HARTFORD — They stood there together inside the Society Room on Pratt Street. As cameras whirred, they stood there smiling amid the applause, unfurled like the American flag. Aly Raisman dressed in red, Jordyn Wieber in white and Kyla Ross in blue.
They stood there together, still teenagers, as they were inducted into the USA Gymnastics Hall of Fame. Gabby Douglas, a powerful young woman dressed pretty in pink, and McKayla Maroney, the fiesty, sassy one, demure in black.
Together in London, the 2012 USA women's Olympic team was golden.
Reunited in downtown Hartford early Friday evening, it struck me that the "Fierce Five" is America.
Look at that lineup.
Douglas: African American. Maroney: Irish American. Raisman: Jewish American. Wieber: Lebanese American. Ross: Black, Japanese, Filipina and Puerto Rican.
"Pretty cool," Wieber said.
"Pretty incredible," Douglas said.
Douglas became the first woman of color in Olympic gymnastics history to become individual all-around champion. Her story is an inspiring one, well told last year, only marginally and, thankfully, temporarily blemished by the petty talk about the way she wore her hair.
The Olympic Games are like nothing else. The collision of athletic competition, politics, high culture, low culture and high drama can be awe-inspiring and it can be a train wreck. The Olympics can raise important questions and sometimes give inane answers. A national debate over Douglas' hair or the meaning of Maroney's "not-impressed face" demonstrate how little things can become very big things.
And then the Olympics suddenly are over and most of it is quickly forgotten for another four years.
Not so for the women gymnasts, of course, especially when they win team gold as they did in 1996 and again in London. They do things like go on "Dancing With the Stars," as Raisman did. They do things like lead the pledge of allegiance at the Democratic National Convention, as Douglas did. They do things like act in TV shows and pose with President Barack Obama for a photo that went so universally viral that there are Martians who weren't impressed.
Yet amid the post-Olympic appearances and endorsements — yes, "Fierce Five" has been trademarked — there remains one truth. Amid the squabbles over the subjective nature of judging and the periodic training abuses of a sport in which women peak before their Senior Prom, there remains this truth. Athletics is a meritocracy. And as they stood there Friday night, beautiful, strong women, Hall of Famers before age 20, the great, diverse fabric of America was on display.
And it was awesome.
"The girls and I have totally talked about that," Raisman said. "It's so cool to think about. We all fit so perfectly together. We all get along great. We haven't seen each other in months and months and it was if nothing changed today. You just go back right to where we left off. Gabby came to watch me a few times on 'Dancing With the Stars,' but we hadn't seen each other until an hour ago and we're already hysterically laughing."
"When Gabby won [all-around gold], Jordyn [who had been favored] was the first one to stand up and cheer. I think that says everything about our team, how close we are, how we all are there for each other. We were literally screaming for each other at event finals. I remember McKayla during my beam and floor routine, she was so loud. It's comforting to have that support."
Added Douglas, "I think my favorite memory of all is when McKayla stuck her vault [in team competition] and she started prancing down. She was so cute."
You listen to the gentle power of those words, the power of togetherness, the power of what the Olympics can carry forever. You hear Wieber say, "We are diverse, yet we are the best of friends," and it makes you wonder what in God's name is Vladimir Putin thinking?
On June 30, Putin signed legislation — which passed the Duma in a 436-0 vote — that allows the Russian government to fine those accused of spreading "propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations amongst minors."
Although the International Olympic Committee is saying it has assurances that the legislation against gays will not affect those attending or competing in the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russian sports minister Vitali Mutko was making it clear that the law applied to everyone — including foreigners. If someone "goes onto the street and starts propagandizing it, then of course he will be held accountable," he said. A week later, Mutko was telling everybody to calm down. But then the Russian Interior Ministry said the law would be enforced. Only that was before the head of the Russian National Olympic Committee said that gays could compete with no problems as long as they didn't promote their views or lifestyles to minors.
Talk about Russia being a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma, reread that previous paragraph. Only it should be clear: Russia must treat gay people with respect. Two-time Olympic figure skater Johnny Weir has said, "If it takes me getting arrested for people to pay attention and for people to lobby against this law, then I'm willing to take it." Others have said they will wear pins in support of the LGBT community. This is rising to one of the highest-profile human rights battles in Olympic history, one in which Russia should — must — back down.
Suddenly, my eyes fix back on the "Fierce Five," smiling, cameras whirring. Not so long ago in our country, Douglas would not have been the beloved "Flying Squirrel." There was a time when Jews like Raisman were persecuted, and before that Irish had doors slammed in their faces in our own towns.
"We went through it all together, the blood, the sweat, the tears," Raisman said. "My favorite memories is after a long hard day of working at the [Karolyi] ranch [in Texas], we would always come back to the room and talk for hours and daydream about making the Olympic team. We went to the Olympics as best friends. We came back from London as family."
"I love these girls," Douglas said.
Maroney and Ross are competing this week at the P&G Championships, our national championships. Douglas, who got her driving permit, has been back in the gym for three months. She's pointing to the 2014 nationals. All five are pointing to the 2016 Olympics in Rio, although that is always subject to change. Bodies change. Goals change. The competition is fierce. Some of the fiercest will come from another African America, Simone Biles, 16 years old and only 4 feet 8.
"So small," Douglas said. "So incredible."
That could be said for all women standing together, so fierce, a wonderful family on this Friday night. Athletes come in all shapes and sizes and orientations. Each must be celebrated.