Three weeks ago, during the National Sports Festival in Baton Rouge, La., Charles Lakes had a gold medal in the gymnastics all-around competition all but wrapped up. Most certainly, Charles was in charge.
Then something went wrong. Lakes, by his own admission, blew it.
In the middle of his vault, while suspended seven feet above the apparatus, half of his body performed one trick while the other half did another. Lakes landed with a clank. So did his score. He was awarded a 9.1.
Not to worry. Lakes moved on to the floor exercise, where he threw caution to the wind and wowed the audience with a rousing, reckless performance. The crowd loved him. The judges, however, took four-tenths off because, in all his twirling glory, Lakes stepped off the mat not once, but twice.
He lost the all-around competition by two-tenths of a point.
But wait, there's more.
In the high bar finals, Lakes' best event, he took an extra swing in the middle of his routine. There, in plain sight of the judges, between the most spectacular reverse Hecht and Jaeger flip in all of gymnastics, Lakes dangled under the bar.
The gaffe left him hanging with a silver medal in that event.
In all, Lakes came away from the Sports Festival with the two silver medals, bronzes in parallel bars and pommel horse, a fourth-place finish in the rings and a load of what-ifs and I-should-haves.
It wasn't the first time the former Monroe High gymnast had searched for explanations and excuses following a big competition. Although many expected Lakes to dominate this year's NCAA meet, he didn't win any events.
Said the University of Illinois senior: "Usually I take off between meets, but I'd just competed in the Big Ten championships. Plus, I had final exams. And I was there without a team. I felt so alone out there.
"I had some problems with my coach. I'm at a point now where I don't really need a coach. I have to feel comfortable with what I'm doing out there. (Coach) Yoshi (Hayasaki) wanted me to do things he knew I could do. But, I can't do that. I like to take an adventuresome approach.
"Oh yeah, and I was fatigued."
And maybe the sun was in his eyes, his uniform was too big, the crowd was too noisy . . .
A month after winning the '84 NCAA high bar title, Lakes competed in the U.S. championships in Evanston, Ill. At that meet, he flew off the high bar three times.
Few doubt Lakes' ability. In fact, some U.S. gymnastics officials say the 21-year-old from Newhall could eventually become this country's best male gymnast.
Lakes, himself, says it is inevitable.
"I won't be satisfied by just being the best in this country. That's not a goal, that's something that is just going to happen. It's unavoidable. Being the best in the world is what I want."
Then he adds, "I've got talent, swing and strength. I'm to the point where there isn't any trick that I can't do. I can do all of them. But, I don't want to sound big-headed. . . . "
Ironically, for all of Lakes' outward cockiness, he blames his second-place finishes in major competitions on a lack of confidence.
"My problems have been mental," he said. "I didn't believe I could do well in all of my events. I have to be completely confident and eliminate all my non-confident thoughts."
Dr. Robert McKelvain, an associate professor of psychology and chairman of sports sciences for the U.S. Gymnastics Federation, has worked closely with Lakes and other gymnasts in recent years.
"When gymnasts think negative things to themselves, there is evidence that they decrease their physical strength," he said. "It also creates anxiety which creates muscle tension in the neck and shoulders. When that happens, you can't swing freely. And if you think negatively, then you're thinking about worrying, not about your performance.
"No matter how confident an athlete is, these things have to be mastered to become an elite gymnast."
Gordon Maddox, who covered the National Sports Festival as a gymnastics analyst for ESPN, says that once Lakes learns to relax while competing, he'll approach the stardom so many have predicted for him.
"He has the tools," Maddox said. "The first time I saw him, he had it written all over him. After seeing him at the Sports Festival, I feel he will be world-class. No doubt."
Others are less certain.
Said Tim Daggett, a member of the '84 Olympic gymnastics team: "Sometimes people see a kid and think, 'My God, he's got a lot of talent.' But you need a burning desire to be great. It's impossible to say if he has that desire. . . . We've had gifted athletes before who haven't been great because they didn't have the desire.
"You have to have such concentration and be strong with your mind."
Some gymnastics purists believe Lakes' troubles stem from, horrors, a lack of concentration, and even worse, a lack of discipline.