By Lanford Beard
August 03, 2012 at 01:11 PM EDT
Leon Neal/Getty Images

As we get deeper into the Games, the boldface stories for each night multiply. Whether it was in the pool or the gymnastics arena, everyone really came to play last night. It continues to confound me how people can be this good at anything. My friends and I recently joked that, if I were to have a building named after me, the only option would be the Lanford Beard Center for Lounging Around and Talking S—. Which is pretty much the best — and only — way I can introduce tonight’s recap. Onward!

USA Women’s Gymnastics all-around contenders Gabby “Flying Squirrel” Douglas and Aly “STICK IT!” Raisman strode into the arena in hot pink, echoing the leotard in which Nastia Liukin won her gold medal in Beijing. Of course, before the competition could really begin, the commentators had to make at least one more “Isn’t it tragic?!!!” nod in displaced World Champion Jordyn Wieber’s direction. Also in the stands: Former Tiny Tim (and, oh yeah, 1984 all-around champ) Mary Lou Retton, 2004 all-around gold medalist Carly Patterson (who bears an uncomfortable resemblance to Bristol Palin these days), and overall Beijing victor Nastia Liukin, plus 1996 Magnificent Seven members Shannon Miller and Dominique Dawes.

As with Tuesday’s team competition, the Americans’ biggest challengers were the Russians, specifically Aliya Mustafina and Victoria Komova. Since both Mustafina and Komova faltered (though barely at all compared to the cataclysmic performances by their teammates) the last time they faced down Team USA, the question remained: Would they be able to overcome the previous day’s pillow-soaking disappointment? Could Komova and Mustafina summon the fire in their bellies to rally and knock our girls off the podium?

Judging from Komova’s first vault, it seemed unlikely. She took several steps way outside the boundaries, scoring well below the Americans’ solid marks. It’s worth noting that Team USA and Team Russia would compete in the same rotation all night. Maximum drama! Mustafina’s vault was, in fact, better executed than Komova’s, but her lower start value placed her in fourth after the first rotation. Douglas led, less than a point over Raisman.

Also in the rotation, China’s Deng Linlin, about whom  Al Trautwig noted, “We’ve had a lot of crying in women’s gymnastics [this Olympics], and she’s been part of that.” Thanks for rubbing it in, Al!

NEXT: Rotations 2-4, recapper gasps 584-2,372 (a.k.a. Yes! I will get to swimming!)

So who would biff it? Well… no one on the uneven bars. Though is considered the strongest event for the Russians, Team USA gave it right back. By the end of round 2, Douglas maintained her lead, though Komova narrowed it down to 0.267. Mustafina jumped up a notch as she flawlessly executed a move named after her to score a massive 16.1 points of 17. Though Raisman dropped to fourth, we were assured the next two events were her strongest.

Or were they? The four-person race (which Tim Daggett couldn’t resist noting would have been a five-person race if Wieber had been allowed to compete), seemingly narrowed down to two when Raisman lost two points on her balance beam routine after almost falling and grabbing the beam. Several major balance checks followed. Before that, Mustafina fell off the beam. She was so shaken by the unexpected dismount that she bobbled on a simple step backwards, then went over time to incur further deductions. Though the 5’4″ Muscovite has looked like she might be permanently on the verge of tears throughout these Games, her emotions tipped more toward rage when she slapped off her coach’s hand in the wake of this “catastrophic” beam performance. (She ultimately earned a bleak 13.633.) On the other hand, Douglas and Komova both stepped it up. Douglas increased her lead, and Komova nailed the most difficult beam dismount in gymnastics. (It’s called the Carly Patterson, of course.)

As the Little Girls in Pretty Boxes headed to their floor routines, Deng Linlin seemed (to me, at least) increasingly poised for a spot on the podium. She delivered a more-than-solid routine, though her level of difficulty was low. Then, 11th-hour rallies by Mustafina and Raisman put the bronze medal in question (more on that below). One thing was certain. This night was Douglas’s. The crowd was with her from the start. They clapped in time to the music early into her floor routine, and those claps quickly gave way to thunderous applause and chants of “U-S-A! U-S-A!” as she stuck one her final two passes. Like Raisman on Tuesday, Douglas couldn’t contain her emotions when she brilliantly landed her final pass. Her smile said volumes more than the 15.033 score she ultimately earned. Douglas was golden.

And that’s where things got complicated. Who would nab the other slots on the podium? Even as Raisman opted not to “go for it” by upgrading to the tumbling pass that landed her on her head in Tuesday’s warm-ups, the momentum in the crowd continued. When her score flashed on the Jumbotron, she was tied for bronze with Mustafina. Mind you, Komova hadn’t even performed her floor routine, but it was a foregone conclusion she would finish at least second — though she needed an astronomical 15.359 to overtake Douglas. In the end, even a Queen medley couldn’t send Komova to the top of the podium. She wanted it all. She wanted to rock us. She was under pressure (ding ding ding dah-dah-ding-ding). And she certainly came close. Her routine was spectacular — the best of her career. But “The Flying Squirrel” couldn’t be surpassed. Final standings: Douglas, Komova, and Mustafina (judges dropped the lowest scores from Raisman and the Russian, and Mustafina narrowly took bronze). So much for my Linlin theory. Now… cue Katy Perry’s “Firework”! (Seriously, that happened.)

