And yet, the Americans were . . . wow. They were amazing. What else could you say? Part of the pleasure was appreciating the team’s depth. Yes, Simone Biles is the greatest gymnast in history—she was even before she won her first Olympic gold last night—but she has astonishingly talented teammates. Laurie Hernandez doesn’t just look like she was drawn by a cartoonist; every leap seemed accompanied by a thought bubble filled with exclamation points. Aly Raisman tumbled with a regal quality that was absent even four years ago, when she won gold in the floor exercise. She seemed to stick her landings by fiat. “Woooooow!” the commentators cried. By the time that Biles took the floor to end the competition, she could have done a couple of cartwheels and handstands and the Americans still would have won gold. Naturally, she put on the best performance of the day. Her double-twisting double back flip spun so fast that her body actually seemed to blur on TV. The commentators struggled to find more superlatives—Perfect! Unbelievable!—and finally dissolved into giggles. But who could blame them? In delighted disbelief, I was laughing, too.
One of the quieter moments—perhaps the only quiet moment—amid the celebration that followed came when the women were receiving their medals. Gabby Douglas held hers, looked at it, and seemed to weigh it in her hand. I thought, in that moment, of what it might mean to her. This is her third gold medal; four years ago, she won the team competition and the individual all-around. During the team competition last night, she performed only on bars. It has been a long, sometimes tumultuous four years for Douglas. Fame and fortune can do that to anyone—let alone a teen-ager. After a rough Olympic trials, she barely made the team. But in the past few days she has shown nothing but greatness. On Sunday, during the qualification round, she finished with the third-highest total score in the competition, behind her teammates Biles and Raisman. But, because each country can be represented by only two athletes in the all-around competition, she won’t have the chance to defend her title. She had no shot to win, of course—Simone Biles might be even more of a lock for the all-around gold than the United States was in the team competition—but the result has to sting. Others who have been in that position have broken down in tears, understandably. When Douglas saw the result, she took a moment, and then went to hug Raisman. “I’m not disappointed at all,” she said. “I have no regrets.” Last night, she hit her routine on the bars, showing off her technical skill and long lines. Whatever she was really thinking, she carried herself with composure and grace.