Olympic competition, especially in gymnastics, is often more than a test of skill.
It can be a test of character, too.
And that's the real challenge for the U.S. women, perhaps the planet's most skilled collection of gymnasts, as they prepare for the team finals Tuesday at North Greenwich Arena.
The Americans finished first by a comfortable margin in the qualification round Sunday, but their triumph came at a cost -- reigning world champion Jordyn Wieber failed to advance to the all-around finals, finishing fourth overall and behind teammates Aly Raisman and Gabby Douglas.
The rules allow a maximum of only two gymnasts from each country to compete in the all-around finals.
That meant Wieber, who made a series of uncharacteristic mistakes on the vault, uneven bars and floor exercise, will not fulfill her lifelong dream of joining Mary Lou Retton (Los Angeles, 1984), Carly Patterson (Athens, 2004) and Nastia Liukin (Beijing, 2008) as an Olympic all-around champion.
"You try to find words, because it's almost like someone passes away," U.S. team coordinator Marta Karolyi said after the preliminaries, seemingly as stunned by the results as everyone else. "What do you say? But the fact is the fact. Jordyn did her best and she was edged by her teammates."
It's not quite that simple, though: Wieber was devastated as she left the floor, tears running down her face as she rushed past reporters without taking questions.
And the U.S. needs her to perform at a world-class level to achieve its ultimate goal -- the team gold.
"That's what I told her: She's going to handle this with as much class as she handled the victories, make no excuses," said U.S. coach John Geddert, also Wieber's personal coach. "The job is not done yet.
"Team USA has got a big day on Tuesday."
But is that expecting too much too soon? How quickly can she regain her composure, her focus, her competitive edge? Can she shrug off such bitter disappointment in two days and respond like a champion? What about her teammates? How will they react to seeing Wieber so despondent, knowing how much the all-around gold medal meant to her? How will Raisman balance her joy over finishing first with her best friend's anguish and the mission still ahead? How will what happened Sunday impact team chemistry? The way Wieber and her teammates answer those questions likely will determine whether the U.S. women win Olympic gold as a team for the first time since the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta.
The U.S. team arrived in both Athens and Beijing as world champions, only to fall short of Olympic gold. But this bunch is supposed to be better.
In fact, the strength of this squad -- in addition to its talent, commitment and camaraderie -- is in its depth. The Americans are considered strong from top to bottom.
And while Wieber was clearly the world's top gymnast the past two years, she finished second to Douglas at the U.S. Olympic Trials last month, when she wasn't particularly sharp in her routines.
Raisman and Douglas, on the other hand, have been peaking at the best possible time.
"Aly had the meet of her life today," Geddert said. "What a time to have it."
The qualification round scores don't carry over, so Raisman might need to be every bit as good Tuesday -- especially if Wieber struggles -- for the Americans to successfully fend off the Russians, Chinese and Romanians in the finals.
Douglas, too, has a chance to become one of the stars of the London Games. She is the team's most dynamic competitor, her routines are filled with spectacular aerials and release moves, and she possesses a smile that lights up arenas.
"It was an amazing feeling competing for Team USA, and I think I did very well," said Douglas, who finished just behind Raisman in the qualifying event. "I definitely have room for improvement, though. I made little mistakes on beam and floor, but that's what training is for.
"We'll go back and fix it up for team finals."
So will Wieber.
She already has proven she has the talent and experience to help the Americans get to the top of the Olympic podium. But does she possess the character to bounce back from Sunday's setback and make that happen? She's being tested.
(Ray McNulty, columnist for the Treasure Coast newspapers, is part of the Scripps team covering the London Olympics. Contact him a ray.mcnulty(at)scripps.com.)
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