NEXT: Lest we forget the “duel in the pool”

And they all float on…

Because it would not really be the Olympics without amped-up intra-team rivalries and sheisty badminton players, the night’s other nailbiter came from the natatorium. Beijing Golden Boy Michael Phelps got off to a slow start this Games — so slow, in fact, that he didn’t even medal in his first event, the 400 IM. Ryan Lochte did, though: Gold #jeah. While the boys towed the “Rah-rah, USA!” line during their two relays together (one of which gave Phelps yet another passage in the history books), I think it’s safe to say that both swimmers were out for blood at the 200m IM final. Not only was it Lochte’s last swim of the Games, it was also personal: Lochte had also bested Phelps in the semifinals. But, like Olympic Hottie James “The Missile” Magnussen, Phelps is a finisher. (Just ask Milorad Čavić.) So who would come out on top in the Americans’ second showdown in London?

Phelps naturally took the lead on the butterfly leg, though just slightly. He kept it up, outpacing Lochte’s world record during the backstroke. After the breaststroke, he was still leading, but would Lochte be able to make up the gap in the freestyle anchor leg? Nope! Phelps took home gold — the 16th of his career — with Lochte 0.63 seconds behind. If Lochte is in need of consolation, he can at least hold close to the fact that this particular swim didn’t better his current world record. (Who did Phelps swim better than? Everyone else this year in the 100m butterfly semifinals later last night.)

Also on the consolation front, it could be argued that Lochte’s silver in the 200m IM resulted from fatigue. Just 30 minutes before, Lochte had taken bronze in the 200m backstroke behind USA’s Tyler Clary and Japan’s Ryosuke Irie. (Worth noting: Back-to-back events didn’t stop Olympic Stud Missy Franklin from killing it on Monday.) Lochte’s loss in that race was an upset, but it was showcase for the undeniable awesomeness of Tyler Clary, who set a new Olympic record. When pushed by the insatiable Andrea Kremer to describe his feelings after winning gold, Clary said with an awkward laugh, “There’s no way to sum it up that broadcasters would be okay with.” Love. It. Love. Him.

The pool wasn’t all about the boys, though. Rebecca Soni echoed the U.S. gymnasts fashion in rocking hot pink as she vied to make history as the first woman to win back-to-back golds in the 200m breaststroke. As Rowdy Gaines and Dan Patrick noted, London has thus far been brutal for defending champs. Phelps, Australia’s Stephanie Rice, and many others have fallen in the last five days. Not so for Soni. She destroyed her nearest competitor, Japan’s Satomi Suzuki, by nearly a full body length — and broke her own world record (her second in these Games) in the process. Boyfriend, and fellow Olympian, Ricky Berens cheered jubilantly from the stands.

The finals weren’t the only sources of excitement. Early in the night, there was a rare semifinal tie for first in the men’s 50m freestyle, a.k.a. The Fastest Flipper in the World. No, it did not involve Anthony Ervin, who tied Gary Hall Jr. for a gold in this event in Sydney and has recently returned to the sport after an eight-year sabbatical of self-discovery. Instead, Cullen Jones (member of the gold medal-winning 2008 4x100m freestyle relay team with Michael Phelps) and self-flagellating Brazilian Cesar Cielo tapped in together. Ervin did manage to finish third overall, touching the wall a mere 0.12 seconds later. My colleague Sandra Gonzalez will document the final results later tonight.

In another kudo for the Red, White, and Blue, Elizabeth Beisel cleared her path to a medal in the women’s 200m backstroke semifinal. Her main competition? Reigning world champion-slash-Justin Bieber superfan Missy Franklin. I would argue that you shouldn’t discount Zimbabwe’s world-record holder and two-time gold medalist Kirsty Coventry, but Dan and Rowdy seem to disagree. That final concludes today as well.

What? Did you think Phelps was done?

In other news…

I wouldn’t recommend getting stuck in a dark alley with the American men’s volleyball team. Captain Clay Stanley literally knocked a Brazillian team member off his feet with one serve. (Cheers to the spectator with a “STANLEY IS MANLY!” sign.) Despite Brazil coming out on top in “one of the ugliest points” the commentators had ever seen, the defending champions from America served an impressive eight aces and knocked Brazil — Beijing’s silver medalists — down a peg. Bump, set, spike! In related news, this girl has a new Olympic crush. Hey there, Leandro Vissotto Neves, you tall drink of water, you. (Don’t worry, Nathan Adrian, I still love you, too!)

Team USA rowing continued its six-year streak of world domination in the Women’s Eight, easily defeating Canada. My team MVP goes to pocket-sized coxswain Mary Whipple, not only for her name, which sounds like it belongs on the side of a Rupert Grint-driven ice cream truck, but also for her unabashed happy-crying at kicking the other teams’ butts. Who doesn’t love a tiny dynamo?

Read more:

EW’s Olympics Hub

Olympics: Best/Worst Athletic Wear

Olympics 2012 on primetime TV: Ready, set, go!