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Kupets Is First at Trials

The 17-year-old, recovered from a ruptured tendon, and second-place finisher McCool need only to maintain their fitness to make U.S. Olympic team.

June 28, 2004|Helene Elliott | Times Staff Writer

It wasn't medical science alone that allowed Courtney Kupets to regain her world-class gymnastic skills less than 10 months after she ruptured her left Achilles' tendon.

Surgical skill was part of it, certainly. But her remarkable recovery was also due in equal parts to hope, perseverance and a determination to remember why she pursued this often painful sport and endured tough months of rehabilitation.

"You just go out there and have fun," she said. "If you don't have that, it gets harder."

Kupets made a potentially difficult road to Athens easier for herself Sunday by finishing with the highest combined score at the Olympic trials and clinching one of two as-certain-as-can-be spots on the U.S. team at the Athens Games.

Although she wasn't as sharp in the finale at the Arrowhead Pond of Anaheim as in Friday's preliminaries, the 17-year-old from Gaithersburg, Md., compiled 75.750 points, just ahead of Courtney McCool's 75.625. They held off Carly Patterson of Allen, Texas, who fell off the balance beam for the second straight session but pulled up from fourth overall to third.

To lock up their spots, Kupets and McCool must simply maintain their fitness while 13 other gymnasts, 10 chosen Sunday and three petitioners, sweat and fret through a selection camp at the U.S. women's training center in New Waverly, Texas, and vie for the last four Olympic berths. The camp will take place July 13-18.

"I couldn't imagine coming here and placing first. It's so exciting," said Kupets, who suffered the injury at Anaheim last August, between the preliminary and final team competitions at the World Championships.

"To be able to be in this position, it's awesome."

McCool was equally thrilled. "I can actually say I'm here," said the 16-year-old from Lee's Summit, Mo. "I've climbed a huge step through this week.

"I set goals to what I believed I could do. I believed I could be here, and I am."

Martha Karolyi, program coordinator for the U.S. women's team, said she would have named Patterson on Sunday if she could have, but the prescribed procedures allowed only the top two to get even a modest guarantee. Patterson, who won a silver medal in the all-around competition at last year's World Championships and tied Kupets for this year's U.S. all-around title, was subdued but not discouraged.

"I'm a little bit disappointed," she said. "I made a couple of mistakes today on hard skills.... I think I've proved myself a lot. Camp is just another chance to prove myself again."

The competition, which drew 10,250 people Sunday and 34,597 for four sessions, proved the U.S. team is deep in many areas and vulnerable in others. It's up to Karolyi and fellow committee members Roe Kreutzer and Larissa Fontaine to choose a roster with the breadth to thrive under the preliminary team competition format of 6-5-4 -- each team can bring six athletes, send five to compete and count only the top four scores -- as well as the nerve-jangling 6-3-3 team final format.

The combined event standings produced four winners: Annia Hatch on vault, Kupets on the uneven bars, McCool on the balance beam and Patterson on floor exercise.

The vault was troublesome for nearly everyone but Hatch, of West Haven, Conn., and UCLA alum Mohini Bhardwaj, who were among those invited to the selection camp. Tabitha Yim of Irvine, who finished fourth, and Allyse Ishino of Santa Ana, who finished fifth, were among the few competitors who matched or improved their preliminary scores on Sunday, showing poise under pressure. They, too, will go to the camp.

Terin Humphrey of Blue Spring, Mo., fell from third after the preliminary round to seventh overall, but she was solid on balance beam both days. Tasha Schwikert of Las Vegas, who's headed to UCLA next fall, is eighth overall. She did best on the uneven bars and brings experience from the Sydney Olympics.

Carly Janiga of Paradise Valley, Ariz., is a powerful tumbler who could help the team on floor exercise, though she stepped out of bounds Sunday. Liz Tricase of Itasca, Ill., who was 10th, is another good vaulter with floor exercise potential. All were invited to the camp.

So was Hollie Vise of Dallas, who tied for the uneven bars world title last year but was hobbled by a back injury. She competed on only bars and beam at the trials and wasn't overwhelming.

That doesn't account for Chellsie Memmel, who won a team gold and uneven bars gold at last year's world championships and is a favorite of Karolyi's for her innovative skills. She broke her foot in April and petitioned to attend the selection camp where she will get strong consideration.

"In our minds is definitely to have at least four all-arounders in the team, and two event specialists," Karolyi said. "Maybe somebody [proficient on] vault and beam. Or beam and floor."

She also conceded Patterson might have wavered a bit under the burden of high expectations.

"The three top girls are equally fantastic," she said.

*

Nicole Harris and Marcia Newby, who were injured and unable to compete at the trials, also successfully petitioned to be included at the camp.... Only four competitors were eliminated Sunday, but two were noteworthy: Katie Heenan, a 2001 world team member, and 2002 world team member Samantha Sheehan. Both were hampered by injuries; Heenan didn't compete Sunday. Also eliminated were Melanie Sinclair and Tia Orlando.

The women's Olympic team coach will be announced on the final day of the selection camp. The coach must be the personal coach of one of the gymnasts on the team, and either the coach or assistant must be a woman, according to USA Gymnastics rules.

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