This was the moment they had waited for their entire lives, the moment America had waited for since 1996, the moment the rest of the gymnastics world had feared as London approached: Each member of the U.S. women's gymnastics team walking slowly toward the podium, the gold medals being carried onto the floor theirs and theirs alone, American dominance in the sport now absolute.
The music from "Chariots of Fire" filled the arena. Purple lights on the pink backdrop swirled around them. And then the Americans -- after so much, and having fought so hard -- stepped to the very top of that podium and to the very pinnacle of worldwide gymnastics.
Led by a resurgent Jordyn Wieber and teammates who at every turn met their dazzling moment in time and conquered its grinding pressure, America claimed a stunning five-point win to take the team gold medal. The U.S.'s final score of 183.596 was 5.066 ahead of Russia, which won the silver medal. The Romanians took bronze.
But let no one be fooled by the breadth of the victory. This was not easy. This was a trial of tears and years, of great preparation and greater pressure. This was America's women being not just the sweethearts of its games but to date its finest warriors. It took mettle to earn those medals, starting first and foremost with Wieber, whose failure to make the individual all-around finals two days ago could have sidetracked Tuesday's victory.
Only this team -- not Ryan Lochte , not the men's gymnastics team -- lived up to the ridiculous hype hung on its tiny shoulders.
When asked what he did that morning to get Wieber ready, her coach, John Geddert, was candid: "I let her cry a little bit. And then focusing on the night. Her team helped lift her up."
They did, going to her after Sunday's crushing letdown and telling her they needed her, they believed in her, they would follow her into that arena if she would lead them.
And did she ever lead them.
From the very start, Wieber made this competition theirs. She kicked things off on the vault, thrusting herself into the air and in that moment -- at least temporarily -- ameliorating her personal failure and setting her team on a path it would not relinquish. She landed and, even before her arms thrust triumphantly into the air, everything had changed. The 15.933 began an American charge from which the team would not look back.
Wieber felt "just relief and happiness." Her team felt that surge -- that calm -- knowing that it could do this.
"Jordyn going first and getting going with a great vault was huge," said teammate Aly Raisman. "It truly got us hyped up."
Gabrielle Douglas went next, besting Wieber's excellent vault score. Then McKayla Maroney bested them both, and when the Americans, clad in red leotards, moved on to the uneven bars, they did so with just less than a two-point lead. At the bars Wieber and Kyla Ross coolly and methodically put up fine scores. Then Douglas completed a graceful, sublime routine. The American lead held, and only the Russians, for a time, hung around.
Soon they, too, faltered.
Next, the Americans mastered the balance beam as well. The Russians needed to average more than 15.0 on the same apparatus to catch up before the final event. They faltered. One stumbled on her dismount; the others put up scores well below what was required.
On the floor -- the final event, with only the Russians in remote striking distance -- the weight of what the Americans were doing came crashing down. The first Russian struggled. The second fell on her head, the tears coming before she'd finished. She took home a brutal 12.466. The third could do nothing to alter what was now inevitable.
By then it was over, though the Americans in large part did not know it, did not realize the other teams, one by one, had melted away in the face of their dogged greatness. They did not realize a path to gold was clearing so wide and sure that their final three floor exercises were more a parade to the gold and glory than a competition still in doubt.
Douglas began the last rotation with her floor exercise, dancing and sailing through the air, the Americans in the stands clapping to her song, the fans knowing what the competitors did not, and when she finished she flung her hands up and beamed. Wieber came next, every moment punctuated by a wave of applause and redemption, her superb grace and athleticism driving her to a finish worthy of her talent. Then it was Raisman's turn to take them home, needing just 10 points over 90 seconds of one routine -- after a lifetime of them, hours stacked on hours in the gym, all those sacrifices and hardships and doubts and repetitions having led at last to this one great moment -- to change all of their lives.
She was masterful.
She broke into tears as she left the floor, ran to her teammates, fell into their embrace. It was beautiful. USA flags rose in seats, Americans danced and jumped, and five young girls surrounded by cameras and photographers held one another and screamed.
"I had no clue (we'd won,)" Raisman said. "I wasn't watching the scores at all."
When the scores finally came up -- as the Americans continued roaring and singing and laughing and raising those red, white and blue banners of pride -- what the rest of the world knew became clear to the athletes who had actually accomplished it. The five heads peering upward went even wilder. Douglas jumped and ran across the pink floor, Wieber hugged her teammates, and then they came together for another long embrace. Joy, tears, everything you could imagine. And in person, from back in the stands, you could feel their joy, like some physical routine of its own wowing all of us lucky enough to be there to watch.
Katy Perry's "Firework" blared, then the girls walked off, and waved, and waved, and waved, and those American flags again rose in their seats. It was done. It was earned.
The United States of America, for only the second time in history, had won the women's gymnastics team gold medal.