When she fell from the beam she usually traverses with such ease, Alicia Sacramone knew the chances of the U.S. Women’s Gymnastics Team taking home a gold medal had also taken a tumble. “I was like, ‘I can’t believe I’m on the floor. I’m supposed to be on the beam right now,’ ” Sacramone told TODAY co-host Meredith Vieira on Thursday.
“I was just so disappointed, because I just didn’t want to upset my team members.”
There would also be moments in the floor exercises that Team USA would rather forget as it settled for silver against a Chinese team that won its first team gold by a 2.375-point margin.
But afterward, the team was trying to strike a balance between disappointment and accomplishment.
“We’re feeling great,” maintained Shawn Johnson, the 2008 U.S. All-Around Champion. “Of course, a gold could feel better. But we are really proud of our silver. We worked really hard for it and we couldn’t be prouder of each other.”
Slipping to second
As they headed into the final two routines, the U.S. team’s chances for the first team Olympic gold since 1996 still looked good. China had a slight lead after the second rotation, the uneven bars, but both the balance beam and floor exercises were strengths for Team USA. And Chinese star Cheng Fei fell during her team’s attempt at the balance beam.
But Sacramone, the team captain and veteran of the squad, started with a flip onto the beam, but slipped off of her landing on her first attempt. “That’s the worst thing ever — falling on your first skill in your beam routine,” Sacramone told Vieira.
Sacramone suggested that a long delay between her introduction on the balance beam and her actual time to compete was a factor. “I think it psyched me out a little bit,” she said. “I got a little nervous, because I was just eager to do my routine. I think my nerves just got the best of me today.”
Afterward, Sacramone was inconsolable. Her mother, Gail, told the TODAY crew that Alicia “felt like she let the team down.”
Her teammates have been trying to pick her back up since.
“You know, mistakes happen,” U.S. gymnast Nastia Liukin told Vieira. “That shows that we are all human and we’re not robots and we are going to make mistakes.
“Our sport is kind of like that. You just tell her there’s nothing you can do about it now, so try to move on and try to go out there and take the rest of it.”
Once Team USA got to the floor, where it usually dominates, things fell apart. Sacramone fell on her second tumbling pass. Liukin and Johnson, typically so graceful, both stepped out of bounds on their attempts.
From there, it was all over but the scoring. “We had the idea [we would not win the gold], just because gymnastics is all about the tenths,” Johnson explained. “I mean, one-tenth can mean first and one-tenth can be second.
“The thing is, China is so great. We pretty much knew.”
One for the ages?
After the event, there was some skepticism about the actual ages of some of the Chinese gymnasts.
Competitors are supposed to turn 16 within the year of competition. But multiple reports and investigations have suggested that some of the athletes are younger, and indicated that the Chinese may have doctored birth dates on the athletes’ passports to make them appear older.
Even Martha Karolyi, the national team coordinator, noted that one Chinese gymnast was perhaps missing a baby tooth after Thursday’s match.
Her husband, Bela Karolyi — director of the national-team training center and NBC analyst — has stated flatly that “half of the Chinese team is underage.
“This is not something that I invented or anybody has,” Bela Karolyi told Vieira. “China or any other of the former socialist countries, they could make a passport in no time — for any age or any kind of incident.”
Chinese officials and the International Olympic Committee have both denied any wrongdoing by Team China. As for the potential advantages a younger gymnast might have in such event, NBC gymnastics analyst Tim Daggett suggested they would be more mental in nature than physical.
“I think one of the main things is maybe they haven’t had as many life experiences,” Daggett explained. “So maybe they don’t grasp to the extent that someone like an Alicia Sacramone, who has gone through high school and is even a college student … she knows the ramifications of what she’s about to do.
“This [younger] person who maybe hasn’t had as much adversity, maybe they just don’t quite get how big the Olympics is.”