The U.S. women’s soccer team suffered a shocking defeat in an Olympic quarterfinal match on Friday. In better news for Team USA, Simone Biles triumphed in the gymnastics all-around competition, Michael Phelps earned a historic 26th career Olympic medal and Simone Manuel became the first black swimmer to win gold. Jeffrey Brown speaks with USA Today’s Christine Brennan.
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Speaking of which, to the big wins and surprising loss at the Olympics.
As we near the completion of the first week of the Rio games, U.S. Olympians have often fulfilled and even exceeded already sky-high expectations. Even so, there was a big upset today.
Jeffrey Brown kicks off our coverage tonight.
First the bad news, that upset by Sweden of the U.S. women’s soccer team today, eliminating them from competition. It’s the first time the women’s team failed to advance to the semifinals in a major tournament.
But, last night, expectations were sky-high, and gymnast Simone Biles met them, as she literally soared through the individual all-around competition to win her second gold medal, confirming her place as the best gymnast in the world today.
And best-ever Olympian? Many would put Michael Phelps high on that list. Yesterday, the 31-year-old swimmer won the 200-meter individual medley for the fourth consecutive Olympic Games and his fourth gold medal in these Games. His astounding career tally now stands at 22 gold medals, 26 Olympic medals overall.
And there was more history in the pool. Simone Manuel tied for fist in the women’s 100-meter freestyle, setting a new Olympic record and becoming the first African-American woman to win an Olympic gold medal in swimming.
SIMONE MANUEL, Gold Medal Swimmer, USA:
This medal isn’t just for me. It’s for a whole bunch of people who have came before me and have been an inspiration to me, Maritza, Cullen.
And it’s for all the people after me who believe they can’t do it. And I just want to be an inspiration to others that you can do it.
And for more on these big events, we go to Rio and once again to Christine Brennan, sportswriter and columnist covering the Games for USA Today. She’s also a contributor for CNN.
And hello again, Christine.
So let’s go in that same order, if we could. First, the big loss today in women’s soccer. What happened and how big a loss?
CHRISTINE BRENNAN, USA Today:
It’s huge, Jeff.
We hear that a lot in the Olympics, but this one is a very big deal. The U.S. women have never lost at this round ever in a World Cup or an Olympics. So this is a first. To go out in the quarterfinals is stunning.
What happened? They have been having a little uneven play throughout the tournament. Goalkeeper Hope Solo has not been at her best. Still, you would think that they would get by Sweden. But, interestingly, the Swedish coach, Pia Sundhage, was the U.S. coach for two Olympic Games.
There is no one who knows the Americans better than Pia Sundhage. So, was able to coach her Swedish team, bunch up the middle, do a lot of things, because she knows the U.S. so well. I think that’s number one.
Number two, some classic misfires, just not playing well from some of the top Americans. Obviously, then, when you get to penalty kicks, as this game did, of course, anything goes at that point. And this is the first Olympic game ever to be decided by penalty kicks.
And, again, Hope Solo not as great as she has been. And I wonder how much the U.S. team misses Abby Wambach, of course, the great star who retired after the World Cup last year.
But think about this, Jeff. Thirteen months ago, this team was the toast of the country, just the favorite of all sports people of the year. And now to lose like this, well, the only positive I can come up with is that it shows that the world is catching up.
And even the U.S. women, kind of the Johnny Appleseeds of the sport, sowing those around the world, would say that, when they lose, as devastating as that is, there’s also that plus that around the world people care more and more about women’s soccer, thanks in large part to the U.S. team.
So, turning to some better news for the U.S., Simone Biles. When you and I spoke before the Games started, we talked about, how could she live up to the expectations? Well, she did.
And it’s one thing for all of us to say she’s going to win the Olympic gold medal in the women’s all-around, which is kind of like winning in the Winter Olympics the women’s figure skating medal. It’s just like your name is known forever. You may never have to buy yourself another meal. And you are just one of the stars of all-stars of an Olympic Games.
It’s one thing to be everyone saying you can do it. It’s the other thing to actually do it. And there were no nerves. This woman just cut right through it. I think she’s the greatest gymnast of all time, Jeff. I think she’s that good.
She’s a combination of Mary Lou Retton, going back to Nadia Comaneci, then Olga Korbut. I mean, it’s almost like she is standing on the shoulders of every gymnast who came before her. And she is the culmination of an entire sport and the embodiment of an entire sport.
She’s just that good, three-time world champ, now not only the U.S. team gold medal the other day, but then the individual all-around. Simone Biles had the pressure of the world on her shoulders, and not only did she deliver. She was absolutely at her best at the most important moment of her life. What more could you ask for than that?
All right, so speaking greatest ever, then there’s Michael Phelps.
Now, beyond greatest swimmer to discussion of greatest Olympian ever, and doing what he’s doing in his fifth Olympics.
I know. He’s 31 years old, which I know to you and I that doesn’t seem that old, but for swimming he’s going against teenagers that are early 20-something.
And I must admit, I’m surprised. I knew he was going to be good, and I knew he might win a gold medal or two. I think I even said that in our previous conversation. But this is four gold medals, with one more chance tonight in the 100 butterfly, which is going to be tough for him. It’s going to be much closer.
But he had a Katie Ledecky lead in the 200 individual medley last night. He has won the 200 butterfly. He has been the rock star of the U.S. team in two relays. And this really solidifies, I think, over the course of time, ’04, ’08, ’12 and ’16, to beat all comers, as a guy who’s 31.
And I will say, maybe the greatest moment for me watching him was after that relay. In 70 minutes, he won two gold medals. But after the relay the other night, he literally sat down on the blocks and kind of slumped over like an old man, like coming home from a day of work, that he was spent. He had had it. He had thrown every ounce of his energy into that.
And what an Olympics for a guy. This is a punctuation point of all punctuation points that I didn’t even see coming. He has been that good.
All right, and then finally another very touching and historic story in the pool last night, the victory by Simone Manuel, who tied for the gold in the 100-meter freestyle.
You know, Jeff, this is so important.
The visual says everything. I mean, to me, as great as Katie Ledecky has been, as great as Michael Phelps has been, I don’t know if at the end of the day we don’t come away with Simone Manuel being that one image, because in basically a lily-white sport, a sport of suburban kids, which is fine, all of a sudden, you have [a black] woman becoming the first [black] woman to win an Olympic gold medal in swimming.
And what that message is, as a role model, this is a sport that obviously — the skill of learning to swim that many swimmers talk about, they have got to get into the urban areas. You have got to get into the places where kids aren’t able to go to pools.
Boy, Simone Manuel, this could be the victory for the ages in terms of her ability to speak to those issues, and for the sport of swimming just could be able to branch out in ways it hasn’t, because, right now, it’s been kind of contained into one demographic. And to see that moment and that tie with the Canadian, and the way they reacted to each other, to me, that’s what the Olympics is all about.
Christine Brennan in Rio, thanks so much.
Jeff, thank you very much.
Simone Manuel was misidentified in the segment as the first African-American female swimmer to win an individual medal in swimming; she is the first black female swimmer to win an individual medal in swimming.