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A Good Jumping-Off Point for U.S.

August 18, 2003|Helene Elliott | Times Staff Writer

It was, Chellsie Memmel told herself, "just another beam routine."

No matter that she did it during the women's team qualifying competition in the World Gymnastics Championships. Or that the U.S. team, unsettled by injuries, illnesses and lineup changes, was scrambling to maintain its poise after some unexpected tumbles and first-night jitters.

"I didn't think about it as huge," Memmel said, shrugging.

Maybe not, but her smooth, assured effort on the balance beam brought her a 9.412 and transformed her into a big-time performer for a team in need of clutch performances Sunday at the Arrowhead Pond of Anaheim.

Led by Memmel, who won a spot in the lineup Friday because Ashley Postell was too ill to compete, the U.S. women recorded the highest point total in the second of eight groups. They totaled 147.697 points to easily claim the early lead over France (142.835) with six groups still to compete today. Those groups include perennial powers Russia, Romania and China, but the U.S. women are virtually assured of a place in the top eight and a berth in Wednesday's team finals. The top-12 finish they need to qualify for the Athens Olympics is all but locked up.

The women, who drew warm applause from the crowd of 5,242 when they took the floor in their red, white and blue leotards, had 37.187 points on vault, 38.187 points on the uneven bars, 36.249 points on balance beam, and a disappointing 36.074 points on floor exercise.

"Yeah, we were nervous. There's always nerves at big competitions," said Hollie Vise, who fell off the balance beam. "It's been kind of hard for all of us. We've had some hard things happen.... I think we did pretty good, but we're going to work hard and come back and do better Wednesday."

Memmel, 15, was the steadiest performer and had the highest all-around total, 37.449 points. Carly Patterson was second with 36.774 points, and U.S. all-around champion Courtney Kupets was third at 36.624 points.

The U.S. women competed without Postell, the 2002 world balance beam champion, and without Annia Hatch, the national vault champion. Hatch seriously injured her knee Saturday and was replaced by Terin Humphrey. In addition, Kupets was barely over the same flu that had knocked Postell out of the event.

That's major upheaval on the eve of a crucial competition, and national team coordinator Martha Karolyi acknowledged uncertainty had taken its toll.

"They don't talk about it, but in their mind, they were definitely disappointed at losing two strong teammates," she said.

It was evident in their wobbles and bobbles. Two-time national champion Tasha Schwikert struck her feet on the mat on the uneven bars and fell during her floor exercise routine, Vise fell off the balance beam and Carly Patterson fell on her dismount from the beam and fell once and went out of bounds another time on floor exercise. "I think we need a little bit more focus," Patterson said.

The bright note was Memmel of West Allis, Wis. "Chellsie did awesome," Schwikert said of her teammate, who won the Pan American Games all-around title last week. "I was amazed."

The women's preliminaries conclude today. The top eight teams will advance to Wednesday's team finals; the top 12 will qualify for the 2004 Athens Olympics.

The U.S. team had been counting on the experience of Hatch, who won a bronze medal in the vault at the 1996 world championships for her native Cuba. Hatch, 25, injured her left knee Saturday during practice.

"I'm going to fight through this and I hope I can get 100% to come back and represent the United States in the Olympics," said Hatch, who dislocated her kneecap, completely tore her anterior cruciate ligament and tore her medial and lateral meniscus. She will require surgery and need about four months to recover.

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