Jordyn Wieber, Aly Raisman best friends, biggest competitors

11:09 AM, Jul 30, 2012   |    comments
Jordyn Wieber hugged Alexandra Raisman after Weiber's performance at the floor exercises of the women's team event at the World Gymnastics Chmapionships in Tokyo on October 11, 2011. (YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/AFP/Getty Images)
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LONDON -- The dynamic was nothing new. For years, U.S. gymnasts Jordyn Wieber and Aly Raisman have been each other's best friend and biggest competitor. Along with teammate McKayla Maroney, they have grown up together on the mat. They have traveled the world together, cried with each other, and giggled their way through life. Best Friends Forever.

But they have also crushed one another's dreams. On Sunday, one friend's greatest joy was another friend's greatest disappointment.

In team and event qualifying, Raisman knocked Wieber out of the all-around final, ending the reigning world champion's chance of competing for gold Thursday. Both left the arena in tears.

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"It was hard because of course I wanted that spot, but I also wanted Ally to do her best also for the team and for herself," Wieber told NBC after Raisman's results came in.

"It's always been a dream of mine to compete in the all-around at the Olympics and shoot for that gold medal," said the reigning world champion. "I'm really proud of Ally and Gabby (Douglas) both and I'm happy that they both made it to the all-around and I'm glad that I'll be able to help the team out in team finals."

Wieber's coach John Geddert didn't speak to reporters immediately afterwards, but he issued a statement that said it all: "I'm basically devastated for her. She has trained her entire life for this day and to have it turn out anything less than she deserves is going to be devastating. She has waited her entire career for this. She is happy for her teammates and disappointed that she doesn't get (to) move on."

Still, the Americans must move on. The team final is up first, Tuesday night at North Greenwich Arena, and the USA is favored to win its first team gold since 1996. But how will Wieber, considered the most unshakeable of performers, respond? She might have waited her entire career for a shot at the all-around gold, but the other four members of the team, and Wieber, have been training for the primary goal.

Former U.S. coach Bela Karolyi said the results could have a negative effect on the USA's chances for the team gold if Wieber doesn't' psychologically respond from the disappointment. "I'm afraid, to be honest," he said about the gymnast he called the anchor of the team.

The Americans go into the team final with the best qualifying score, just ahead of Russia and defending Olympic champion China. The USA had three of the top four all-around qualifying scores.

But Russia has three in the top nine.

As the team's recent history shows, the top spot on the podium isn't a given. The USA won worlds in 2003 and 2007 before earning team silver at the Olympics one year later.

Raisman said Wieber's competitive toughness will help her overcome the disappointment in the team final. "The team final is so important. We have been training so hard," Raisman said. "We have to turn the page and keep fighting."

For most of the year, the battle for the individual all-around Olympic gold medal was expected to come down to Douglas, the spunky upstart who won the U.S. trials, vs. Wieber, the steely reigning world champion. Off in the distance was Raisman, considered the team's steadiest performer but not the headliner.

"I was OK with being under the radar. I didn't feel like I had any pressure," said Raisman, who at 18 is the team's oldest member and also its captain.

Before Raisman performed last in the USA's floor rotation Sunday, Douglas and Wieber held the top two spots in all-around qualifying. The stakes were high: Only two gymnasts from each country qualify for the all-around final.

After several uncharacteristic mistakes, Wieber had left the door open. Wieber had lost only two all-around competitions since 2008, both to fellow Americans (Raisman and Douglas.) Marta Karolyi, the national team coordinator, compares Wieber's mental toughness to that of Nadia Comaneci, which made the minor wobbles, including stepping out of bounds on the floor exercise, even more surprising.

As the musical notes of Raisman's floor routine, "Hava Nagila," began, Wieber's shot at the all-around lessened with every high-spirited clap from the crowd. Raisman, always steady, shined in her signature event, the one that earned her a bronze medal at the world championships last year.

Raisman's score gave her 60.391 points; Douglas finished 0.126 behind her. Wieber was 0.359 points back. Raisman and Douglas will be the two gymnasts to represent the USA in the all-around.

"It was hard because, of course, I wanted that spot," Wieber said in a statement. "But I also wanted Aly to do her best for the team."

