LONDON - While many in the gymnastics world believe the women's team the United States will take to London for the 2012 Olympics is the best since the gold-medal squad of 1996, one of the sport's most recognizable and successful coaches goes a step farther.
He says this team is better.
"I think this is the strongest team," Bela Karolyi said earlier this month, after the five gymnasts who will represent the U.S. were selected at the Olympic Trials in San Jose, Calif. "On the '96 team, there were ups and downs. This is the most even team. The truth is going to come out at the Olympic Games. We are going to be at the top."
And for those who don't know: Karolyi's list of champions includes Nadia Comaneci, Mary Lou Retton and Kerri Strug.
He knows something special when he sees it.
So does his wife, Marta, the U.S. National Team Coordinator who, despite making no bold predictions, was noticeably excited about the team's makeup -- its strength and depth -- and its potential to challenge the Russians and Chinese for Olympic gold.
"For a long time, this team has been in my mind," Marta Karolyi said of a squad that will be led by a pair of 16-year-old sensations, reigning world all-around champion Jordyn Wieber and Trials all-around winner Gabby Douglas. "I've got a very good feel about this team. It's very young but also very aggressive. We're definitely going for a place on the podium."
Since switching to a more centralized developmental system in 2001, the American women have enjoyed a tremendous run on the international stage:
-- From 2000 to 2011, they have won 60 Olympic and World Championship medals, with the U.S. holding the distinction of being the only nation to win a team medal in every world and Olympic competition during that span.
-- They won team medals in six of the last seven Olympics: gold in 1996; silver in 1984, 2004 and 2008; and bronze in 1992 and 2000.
-- They won five medals at each of the past three world championships, including the team and all-around gold in 2011.
And the U.S. women's team is coming off a silver-medal showing at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, where the Americans also won seven individual medals, including Nastia Liukin's all-around gold.
"It's a testament to the entire sport in this country coming together -- clubs and coaches and athletes putting personal agendas aside and working to create a system that produces the best teams we can," said Steve Penny, president and CEO of USA Gymnastics.
"After 2000, we took a hard look at where we were and at what we needed to do to be competitive at the highest levels on a consistent basis," he explained. "In '96, we were Olympic champions. In '99, we were sixth in the world. Something needed to be done. Somebody had to be accountable. So we worked with the Karolyis to create a system by which we could identify the best athletes across America, get them into our program and, while allowing them to remain at home and train with their local coaches, bring them together a few times a year to work with the national staff at a centralized location.
"This is the result."
Joining Wieber (DeWitt, Mich.) and Douglas (Virginia Beach, Va.) as Olympians are McKayla Maroney (Long Beach, Calif.), Aly Raisman (Needham, Mass.) and Kyla Ross (Aliso Viejo, Calif.)
"Every year, we get so much stronger," Wieber said. "We did so well at worlds, but I think this team is even stronger than that. We have the potential to win the gold medal in London. I'm excited."
Though still toiling in the shadows of their more successful women's counterparts, the U.S. men are excited, too -- because what they might lack in talent, they make up for in teamwork and camaraderie.
In fact, all 15 of the Olympic candidates agreed as a team to wear the same USA uniforms when competing at the Trials.
"People can look at gymnastics and say, 'That's not a team sport,' but you spend six hours a day in training camp with the same guys, working and sweating, offering criticism and support ... You become a team," said USA Gymnastics chairman Peter Vidmar, all-around silver medalist and leader of the 1984 U.S. team that won Olympic gold in Los Angeles. "And I don't see anything that exceeds the camaraderie of this group."
Danell Leyva (Miami), winner of the all-around titles at both the U.S. nationals in June and the Olympic Trials, is the current world champion on the parallel bars and, along with John Orozco (Bronx, N.Y.), is expected to contend for an all-around medal in London.
Getting to the podium as a team, however -- also on the squad are Jonathan Horton (Houston), Sam Mikulak (Newport Coast, Calif.) and Jake Dalton (Reno, Nev.) -- is the goal that matters most. The American men took bronze in Beijing and again at the World Championships last year, and they believe they've got a shot at Olympic gold for the first time since 1984.
"It's an amazing team," U.S. National Team Coordinator Kevin Mazeika said. "We knew all along it
was going to be difficult to select the team because of our depth. It wasn't easy, but I think we have selected a team that is going to London and vie for a gold medal."
Same as the American women.
"We've had a sense of accomplishment over the years," Penny said. "Now we know we're doing the it the right way."
(Ray McNulty, sports columnist for Scripps Treasure Coast (Fla.) Newspapers, is a member of a team of Scripps journalists covering the London Games. Contact him at ray.mcnulty(at)scripps.com.)(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service)