SYDNEY, Australia - It was after their medal dream died by the flick of a computer that Dominique Dawes told her tumbling teammates it didn't matter, that years from now they wouldn't need a hunk of bronze on a mantelpiece to relive the experience of competing at the Summer Olympics.
"We don't need a medal to walk away feeling good about ourselves," Dawes said.
Last night, in the meet of their lives, the American women acted like a real gymnastics team. They cheered for one another and tried as hard as they could, combining grit and grace to finish fourth in the team competition.
There was Dawes, of Silver Spring, Md., the 23-year-old veteran in her third Olympics, shouting encouragement to her teammates who were following her footsteps as the last remaining member of the Magnificent Seven, which claimed the women's gold at the Atlanta Games in 1996.
And there was Elise Ray, 18, of Columbia, Md., in her first Games, solid and dependable as she came through a taut team competition despite a sore left shoulder. She bounded around the floor with a spring in her step, and, at one point, waved a tiny American flag.
"We had a huge amount of team spirit," Ray said. "We were just yelling and screaming for each other. It was so much fun. The main thing was to go out there and give everything we had and have a good time. A lot of it was to soak up the experience. It was just incredible."
Small dramas were being played out all over the arena, producing a gripping team final that had its share of heartbreak and tears.
Romania won the gold with a dependable and relatively error-free show that produced 154.608 points. Small and light, the Romanians were like magnets tossed on a refrigerator, sticking in the right places every time. Led by the terrific trio of Andreea Raducan, Maria Olaru and Simona Amanar, Romania built a big lead and then watched the scoreboard to make sure it would hold.
Russia claimed the silver with 154.403 points, edging bronze medalist China (154.008) on the final event. The United States, which scored 152.933 and finished earlier, could only watch as its medal hopes evaporated.
But it was quite a compelling finish. There was a personal battle played out before the world, as Russia's top star, Svetlana Khorkina, did a belly flop off the uneven bars, where she is the reigning world and Olympic champion.
She cried her eyes out and shoved away a cameraman. Then, she recovered on the balance beam and, all but ignoring a hug from her coach, she closed the show in the floor exercise, tumbling with flair to clinch the silver team medal before taking a rest on a spare mat.
"I think I will be a champion," said Khorkina, a favorite in tomorrow night's all-around competition. "My life is not finished. I am sure I will be a champion here."
For the Americans, there was little hope of duplicating 1996 after their mediocre performance in the qualifying round, where they finished sixth and barely made the team final.
In some ways, the Americans were being tugged in several directions. They had two coaches on the floor and national team coordinator Bela Karolyi in the stands. They also had a squabble over the lineup, with Jamie Dantzscher upset that she couldn't compete in all the events.
She blamed Karolyi.
"He doesn't know how to treat me as a person," she said.
Love him or loathe him, Karolyi is a gymnastics powerhouse. And he was the one who brought the team together after qualifying, who provided the motivational pep talk to try to instill a team spirit.
What did he say?
"Don't ask me," he said. "You won't write it down."
But something clicked. It was a different U.S. team that appeared in the final. It was feisty and ferocious.
"Bela told us about revving each other up," Ray said. "No. 1, have more fun. No. 2, it would help us. We talked about it. We did mental routines. We decided to go out and do it."
In the final, Ray said, "it was a matter of letting go and letting it out."
Ray said she felt more relaxed than in the opening round, where she felt a pop in her left shoulder during the floor exercise. She called the pain a "stinger." She was sore, but she wasn't hurt.
In the final, Ray said, she "felt the fire and it came out."
And she enjoyed herself and enjoyed the Olympics. She still has a few moments to savor, competing in the all-around and on the balance beam in the apparatus finals.
"I think the whole experience of it has been wonderful," she said. "It has been hard, too."
Ray has been spending time in the gym or in the house the team has rented and has really only come up-close-and-personal with the Games by viewing the Olympic caldron.
But she got a full taste of the Games in the final and decided to savor every moment.
Afterward, she stood and talked about what it was like to be on this team, the one that followed the golden team of 1996.
"It wasn't hanging over us," she said. "This is a new generation."
At the Olympics, fourth place is often viewed as the toughest position to accept, out of the medals yet ever so close.
But don't tell that to Ray and her teammates.
"We didn't get a medal," she said. "But we have so much pride in how far we have come. I won't dwell on it. I'm just so proud."