Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2012 | 12:30 a.m.
LONDON — For 16 years, the Magnificent Seven defined the U.S. women's Olympic gymnastics program, setting the standard by which every American team is judged.
There is gold. And there is everything else.
Now — finally — there is the team known as the "Fierce Five."
Jordyn Wieber. Gabby Douglas. McKayla Maroney. Aly Raisman. Kyla Ross.
Teenagers. Champions. And maybe — just maybe — the greatest team of all time.
"Others might disagree, the '96 team might disagree," coach John Geddert said. "But this is the best team. Difficulty-wise, consistency-wise, this is USA's finest."
It's certainly the world's fiercest.
Intimidating the rest of the eight-team field with an eye-popping vault set in which the Americans soared so high they may have been picked up on radar at Heathrow Airport, the U.S. stormed to an emphatic victory that put them atop the podium for the first time since Kerri Strug and company hobbled to gold in Atlanta.
Strug became a pixie-cut icon after her gusty one-legged vault sealing the country's first gold. The image of her being carried onto the medal stand by coach Bela Karolyi is a fixture in Olympic montages.
No drama this time. Just dominance. A good old-fashioned whipping by a program determined to return to the top. The U.S. posted a score 183.596, more than five points ahead of Russia and seven clear of Romania.
"They're just so far ahead of anyone else," said Britain's Rebecca Tunney. "They definitely deserve it."
They certainly earned it.
The Americans have spent the past nine months competing with a target on their back after running away with the title at last year's world championships.
It happened, however, on the other side of the planet. In a non-Olympic year no less. Russia was hobbled. The Romanians were a mess. And the Americans was still largely anonymous.
Not anymore. Not by a longshot.
Led by a rejuvenated Wieber, who shook off her disappointing performance in qualifying to compete with the tenacity that's become her trademark, the U.S. led after the first rotation and never trailed.
There were no major miscues in any of their 12 routines. Wieber, who missed out on the chance to contend for the individual all-around title after finishing as the third-best American, used a gentle pep talk from good friend Maroney and a challenge from Geddert to return to her world championship form.
"I had to put it together mentally, especially for this team," Wieber said. "A team gold medal was also officially a goal of mine."
The U.S. has spent the past 16 years trying to find the right combination of talent and experience to climb back to the top. Team coordinator Martha Karolyi overhauled the program, attempting to create a sense of togetherness and chemistry after the U.S. slumped to a lackluster bronze in Sydney in 2000.
The current crop meets together for training once a month. They Skype and text and chat whenever they get the chance.
And in front of the world with all the pressure on their tiny — but well-muscled — shoulders, they left no doubt.
When the Americans ripped through three beam routines and took a 1.2-point cushion into the final rotation — the floor, perhaps their second-best event — even Karolyi could feel the gold being draped over their shoulders.
"At that moment, I already could envision that we have the medal in our hands," Karolyi said.
A stunning collapse by the Russians meant the U.S. needed only to stay upright to claim the title. They did it with style. Wieber, Douglas and Raisman were flawless, and Raisman burst into tears midway through her routine knowing years of sacrifice, hard work and determination were finally within reach.
"We knew we could do it," she said, "we just had to pull out all the stops."
They did, leading to a final destination years in the making. They shook hands with their competitors then could barely contain themselves as the national anthem played.
It's a moment they'd envisioned their entire lives. The reality proved to be even better.
"It was the best feeling to be up there and watch that flag go up," Maroney said. "I've pictured it. And it was pretty close to what I pictured. It was just the best feeling."
And it probably won't be the last time Maroney will experience it. Some of her teammates either.
The world champion on vault is heavily favored to add an Olympic gold to her trophy case. Her Amanar — the tricky, high-difficulty skill that can only be done by a handful of gymnasts in the world — is so exquisite Karolyi believes it should have received a perfect score.
"It. Was. The. Best. Vault. Ever," she said.
Maybe, but Maroney will get another opportunity in the event finals.
For all their collective brilliance, the Magnificent Seven won just three individual medals. Maroney's gold is almost assured. Douglas and Raisman could hit the podium during Thursday's all-around competition. Wieber could add another on floor.
By the end of next week the "Fierce Five" could set a new benchmark and become the team all others are compared to.
History, however, can wait. The Americans have spent the better part of a year proving they're legit. That they could turn the silvers earned by their predecessors in Athens and Beijing into gold.
The proof lay on their chests Tuesday night.