ATLANTA — It was unrealistic for John Macready to think that he could vault himself and his U.S. teammates from fifth to third on the final apparatus, but he did not become one of the country's leading gymnasts at 21 by accepting there are things he cannot do.
Even in midair, when he realized that he was off balance, he thought that he could right himself for a solid landing. He, of course, could not. No one could have. Horizontal when he hit the mat, he still did not surrender. Using the strength in his arms, he tried to bounce back upright. But it was like trying to climb out of quicksand. He sat down hard.
Minutes later, when Macready learned that the United States had finished fifth in the men's team competition at the Georgia Dome, failing to win a medal, he buried his head in a towel and cried.
The U.S. coach, Peter Kormann, tried to console Macready, telling him that the team would not have leaped over fourth-place Belarus and third-place Ukraine even if he had scored a perfect 10 on the vault.
"You're a kid, but you competed like a man," Kormann told him. "You should be proud of yourself."
Macready knows that. He has made many sacrifices to be here. When he was 15, he left his show-business family in Santa Monica--his father is a producer/director, his mother an actress--and began training at a gym in San Diego.
He moved again in 1993, to Colorado Springs, Colo., because that is the site of the U.S. Olympic Committee's training center. Last year, he earned his first berth on a U.S. team at the World Championships. This year, he became the youngest member of the U.S. men's gymnastics team in the Olympics, and, on Monday, he became one of three Americans to advance to Wednesday night's all-around finals. He finished the optionals in 33rd place.
"I'm going to look back on this day and love it to death," Macready said. "This is the day of my life."
But he said that with little enthusiasm. His eyes still red, he did not seem to feel like talking about anything. He could not get his misfire on the vault out of his mind.
"I have kind of mixed feelings," he said. "I'm really hurt and upset at myself for the last event. You're not just out there for yourself. You're out there for everybody. I felt like I'd let everybody down.
"At the same time, I'm proud of my team. We wouldn't quit fighting until the end. We've improved unbelievably since Sabae, Japan."
The U.S. team was third in the compulsories at the 1995 World Championships in Sabae but plunged to ninth after the optionals. Kormann told the gymnasts to go home and improve. Macready improved more than anyone, from sixth in the nationals last year to third this year.
All of the other gymnasts also increased the difficulty of their routines, leading to Macready's optimism that the U.S. men would win their first team medal in a non-boycotted Olympics since 1932. It was not to be. They started Monday's optionals in fifth place and finished in fifth place.
"It was not a miracle day," he said. "But there are little miracles, and that was ninth to fifth. That's impressive."
Macready said he expects the U.S. men's team to be pushing the gold-medalist Russians by the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia. The U.S. Gymnastics Federation has a program called "Operation Flip Flop" designed to put its men on the same level as its women within four years. Macready, probably one of only two U.S. men who will not retire after the Olympics, plans to be part of it.
"I'm really looking forward to the next four years," he said. "I'm going to do whatever I need to do to make sure that we get a team medal in Sydney.
"I'm seeing nothing but red right now. I can't wait to get home and start training."
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* ATHLETE: John Macready.
* DISCIPLINE: Artistic gymnastics.
* HOMETOWN: Santa Monica.
* COMPETITIVE HISTORY: First Olympics. Member of U.S. World Championships team in 1995. Progressed from eighth all-around in 1994 national championships to sixth in '95 to third in '96. Also third all-around in this year's Olympic trials. Second on the horizontal bars and third in the vault in '95 nationals. Second in the rings, third in the vault and third on the horizontal bars in '96 nationals.
* PERSONAL: Began gymnastics when he was 5 with his brother. He is a sophomore at the Colorado Springs branch of the University of Colorado. A communications major, he wants to become a television broadcaster. His hobbies are skiing, reading nonfiction and collecting movies. His father is a producer/director, and his mother is an actress who has appeared in "General Hospital," "Silver Spoons" and Maxwell House commercials. His grandfather was a character actor specializing in villains. His most famous film was "Gilda" in 1949.