"It's been eight years since our team was on an Olympic awards stand," she said. "With this format of three-up, three-count, where every mistake is so big, any medal is hard to come by. For me, I guess, this represents 21 years of hard work. I started gymnastics when I was 4 years old. So this means everything."
When Mary Lou Retton won the first U.S. all-around gold in 1984, Bela Karolyi was her coach. When the U.S. won its first and only team gold in Atlanta in 1996, he carried injured Kerri Strug off the floor, wounded but triumphant.
On Tuesday, Bela Karolyi, a native Romanian, sat in the stands, four rows from the floor, but not on it. The system of training this team over the last four years, of having the top gymnasts and their personal coaches travel to his ranch once a month to be evaluated, was his idea. As he watched this team, he said, his stomach heaved, his palms sweated.
"You hurt in your heart, not being able to deliver completely," he said. "But still, we're very satisfied. Romania had solid and strong performances. Tonight they were the best.
"But the optimism for the future is really, really bright. We have a unique American system now. Of course, the other countries are angry because we showed we can establish a strong central training program, even in the United States. Togetherness is what we want to see for a long time."