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U.S. Women Defend Olympic Gymnastics Title in Rio

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The five-member U.S. women’s gymnastics team marched straight to a repeat Olympic gold in the team event, dominating their nearest rivals in Rio and confirming their status as a gymnastics powerhouse.

Behind Gabby Douglas, Laurie Hernandez, Aly Raisman, Madison Kocian and their anchor Simone Biles, the world’s best gymnast, the American women more than delivered on expectations, defeating Russia, the silver medalists, by a staggering 8 points. China won bronze.

(Read More: How U.S. Women Became the World’s Best Gymnasts)

Maybe it’s the vault. In London in 2012, the U.S. began the competition on vault, and leaped to such heights with McKayla Maroney’s near perfect contribution that no other team could catch them. History repeated itself in Rio on Tuesday, when the U.S. again found itself on vault in the first rotation and stuck every landing. Biles dispatched her trademark solid Amanar, with only a tiny hop on the landing. Her teammate Raisman, a veteran of the 2012 squad, didn’t budge on hers. That helped to push the U.S. into a lead they never gave up.

Or perhaps it was Raisman’s father’s shirts. “I’ve been making my dad wear the same shirts he wore in London for each competition because they’re good luck,” she said afterward.

Whatever it was, it worked. In an event in which three gymnasts compete on vault, floor, bars and beam, and all three scores count, teams can’t afford small mistakes. The U.S., wearing uniforms reminiscent of the red, white and blue version Mary Lou Retton wore in 1984 when she became the first U.S. gymnast to win the all-around, executed 12 clean programs, while China lost points when Chunsgon Shang slipped off the high bars and Yi Mao fell out of bounds on floor. Russia also experienced problems on beam, and the deductions cost them.

(Read More: Why Simone Biles is Taking Her Sport to New Heights)

Facing sky-high expectations, Biles was buoyed by family support. Her father, Ron, advised her last night to “Be Simone”––a riff on the Biles family mantra to be yourself no matter what happens. And her sister, Adria, sent a long text telling her older sister that she was proud of her–and had this handled. Biles wrote back that it made her day.

The Final Five, as the group named itself, also accomplished another remarkable feat: making the preternaturally stoic national team coordinator Martha Karolyi cry. This Olympics will be Karolyi’s last, and the team chose their moniker to honor her. This will also be the last time that countries will field teams of five; in 2020, squads will only have four members. “By my nature I am not a sentimental person,” Karolyi said after the event, getting emotional again. “I’m known for being very tough. When Aly told me the name of the team, that was the moment I was crying.”

The overwhelming victory confirms the American women as the dominant force in the sport. With Romania not even qualifying to compete in Rio in the team event, the U.S. now competes with a degree of difficulty and consistency that were once the sole purview of eastern European and, lately, Asian teams. “I think at this moment we can say that the United States dominates the world in gymnastics,” says Karolyi.

Expect similar results in the women’s all-around competition on Thursday and in the event finals next week. The U.S. could make history in those: if Biles wins the all-around competition as expected, the U.S. will become the first country to field four back-to-back Olympic all-around champions. The team could also sweep the four titles in the event finals and be the first country to win all six medals in women’s gymnastics at a single Olympics. “We strive for perfection,” Karolyi says.

On Tuesday in Rio, they were about as close as one can get.

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