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Vaulting gold slips away for favorite Maroney

Associated Press
U.S. gymnast McKayla Maroney, right, stand along with Romania's gymnast Sandra Raluca Izbasa during the podium ceremony for the artistic gymnastics women's vault finals at the 2012 Summer Olympics, Sunday, Aug. 5, 2012, in London.  (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)
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LONDON (AP) — Tears threatening to roll down her cheeks, hands absentmindedly running over the silver medal that was never supposed to be part of her Olympic experience, McKayla Maroney looked lost.

Then, she saw a microphone and grabbed it.

Hey, losing the gold is one thing. Losing the stage? Not a chance.

Voice rising as she spoke, the 16-year-old American firecracker explained in her disarmingly blunt style how a victory in the vault finals that seemed a mere formality transformed so quickly into a token of another color after she was upset by Romania's Sandra Izbasa.

"I really didn't deserve to win a gold medal if I fall on my butt," she said. "I was still happy with a silver, but it's still just sad."

Not to mention stunning.

The reigning world champion on vault came into the event finals a heavy favorite behind the power of her explosive Amanar, a tricky twisting, turning maneuver that only a handful of gymnasts in the world even attempt.

Maroney has turned it into a personal showcase, her body a study in applied physics. She was so brilliant during the team finals last week — her nearly flawless Amanar kickstarting an American romp to gold — Maroney's two vaults on Sunday were supposed to the kind of coronation reserved for the Duchess of Cambridge, who was watching from the front row.

In a second, it vanished.

After powering through a solid if not quite spectacular Amanar, Maroney was in the midst of her slightly less difficult second vault when she knew she was in trouble.

Normally so explosive at takeoff, Maroney's hands never really hit the vaulting table. An eyeblink later her heels smacked the mat and slipped out from under her.

The combined score of 15.083 gave Izbasa just enough room to squeeze past and keep Maroney from bookending the gold she won with the rest of her Fierce Five teammates.

"It happens, it's gymnastics," Maroney said. "You can't be perfect and sometimes things don't go as you planned."

British pommel horse specialist Louis Smith can relate.

The 23-year-old star of a suddenly medal-laden team posted the same score as Hungary's Krisztian Berki on Sunday, only to have Berki win the gold on a tiebreaker because his execution score was 0.1 higher.

It's the second straight games Smith has been knocked down one spot on the podium because of tiebreak rules. He was bumped from silver to bronze in Beijing four years ago, though he hardly complained after winning the first individual medal by a British gymnast in a century.

Smith was similarly gracious in perhaps the last performance of his career. He'd struggled with an ambitious routine in training, opting for a less technically demanding set in the finals.

Though he looked like his typically sublime self, whooshing from one side of the horse to the other with an elegance that makes it look as if he's working in slow motion, Smith hesitated just a touch on his dismount.

While Berki anxiously waited for the score to flash, Smith wore a polite smile.

"I knew straight away that it was going to come up in second place," he said. "I knew it. But you know, I did fantastic and to be beat by Krisztian, he's one of the best pommel performers in the world and to come in second to him at an Olympic games, that's a good feeling."

Having teammate Max Whitlock join him on the podium certainly helped. The 19-year-old took a surprise bronze to give the Brits three medals during the games, or the equivalent to what the men's program had produced in the last 108 years combined.

Berki laughed when asked if he felt like the bad guy in a James Bond movie after denying the home folks a historic victory in front of royalty.

"To beat two British athletes in London is a great achievement," Berki said.

So is beating men's all-around champion Kohei Uchimura of Japan, which China's Zou Kai did in the men's floor exercise final, his 15.933 good enough to earn the fifth Olympic gold of his career.

Maroney expected to leave London with two of her own after the U.S. won their first team title in 16 years.

Widely regarded as the best vaulter of her generation, Maroney has spent the last 18 months operating on another level. U.S. women's team coach John Geddert called her ability "freakish." Having supreme self-confidence doesn't hurt.

Maroney created a minor stir in the week leading up to the games when she aggravated an old injury to her right big toe. As reporters pestered her with questions about how it would affect her performance, Maroney did her best to not roll her eyes.

She knew she would be fine. Then she went out and proved it with a vault during the team finals that legendary coach Bela Karolyi called the best he's ever seen.

Geddert was equally impressed, daring judges who'd somehow found a way to deduct 0.3 off her score that night to embrace perfection when they see it.

Only Maroney couldn't quite produce the form on Sunday that leaves her teammates awestruck. When Izbasa followed Maroney's stumble with two less showy but better executed vaults, Maroney ended up on the second step of the podium looking up.

"I wasn't focused on getting a gold medal," she said. "I just wanted to prove to everybody that I could hit two vaults and I could try to do my best for USA. That's what I'm disappointed about, I trained so hard and just on this day it didn't go well."

The individual finals continue on Monday. The men will vie for medals on still rings and vault on Monday, while all-around champion Gabby Douglas will try to add to her stash on uneven bars.

Maroney will be in the stands, embracing her role as head cheerleader and chief motivational coach. It was Maroney who pulled best bud Jordyn Wieber out of a funk when Wieber failed to make the all-around finals. It was Maroney who screamed at the top of her lungs when Douglas soared into history a few nights later.

There was no pep talk necessary for Maroney in the moments after her stunning miscue. She bit her lip, accepted her silver and seemed only too ready to move on.

"It's not the silver medal that I'm disappointed about, it's my performance today," She said. "I'm gonna go home and rest a little bit and hopefully get back into gymnastics after that."

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