The 2000 Sydney Olympics were a low point for U.S. gymnasts, who were shut out of team and individual medals. But quicker than a tumbling pass, they've begun regaining world prominence, a process they hope will continue at Saturday's VISA American Cup meet at Fairfax, Va.
The prestigious competition, whose winners have included Nadia Comaneci, Bart Conner, Mary Lou Retton, Kristie Phillips, Kim Zmeskal, Kurt Thomas and Dominique Dawes, begins a buildup toward the World Championships in Anaheim in August. The field features two-time Sydney gold medalist Elena Zamolodchikova of Russia, six-time world championship medalist Jordan Jovtchev of Bulgaria, and Ashley Postell and Courtney Kupets of the U.S., who won gold on the balance beam and uneven bars, respectively, at last year's World Championships in Hungary.
"We have great depth in our program," said Martha Karolyi, coordinator of the U.S. women's program. "It's not only two or three girls. We have enough athletes of equal ability to make sure we can form a very strong team for the VISA American Cup and the World Championships."
Blaine Wilson, the 2001 American Cup all-around champion, has persevered through shoulder surgery to compete Saturday.
"There were things I hadn't done in gymnastics and believed I should do before I retire," said Wilson, the senior member of the U.S. delegation at 28. "Of course, I want to win a World Championships medal and medal as a team....
"The way we've all been training, I think we're very capable of doing that."
Kupets and Postell, each 16, train in Maryland and expect to have fans in the crowd Saturday at George Mason University's Patriot Center.
"I think we can feed off the crowd and get a response off our routines," said Postell, honored by Karolyi as the most improved gymnast at a recent training camp.
Kupets, voted the gymnast with the best physical ability at that camp, also sees advantages to being in friendly surroundings.
"I don't feel any pressure," she said. "It's helpful to be in my hometown with all my friends."
Two-time U.S. women's champion Tasha Schwikert withdrew because she hasn't recovered from ankle surgery, but Karolyi expects her to be competition-ready in May or June. Annia Hatch, fourth at last year's U.S. championships, replaced Schwikert on the American Cup roster.
Hatch won a bronze medal on the vault for her native Cuba at the 1996 World Championships but moved to the U.S. a year later and became a U.S. citizen in December 2001.
"I feel really proud to represent the U.S.," said Hatch, who trains in West Haven, Conn. "National or international, every meet is important. I just want to stay on the equipment, stick my landings and show I'm the best I can be."
Run (and Jump) to Glory
Stacy Dragila is chasing an opponent who's half a world away but at the same time a few inches beyond her reach.
Dragila, winner of the first women's pole vault gold medal at the Sydney Games, broke her U.S. indoor record Feb. 1 and again Feb. 7, raising it to 15 feet, 5 3/4 inches. However, she hasn't been able to match Svetlana Feofanova's world record of 15 feet 7 1/4 inches, and she won't watch her Russian rival soar ever higher.
"If I watch her going over those bars and doing awesome, it's going to play with your subconscious and your conscious mind," Dragila said. "It's great for our sport that there's someone pushing the mark up. I'm right there on the verge of adding another centimeter or 10 centimeters. It focuses and motivates me at practice."
Dragila will get another shot at the record this weekend in Boston at the U.S. Indoor Track and Field Championships. Dragila's quest will be one of the highlights of the competition, the qualifying meet for next month's indoor World Championships in Birmingham, England.
Also of note is the men's 1,500, which will feature former high school sensation Alan Webb. He set a high-school mile record of 3 minutes 53.49 seconds in 2001 but didn't fare as well in college at Michigan and left to turn pro. He was third in his first indoor mile as a pro Feb. 15 in New York, timed in 3:59.49.
The men's 60-meter dash lost much of its luster when Maurice Greene withdrew because of a pulled calf muscle and Tim Montgomery pulled out without explanation. Montgomery hasn't competed since he set the 100-meter world record of 9.78 seconds last September in Paris. Terrence Trammell, who won the 60 and the 60-meter hurdles Feb. 15 at the Tyson Foods Invitational, probably won't compete in both events this weekend because he'd have to run six races in one day. Coby Miller, the 2001 U.S. 200-meter indoor champion, will compete in the 60.
Top contenders in the women's 60 are Chryste Gaines, the two-time U.S. champion, and USC alumna Angela Williams, the 2001 world indoor silver medalist. John Capel is favored in the men's 200, having been clocked in 20.39 seconds Feb. 15, the fastest time in the world this year.
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