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Taking a Tumble

U.S. women's gymnastic team settles for silver after a series of slip-ups. Romania wins gold.

August 18, 2004|Diane Pucin | Times Staff Writer

ATHENS — Catalina Ponor, who turns 17 this weekend, swiveled her hips, did double twisting somersaults and blew kisses to the dancing, cheering Romanian fans in the Olympic Indoor Hall, then dived into the waiting arms of her teammates, her vivacious floor exercise the prelude to the coronation.

With a new team in a country where funding has disappeared, sad-eyed coach Octavio Belu coaxes perfection out of little girls who practice in stuffy, dimly lighted gyms but who dream only of gold.

Across the way, sitting in blue plastic chairs, backs straight and eyes lowered, were the six U.S. women's gymnasts who knew without looking that they were Olympic silver medalists, not gold winners.

It was still a triumph, a healthy improvement over 2000, when a squabbling, unhappy Olympic team left Sydney without a single medal.

Then again, the U.S. squad was the defending world champion, operating under the slogan, "One dream, one team." The dream hadn't been of silver.

But the Romanians, led by Ponor, who had the two highest scores of the tense night -- 9.750 on floor and 9.687 on the unforgiving balance beam -- reversed their finish of second to the U.S. at the 2003 world championships in Anaheim.

The Romanians finished with a total of 114.283 points. The U.S. was a distant second at 113.584 and Russia -- led by regal 25-year-old defending world all-around champion Svetlana Khorkina -- won the bronze medal with 113.235.

"I am happy these children who have understood me and listened to me now have a gold medal," said Belu, whose team performed with a joyous verve that seemed missing from the U.S. team.

For most athletes here, a silver medal would be something to cherish.

But 40 minutes after the awards ceremony, Martha Karolyi, women's team coordinator, apologized to her boss.

"I'm sorry," Karolyi said to Bob Colarossi, president of USA Gymnastics. "It's the best we could do. That's all we could do."

As the Romanians, the last team to perform, hopped, skipped, pirouetted and flew through the air with unabashed freedom, the Americans sat in a row, six blank faces staring into the distance.

For an unguarded moment, Carly Patterson and Courtney Kupets, the projected stars of the U.S. team, let their practiced smiles fade to grim pursed lips until coach Kelli Hill signaled for them to clap and smile.

Patterson, 16, from Allen, Texas, had qualified for the individual all-around with the highest score and had been the only gymnast chosen by Karolyi and Hill to compete in all four events in this year's format, which had only three team members compete and score on each apparatus.

The U.S. started well with a steady set of vaults by Patterson, 25-year-old team captain Mohini Bhardwaj and 26-year-old Cuban immigrant Annia Hatch.

But they frittered away the momentum on their second rotation, the uneven bars. Midway through her routine, Patterson, as she was transferring from the lower bar to the upper bar, nearly stopped after her foot scraped the lower bar.

"It was a childish mistake," said Bela Karolyi, Martha's husband and a long-time coach who works closely with the national team members at his Houston-area ranch.

The crowd gasped and Patterson fought off tears as she watched her score of 9.287 appear. After Kupets, who was co-national champion this year with Courtney McCool, pulled out a steadying swing around the bars to score a 9.662, she disappeared.

Though Kupets, 18, of Gaithersburg, Md., was scheduled to be the second woman up on the balance beam for the U.S. on the third rotation, it was Bhardwaj who marched out.

"My right hamstring had been bothering me for a couple of weeks," Kupets said later. "It hurt the most on the beam. I thought it was better to sit out and save myself for the individual events coming up."

Bhardwaj, who hadn't practiced on the beam here and whose routine carries a start value of only 9.7 instead of 10, performed with only a small wobble but scored only 9.400 and all three Romanians earned marks of 9.512 or higher to take the lead.

Trailing by .124 going into the final rotation, the U.S. women needed three lively, smooth, polished routines. Instead Kupets, leading off, nearly lost her balance and stumbled out of her pirouette. "Unfortunately I can't blame it on my hamstring," Kupets said. "I don't know what happened."

What happened was that the U.S. was all but eliminated when her 9.187 score came up. Patterson dropped her head for a moment. "I am not disappointed," Patterson said. "We got a silver medal at the Olympics."

Martha Karolyi was less enthusiastic. "We could have done better," she said. "We expected the gold, but we are happy with what we have."

Bhardwaj, who had given up the sport after finishing her career at UCLA and who needed a $20,000 donation from actress Pamela Anderson to continue training for two months before the Olympic trials, provided the perspective her teammates will appreciate later.

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