Karolyi, the US national team coordinator] could pick your neighbor down the street and she could still win gold," Lease told me.

He’s right. At the 2015 World Championships, the US team blasted the competition by more than five points. Remember, gymnastics is a sport that is judged by tenths of points. A five-point difference is a massacre.

3) The Amanar vault and the US strategy

Going back to the 2012 Olympics, a main element of the competition was a vault called the Amanar. The Amanar, technically speaking, is a Yurchenko-style (a vault that begins with a back handspring) vault that includes one layout with two and a half twists. What makes it so crucial to the US team is a) it’s worth a lot of points because of its difficulty, and b) the US women gymnasts have shown a propensity for executing it well.

At the 2012 Olympics, Douglas, Jordyn Wieber, and McKayla Maroney all performed the Amanar, which gave them nearly a two-point lead over the Russians (the eventual silver medalists) and a three-point lead over Romania (the eventual bronze medalists) after the vault rotation. The Americans ended up winning the team event by five points.

Here’s Maroney landing the vault, one of the best executions of the move in history, during the team competition in 2012. Notice how high she gets, how straight her legs are, and far she travels:

Maroney’s Amanar.

The Amanar will factor into the 2016 Olympics as well. Biles performs it well. Raisman can do it. Douglas is planning to do it too.

"The US potentially has up to four Amanars to choose from," Lease said, counting Biles, Raisman, Douglas, and alternate team member Skinner. "None of these countries —they don’t have any. Russia potentially has one."

So, keeping count: The US has Biles and Raisman’s floor routines plus multiple Amanars, while other countries, including the US’s biggest rivals, have struggled to find a woman who can land a solid one. That’s a huge advantage.

This edge allows the US to cover up its weakest event: the uneven bars.

Weakness might be a bit of an exaggeration — the US competitors are simply human on bars relative to their other strengths. The US does have reigning world champion Kocian to call on, but overall, the American team doesn’t excel on the bars the way it does on the floor and the vault.

Madison Kocian, the reigning world champion in the uneven bars. (USA Gymnastics/NBC)

The bars favor timing and finesse over upper-body strength. As Alexandra Chalat explained for the New Yorker in 2012, it’s all in the "tap" — the momentum-gathering moment at the bottom of each swing.

"The tap itself isn’t what wins a gymnast their points, but as the approach to every major skill on bars, from flips to pirouettes to the final dismount, it’s the engine of any bar routine, like the backswing to a tennis stroke," Chalat wrote. "To understand the tap, imagine a full rotation around the bar as a clock, with the gymnast’s body as the hour hand. The tap takes place between midnight and around seven or eight o’clock, depending on the desired end result."

Here’s what Chalat is talking about:

Gabby Douglas’s tap and release move from the 2012 Olympics.

And here is 2008 gold medalist Nastia Liukin and a more exaggerated tap:

Nastia Liukin’s tap.

The most important thing about the tap and these swings is how it underscores the bars’ emphasis on timing and flow. At the start of the GIF above, you can see that Douglas is using momentum, her knack for letting go at just the right moment, and her flexibility — rather than her upper-body strength — to pull off a move called the tkatchev. Liukin’s is a bit more exaggerated, but it’s the same effect: She’s building momentum for the next moves.

Because the US has such a major advantage in events that favor strength and power (the floor and the vault), it allows the team to deploy a specialist like Kocian or Locklear on the bars, to boost an event where it isn’t as dominant.

But because the US team is so strong overall, its humanity on the bars is pretty negligible.

"You’re gonna have a weakness," Lease said, explaining that the Russians, who are good on bars, have the opposite struggle — they’re weak on the floor and the vault. He added that the US team has ridden its floor and vault skills to domination, and noted that the team’s approach doesn’t need changing. "Go with your strengths."

4) The traditional gymnastics powerhouses are struggling right now

Going into the past two Olympics, the US faced hefty rivals. In 2008 it was China and its bevy of (possibly underage) bar workers. In 2012 it was Russia and its duo of Aliya Mustafina and Viktoria Komova.

But this year, the biggest competition the Americans will face will be in their own gyms. At the 2015 World Championships, the Americans bested China by five points. And at that same event, they outscored Russia by 10.

The Rio Olympics mark a time of transition year for China and Russia, two historical powerhouses. China is once again facing allegations that its team members are underage, but regardless of age, they still aren’t beating the Americans. Once-mighty Russia, ravaged by a giant doping scandal, injuries, and political infighting, is probably going to be sending out members of the 2012 team, like Mustafina and Afanasyeva, who’ve already lost to the Americans once.

Meanwhile, Romania, another historical powerhouse in the sport, failed to qualify for the Olympics for the first time in history.

When it comes to Russia especially, the question that arises is: Why send the same gymnasts to the Olympics when they couldn’t cut it in the first place?

"Mustafina is what we lovingly refer to as TOS [tired old shit]. We like to pretend she is the same gymnast — if you squint," Lease told me. "But it’s sort of like Venus Williams. She looked good in the early rounds of Wimbledon. But you know that she’s not going to win it. You know that it’s not going to happen, even though people talk about it. You lie to yourself."

Though the US is bringing back veterans like Raisman and Douglas, it’s also constantly infusing its roster with new talent like Kocian and Hernandez. That new talent pushes the vets. And I’d assert that Raisman and Douglas are special cases, in that US Olympic gymnasts rarely return for another go and rarely can keep up with the new talent.

5) We have Martha Karolyi running the show

For the past 15 years, the US Olympic women’s gymnastics team has been under the watchful eye of Martha (also spelled Márta) Karolyi. Karolyi is the national team coordinator who’s in charge of picking the team, strategizing at the competition, and helping American gymnasts figure out their routines.

"I always know where she is," Raisman recently told USA Today. "I think all the girls do that. We’re all like, 'OK, she’s here. She’s here.’"

The team has won gold at the last four major gymnastics events (three World Championships from 2011, 2014, 2015 and the 2012 Olympics), and an American woman has won the Olympic all-around event the past three games. Karolyi is the constant.

"Her life revolves around winning. She’s a unique talent," Lease said. "Her obsession with training these girls into the ground is freakish, obsessive."

Lease isn’t wrong. Karolyi is a tough coach. Of late, she’s been on Douglas’s case — unafraid to publicly voice her opinion that Douglas is slacking in practice.

"I think her training was not so perfect coming up to today," Karolyi said at the Olympic trials this past weekend. "She wasn't quite hitting all her routines. And certainly, in my opinion, you compete better if you train better."

Over the past few days, Douglas has appeared rattled, telling reporters on Saturday, "Don’t give up on me yet."

But Karolyi knows how to get the best out of her athletes. She knows when to push. She knows when they can do better. And she isn’t afraid to say it. Don’t be surprised if Douglas finds her form between now and Rio.

This year is special because it’s Karolyi’s last year with the national team. She’s 73. As if the team and Karolyi needed any more motivation or incentive to win the gold medal, they will be looking to send her out on top.

"The worst result she’s had at the Olympics is second place — I would not want to be the person that takes over for her." Lease said.

A future without Karolyi at the helm is weird to think about, and perhaps it gives countries like Russia and China the glimmer of hope that they might someday catch up to the US. Perhaps that will happen eventually — perhaps those other countries will emulate American training and figure out how to compete on vault and floor, and then the US won’t be able to win on physicality alone.

But that’s not happening in 2016.

We have the best team. We have the best gymnast in the world. We have the best coach. And in one month, we’ll have stomped the competition to claim Olympic gold — one backflip at a time.

The Olympic women’s team final is on August 9.