The last time the U.S. women’s gymnastics team won Olympic gold was when Kerri Strug was helped to the podium after an inspiring vault. That was 16 years ago in Atlanta.
Since then, the Americans have medaled thrice as a team – one bronze, followed by two silvers – but they might be primed to return to the top of the stand in London.
“This is the deepest, strongest team the U.S. has ever had,” said Tasha Schwikert, a Las Vegas native who helped the American team take bronze in Sydney in 2000. “It’s so hard to compare them to 1996 because the level of gymnastics is different now. It’s a different era, but we are so strong in every event.”
Schwikert should know.
Along with representing the United States in 2000, she was an alternate on the 2004 team and captain of the 2003 U.S. team that won gold at the World Championships. She also captured two NCAA all-around titles while at UCLA.
“The team they announced to go to London was the team I would have picked,” Schwikert said. “There were eight girls that probably deserved to go, but they could only pick five.”
Schwikert isn’t alone in her assessment.
“This is maybe a little stronger team than they’ve had in the past,” said Schwikert’s former coach, Cassie Rice.
Rice, who still coaches and operates Gymcats in Henderson, was USA Coach of the Year in 2000.
“The key for them is the training heading up to the Olympics and keeping everyone healthy.”
Jordyn Wieber and Gabby Douglas, both 16, are the team’s best. Wieber won the all-around at the U.S. Championships, while Douglas won it at the Olympic trials.
“Jordyn is just so consistent. I can’t remember a time when Jordyn mentally broke down,” Schwikert said. “You can count on her 9.5 times of out 10 to be solid. Even in her weakest event, which is the (uneven) bars, she’s still good.
“Gabby has some of the hardest skills. She’s very clean. The only weakness I see is her consistency. She’s getting better over time, and this may be the time that she peaks.”
A two-person team, no matter how good, isn’t enough to win gold, however. The Americans also will need to rely on contributions from McKayla Maroney (age 16), Aly Raisman (18) and Kyla Ross (15).
“The team chemistry is definitely there,” Schwikert said. “It’s more about hitting the best routine.”
Maroney won the world championship in the vault.
“Her vaults are out there,” Rice said. “If she hits her vaults, there’s no one who can beat her. Aly Raisman has impeccable floor skills, some of the hardest in the world.”
Those skills also should shine in the individual competitions where Douglas and Wieber are expected to compete for the all-around title, and Maroney is a favorite to win gold in the vault.
“We are so strong in every event.” Schwikert said. “It’s the right balance of girls who have strong values with the girls who are competitive and girls who have been in competitive situations. You can tell when a competitor is solid, and we have that.”
Defending Olympic gold medalist China, as well as Russia and Romania, also could have a say in which country’s anthem is played. On the Russian roster are 2010 world all-around champion Aliya Mustafina and 2011 floor exercise champ Ksenia Afanasyeva.
“The U.S. is a strong contender,” Rice said. “The talent is there.”
But with time still left before the competition begins July 29, injuries could hamper the Americans’ hopes.
“It’s a grueling training schedule. What they have to do is not test them every day,” Rice said.
It’s a difficult balance, though, between getting the team ready and pushing too hard or too far.
“All the girls have to be able to do their routines in their sleep by the time they get there,” Schwikert said. “There has to be little to no error.”
There’s also the pressure of having the world watching their every move. None of the members of the U.S. team has competed in the Olympics, and Schwikert said that feeling can be overwhelming.
“It’s pretty nerve-racking, but at the same time I knew I was the most prepared I had ever been,” she said. “Your whole career is leading up to this one routine or this event. That’s a nerve-racking feeling.”
Contact reporter Bartt Davis at email@example.com or 702-387-5230.SCHWIKERT’S NEXT STEP: STUDYING LAW AT UNLV
Tasha Schwikert represented the United States in the Sydney Olympics in 2000 and the World Championships. She represented UCLA in the NCAA Championships.
Now the Centennial High School graduate hopes to represent others like her in the years to come. She is preparing to start law school at UNLV this fall.
“It’s something I’ve been thinking about for the past couple of years. I’m ready,” Schwikert said.
She worked at a sports agency in Los Angeles after finishing her career at UCLA in 2008. She did some work in broadcasting and also was a production assistant for NBC at the 2008 Olympics.
“That was a great experience,” she said. “It was unique. I was able to be behind the scenes with people who have been doing this for 20 or 30 years. When I came on board, they basically said, ‘We know all about you. We have been following you since you were young.’ That was nice.”
The sports agency work, though, has stuck with Schwikert and helped her decide on law school.
“Working at the sports agency and wanting to be able to elevate women in sports, it just all fit together,” she said.
BARTT DAVIS/LAS VEGAS REVIEW-JOURNAL