Shortly after failing to qualify for the individual all-around finals, the face of USA Gymnastics walked unsteadily into the mixed zone. Jordyn Wieber walked with wide eyes, steered by a minder, past her teammates, including the two who had replaced her in an event she was expected to dominate. Even then the tears would not stop.
Aly Raisman, who came from nowhere to vault ahead of her teammate with a qualifying score of 60.391 to best Wieber's 60.032 and claim her spot, looked almost as upset: "It's hard, because it's something that you dream of your whole life and it's difficult. I feel really bad. And it's hard. I don't even know what to say."
Gabrielle Douglas, ebullient with her own 60.265 score that will also see her to Thursday's all-around finals, wavered between her own pride and a knowing sadness for what Wieber had lost. "It's definitely a little awkward."
Wieber kept moving, guided by those hands, as if she only knew what to do if someone else told her. She moved as if she saw nothing, her tea-streaked eyes wide, her face a blank - as if everything that had been lost in failing to meet the enormous expectations of her talent had taken with it everything else.
She stopped, finally, in that same nightmarish daze. The woman guiding her turned for a moment, looking for instruction, and when her hands left Wieber's shoulders, Wieber's balance looked shaky. She breathed in. Let out a long sigh. Breathed in again, sighed again. Still the tears followed. She might have been, in that moment, the loneliest person I've ever laid eyes on.
This is what broken dreams look like, up close and personal, carried in every heaving breath and brutal tear of a 17-year-old whose world has just come crashing down around her.
Wieber, pushed inexorably by NBC and USA Gymnastics as the face of the U.S. women's gymnastics team, instead had transformed herself into a touchstone to the other, darker side of the Olympics: The fact that for every miracle there is a dream that dies, for every upset that changes one life there is a failure that will haunt another.
So much is lost here. While the American women advance two stellar competitors into the all-around finals, and while the team still has the mettle and talent to take gold in Tuesday's team finals, a young girl hoisted forward as one of her country's great hopes for the games has failed. She was the stunning talent who would be the next gymnastics "It Girl" of these London games, the next Shawn Johnson or Nastia Liukin or Mary Lou Retton, a person whose entire life was built toward that all-around individual gold - whose entire life after that would be pushed forward by that one medal, that one shining moment.
All of that is gone.
"I'm basically devastated for her," said her coach, John Geddert. "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."
It took four events and just a few slips up to bring her to that devastation. She began with a beautiful vault. She was solid - just fine - on the bars. But after a wobbly beam performance, and a 14.7 score that changed everything, there was suddenly one event to go. Her own teammate, the solid and reliable Raisman, was coming up behind her. A threat had emerged no one knew existed.
Raisman was a floor specialist with the floor event the only one remaining, three-tenths of a point behind her friend and suddenly very much in the hunt. Wieber went first, slipped out of bounds, and in that moment everything had changed. That shift, a life changing of course against all thought and planning belief, had turned one girl's fate in favor of another's. Raisman went next, was outstanding, and when she lifted her hands to end her routine she was going to the all-around instead.
"I'm definitely worried (for her)," said national team coordinator Marta Karolyi. "You try to find words, what you can say."
Only there are no words. A dream was over for an athlete who had worked an entire life to achieve it and then, like a wisp of smoke, as if some nefarious breeze had blown it away.
There were no words. Wieber herself, having worked her way through a required NBC interview, felt those hands on her shoulders again, and again they were on the move, the 17-year-old still crying, being steered away, disappearing behind a door and vanishing from sight as suddenly as everything she'd hoped for had out on the floor.
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