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Americans Take It at Face Value

ATHENS 2004

U.S. women gymnasts fail to deliver the clean, poised performance expected of them but are confident of redemption in Tuesday's finals.

August 16, 2004|Diane Pucin | Times Staff Writer

ATHENS — The happy face came after the gymnastics, when the coaches and competitors smiled and said, one after another, that things were good, mistakes were minor, nerves were nothing special and all that mattered was qualifying for the team finals.

It was the other faces that were more telling.

It was the steely smile Courtney Kupets forced herself to offer judges after her lifeless floor exercise routine was scored only a 9.400. It was the little grimace Mohini Bhardwaj allowed herself after she needed a big extra step to steady herself after a vault landing she usually sticks without a twitch.

And it was the scrunched-up eyes of Courtney McCool, who looked as if she wanted to burst into tears when she scampered away from the floor exercise mat after a major mistake. McCool sat on a chair in a corner while team captain Bhardwaj told the 16-year-old that everything would be all right Tuesday night.

If it wasn't a disaster, it also wasn't the clean, crisp, poised performance expected of the United States women's gymnastics team Sunday in the qualifying round. The U.S., defending world champion, did march safely into the team finals, though, finishing second to Romania.

Romania finished with 152.436 points. The U.S. was more than half a point behind at 151.848 and China was third at 151.085. Russia, Ukraine, France, Spain and Australia also qualified, but it appears the race for team gold will come down to the top three.

Carly Patterson, 16, of Allen, Texas, was the top qualifier for the individual all-around competition. Kupets also made it to the all-around finals, qualifying fourth, as did Kate Richardson, a UCLA junior who competes for Canada and qualified 14th.

Svetlana Khorkina, the 25-year-old Russian who is defending world all-around champion, qualified fifth. She refused to comment on her performance, which included a low score of 9.137 on balance beam. But she had a score of 9.750, the best of the day, in her signature event, the uneven bars.

Patterson also qualified for the balance beam final along with Kupets. Kupets and Terin Humphrey made it to the uneven bars final, Bhardwaj sneaked into the floor exercise final and Annia Hatch will be in the vault final.

Patterson was the only American woman to avoid any huge mistakes and proved a point to herself when she produced a light, airy balance beam routine that was scored 9.725. Patterson had fallen off the beam twice at the Olympic trials in Anaheim in June.

"I trusted Carly all the way," team coordinator Martha Karolyi said. "Yes, she had a few problems earlier in the season. But in all her gymnastics career, she always was an excellent beam worker and that doesn't just fly away with a few mistakes."

Karolyi must hope that some of her other performers have similar recoveries Tuesday.

McCool and Humphrey both stepped off the floor exercise mat and suffered significant deductions. Hatch, the 26-year-old Cuban defector, and Bhardwaj, the 25-year-old former UCLA star, both were put on the team for their demanding and consistent vaults. Bhardwaj had a major stumble on her landing and ended up as the lowest-scoring American with a 9.337. Hatch also had a major step out on her landing and was given a 9.387. Karolyi had expected both to be in the 9.5 range.

"On vault we were expecting a little higher scores," Karolyi said. "I am really positive the girls will be able to deliver the score we are expecting in the team final competition."

Karolyi will be looking hard at how everybody works in practice the next two days. In the qualifying meet, five of six gymnasts participate on each apparatus with only the top four scores counting. On Tuesday, only three athletes will compete on each piece of equipment and all three scores will count.

"We were trying to do great as a team today but it didn't happen," Patterson said. "I know I can do better on my floor jumps and the team can do better on the vault overall. I think we will be a little stronger in the final. Overall I'm happy with everything I did."

The nerves were everywhere. The Chinese women had several bobbles on the balance beam, where they were expected to shine. The Brazilians, who have crowd-pleasing and flashy floor exercise routines, often were left grim-faced after they put hands down or stumbled out of tumbling passes.

"I think everybody gets a little nervous the first day," said Bob Colarossi, president of USA Gymnastics. "We know we left a lot of tenths on the floor. That's all right. We didn't come here to win preliminaries."

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