By Patricia Duffy

Not “The Doha Pearl” or even unrest within USA Gymnastics could keep the U.S. from winning gold–and a berth to the Tokyo 2020 Olympics–in the women’s team final at the 2018 World Championships in Doha, Qatar, on Tuesday night.

Feature Photo by Grace Chiu

It felt like the usual dominant performance for the U.S. women’s team, but the aura around this 2018 World Championships title was also very different than in the past. It certainly isn’t the same program that stepped on to the World stage even a year ago.

Loud encouragement during routines, dancing, piggy back rides and faith despite mistakes are what will be remembered about this team versus others.

Oh, and the 8.766 point margin of victory over second-place finisher Russia–the largest-ever margin of victory for the U.S. at a World Championships or Olympic Games.

The biggest question mark for Team USA was who they would put up on beam–Morgan Hurd or Riley McCusker–to compliment Kara Eaker and Simone Biles in the 3-up, 3-count team final format. It wouldn’t have made much of a difference who performed, score-wise, but McCusker suffered an uncharacteristic fall on beam during team qualifications. On U.S. teams of the past, there seemed to be a zero tolerance policy for falls, but no more. High Performance Team Coordinator Tom Forster was confident in putting McCusker up on the apparatus.

“It sends a statement to our USA program, as to the type of system that we have,” Forster said. “We don’t write you off if you have a mistake. Mistakes happen. We’re just human.”

It seemed to be the right call as McCusker redeemed herself and delivered outstanding performances for the U.S. on beam and bars.

“It feels even greater because it’s with the new code,” Morgan Hurd said, pointing out that, despite a new code and lower scores across the board, the U.S. women continue to post huge numbers and improve their margin of victory.

The U.S. team–comprised of Biles, Eaker, Hurd, McCusker, Grace McCallum and alternate Ragan Smith–was spoken of as the champions they now are long before gold was placed around their necks. In the weeks leading up to their official re-coronation, there was never any doubt of tonight’s result. Even the arena announcers stated the obvious, saying the real battle was for silver and bronze.

Still, the U.S. women’s program, being what it is, expected a certain result and the women would not be satisfied until they achieved it.

“I still feel like we hold ourselves to high expectations every time we step on the mat, so it’s a little bit scary,” Biles said. “Even when we have mistakes, you can see us get a little bit upset and everyone’s like, ‘You know, it’s fine. You guys are going to win anyways.’ But our personal performance is how we feel rather than the scoreboard.”

It wasn’t a perfect performance, but the team could have counted falls on every apparatus and still won by a large margin. The “mistakes” were minor balance checks here and low landings there. Biles, being the perfectionist she is, was specifically referring to her own error, when she touched the beam on a major balance check after a front tuck–reminiscent of a similar mistake during the beam final at the 2016 Olympics. The look on her face following that routine, despite knowing it didn’t change the result, speaks volumes to why the U.S. women’s team will continue to be dominant for the coming years in the lead up to Tokyo and beyond.

“Our goal is to help them achieve their best performances,” Forster said. “The key is: don’t lower your standards in the daily workout, regardless of what the rest of the world is doing.”

The rest of the world wasn’t perfect either, but it was certainly a much closer race. While the Americans were light years away from the rest of the field, only 3.435 points separated Russia in second to eight-place finisher Germany.

With its win, Team USA, as well as Russia and China, secured a four-person team spot at the 2020 Olympics, meaning the focus will now turn to individual berths and overall preparation.

“The pressure is kind of off… but it doesn’t change,” Forster said. “It’s not like we’re going to go in and send in our scrubs [in 2019]. It’s a World Championships. World Championships are a big deal. It’s a big deal regardless.”

Countries outside of the top 3 have to now wait until the 2019 World Championships in Stuttgart, Germany to try to secure one of the remaining nine spots.

“At our championships meeting, [Tom] said that was our number one goal for this Worlds,” McCusker said. “So, I think we’re all really happy that we could achieve that.”

While team competition in Doha concluded tonight, there is still plenty of competition left and hardware to be earned. Biles, Eaker and Hurd will continue to train with the hopes of adding individual medals to their resumes.

Biles will take part in every individual final, with the opportunity to earn an unprecedented five gold medals. (Yes, she can feasibly win them all.) Eaker will join Biles in the balance beam final, with her stunningly artistic set–one of the only routines that can get anywhere near Biles; and Hurd will take part in the all-around, uneven bars and floor exercise finals. She has the chance to go 1-2 with Biles in the all-around and on floor. Uneven bars is more of a stretch.

“I want to clean up everywhere,” Hurd said of her preparations. “I want to clean up all my landings. I want to clean up my execution, and I just want to go out and have a confident performance.”

As for “The Doha Pearl”?

“I feel pretty good,” Biles said as she updated us on her larger-than-normal kidney stone that she was diagnosed with less than 24 hours before qualifications. “I’m in a little bit of pain but nothing too crazy, which I can’t compete or whatever, so we’re managing the pains; that’s the most important part.”

Competition at the 2018 World Championships in Doha, Qatar, continues with the men’s all-around final on October 30 at 4 p.m. Doha time/9 a.m. ET. Notable players in that final include USA’s Sam Mikulak and Yul Moldauer, reigning all-around champion Xiao Ruoteng (CHN) and Russia’s Nikita Nagornyy.

You can see the full women’s team final results here.