Tom Forster remembers the old days, when the American women’s gymnastics program would head to international events and come home with little more than a good story to tell while watching Russia and Romania make trip after trip to the medal stand.
No gold. No glory. Nothing.
That’s hardly the case anymore. The group that Olympic champion Simone Biles will lead onto the floor Tuesday at the Aspire Dome during the women’s team final at the world championships is as close to a sure thing as there is in the sport. The Americans topped qualifying by nearly nine points , a staggering margin that offered proof that the gap between the U.S. program and everyone else only seems to be growing.
No matter how the International Gymnastics Federation tinkers with the code of points to try to level the playing field. No matter the faces in the lineup. No matter the venue or the stakes.
“The fact that we’ve come around is so exciting and for me to be part of that, it’s a great honor and I don’t want to mess it up,” said Forster, hired over the summer as high performance coordinator. “I want to make sure that I don’t mess it up.”
No pressure or anything.
“I don’t sleep as well as I used to,” cracked Forster, who for years worked with the USA Gymnastics developmental program.
The Americans have won every major international team and all-around title for the last seven years, a winning streak that shows no signs of abating. And it’s not as if the remarkable Biles — who is dealing with a kidney stone that sent her to the emergency room hours before the competition began — is carrying the load by herself.
Sure, the 21-year-old easily posted the highest score in qualifying while earning a spot in each of the four event finals. Yet even if Biles is removed from the equation, the U.S.’s team total would still be nearly three points clear of the Russians.
So much for the stage getting to world championship rookies Kara Eaker, Riley McCusker and Grace McCallum, each of whom looked right at home under the lights while standing next to Biles and 2017 world all-around champion Morgan Hurd. Eaker’s steady beam performance earned the 15-year-old a spot in the event finals while Hurd — who is markedly better than she was when she surprised the field and even herself in Montreal a year ago — will be in both the uneven bars and floor exercise finals with Biles.
“We all have different qualities that we can bring to the team,” McCusker said. “We can all shine in different places.”
That’s the way it has been for more than a decade for the U.S., a byproduct of the semi-centralized system installed by former national team coordinator Martha Karolyi at the turn of the millennium.
An American woman has won each of the last four Olympic all-around titles and eight of the last 10 world championship crowns. The last two Olympic teams — “The Fierce Five” in 2012 and the “Final Five” in 2016 — waved from the top of the podium with gold medals around their necks after putting together show-stopping performances.
All that bling set an expectation of excellence that goes largely unspoken. Maybe that’s a good thing. When asked if they ever sit around and talk about the legacy they’ve inherited, Hurd shakes her head.
“I think we all might start crying a little bit,” the 17-year-old said with a nervous laugh.
Only they don’t, even as they find themselves the standard bearers for an organization in the midst of upheaval. While Biles, Hurd and company will try to add to the U.S.’s ever-growing medal stash during the first world championships held in the Middle East, back home the fallout from the Larry Nassar scandal continues.
Biles and more than 300 other women — including several former Olympic team members — have said they were sexually abused by the former team doctor for USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University. While Nassar is in prison for the rest of his life after being convicted of molesting athletes and possessing child pornography, mediation between the organization and the dozens of women who have sued it are ongoing and USA Gymnastics is on its fourth president and CEO in the last 19 months.
Yet amid all the upheaval, Forster is trying to maintain a sense of normalcy while attempting to cultivate the culture change nearly everyone within USA Gymnastics believes is vital to the program’s future. Karolyi’s tenure, while wildly successful, wasn’t exactly touchy-feely. That rigidness has eased a bit.
The Americans have actually found some time away from the training gym during their trip to Qatar, hitting the beach, the mall and the pool . They’re things most teenagers — Biles is the only one over 18 — do.
Only they’re not most teenagers, at least when they’re not in leotards with USA stitched on them. Then they’re the latest line in a chain that includes some of the greats of their sport. They’ll try to write their own chapter on Tuesday. They believe they’re ready. Maybe because the most difficult part — emerging to the top of an elite program that’s by far the deepest program in the world — is already behind them.
“People say it’s harder to get out of the country than competing (internationally),” McCusker said.
Looks like it.
Source: The Associated Press