Dominque Dawes, a member of the 1996 gold medal team and here an anlysist for FOX admitted she was surprised by Wieber "because all the talk has been about Jordyn and Gabby and that rivalry, which I think could have been great for the sport. But as I've been saying, Aly is a different gymnast now."

Later in the evening, Wieber seemed to be regrouping, saying on her Twitter account: "Thank you for all your love and support. I am so proud of our team today and I can't wait for the team finals!!"

Before Raisman met with news reporters, she hadn't had a chance to speak with Wieber, but the two are roommates in the Olympic village.

"It's really hard because we're best friends, and I know that she wanted it," Raisman said. "I felt so bad because she worked so hard, I know she is still a good friend so she'll be happy for me."

Neither Bela nor Marta Karolyi, who have been around the sport for decades, could recall a result this stunning. A world champion failing to qualify for a chance to compete for the Olympic gold. Bela said the lineup, which had Raisman going last on the floor at the end instead of Wieber could have affected the world champion's performance.

Nevertheless, it's also a testament to the team's bottomless depth.

"They just had a stronger day today than Jordyn did," Marta Karolyi said. "You are always striving for perfection, but we're still human beings not machines. The other girls were so strong, and Jordyn wasn't quite as sharp."

Karolyi has a deep appreciation for what she considers Raisman's greatest quality: her consistency. Karolyi stood next to Raisman as both spoke to separate groups of news reporters Sunday.

As Raisman said, "I'm just so happy," Karolyi paused and turned to Raisman.

"Me too," she said. Then the coach cradled Raisman's face and leaned close. "Finally, all your hard work paid off," she said.

Four years ago, before Raisman reached the highest levels of her sport, she was in the stands at the national championships. The roving announcer in the arena who walks the place entertaining the crowd before events, stopped to talk to Raisman. The camera focused on her. Her image was on the giant video screen above. He asked her where the Beijing Olympics would be held. Um, Beijing? Then he tossed her a T-shirt and said, "Maybe you'll be down there competing someday."

Raisman said, "Yes, definitely."

It's a conversation that's probably happened in arenas across the country. A promise made by a young girl with big dreams. However, this one turned out to be true. That very clip was replayed this summer at gymnastics qualifying events as Raisman made her Olympic run.

"I wanted to see myself there," Raisman said in an interview after qualifying for the Olympic team. "I was inspired."

That inspiration, and so much of emotion, was evident in the moments after the Olympic team was named earlier this month. Most of her teammates were crying. Raisman was bawling.

"Everything hit me because I've been working so hard and thinking about that moment for so long," she said then. "That was my biggest fear - not to make the team." In truth, she was a lock.

When the team returned to its hotel, about 30 members of the Raisman and Wieber families piled into one room and caught the final minutes of the NBC delayed telecast, including Raisman's reaction.

"I looked like my dog died," she said. "Everyone was laughing in the hotel room. I was hysterically laughing at myself because I was hyperventilating so much."

Though many think rivals must be enemies, former U.S. Olympian Shawn Johnson has said that's not necessarily the case. "In everyone's mind, they think, 'Why would you be best friends with your biggest competitor?' What they don't see is we grew up with each other, we push each other, support each other, room together. Yes, there's rivalry. Yes, there's tense times. We're all teenage girls, all going through teenage drama, we fight and love each other like sisters."

For Wieber and Raisman, that has always been the case. "We always room together and always have the best time," Raisman said. During their journey to London, Wieber, Raisman and Maroney have chronicled their friendship in Tweets. One picture of all three crammed together in an ice bath post-competition, shivering, huddling together, perhaps captured their friendship the best.

"We're the type of friends where we look each other and start hysterical laughing," Raisman said. "We look at each other and know what each other is thinking. We're that close. Even though we live so far apart (Raisman in Massachusetts, Wieber in Michigan, Maroney in California) we're with each other on trips and we're with each other every single second. It's really amazing we never get sick of each other."

When they're not together for gymnastics, they text and Skype endlessly. "We miss each other," Raisman said.

They share make-up. ("Me and Jordyn wear the same kind because we both have dark features," Raisman said.) They shop together. They talk about boys. And for the last year, they've reached the top of the gymnastics world together.

On Tuesday, amid all so many roiling emotions, crushed dreams and fulfilled promises, they get a chance to do that again.

(USA Today)

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