U.S. shakes off jitters, moves on in qualifying

Kupets leads U.S. women on uneven bars

Patterson first in individual rankings

Women's Gymnastics

Athens Olympics 2004

August 16, 2004|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

ATHENS -- U.S. women's gymnasts marched into yesterday's team qualification with an unwanted teammate: jitters.

Rookie nerves nagged all but one of the gymnasts and caused the youngest member to lose her composure.

At the end of the day, however, the little setbacks remained little, as the U.S. squad finished second behind Romania and became one of eight teams to move on to tomorrow's final.

Only Carly Patterson seemed inoculated against the jitters, finishing first in the individual rankings and qualifying for the individual all-around final and the apparatus finals in balance beam.

Patterson, who shares the national title with Gaithersburg's Courtney Kupets, had the team's highest scores in three of the four exercises, including a crowd-pleasing 9.725 in the balance beam.

Kupets scored a 9.637 on the uneven bars to lead the U.S. women in that event and a 9.55 in the balance beam. She finished fourth in the individual rankings and qualified for the all-around finals and the apparatus finals in uneven bars and beam.

"Whatever mistakes we had, we can fix by Tuesday," Kupets said. "We did compete well today."

Team coach Kelli Hill and Bob Colarossi, president of USA Gymnastics, also downplayed the collective case of nerves.

"It's a fairly inexperienced team. We don't have any returning Olympic athletes," Hill said. "The girls have better sets in them. ... I don't think anybody got a 10.0 today, so we all have something to work on, don't we?"

Colarossi likened the gymnasts to racehorses waiting to compete.

"You've been waiting so long, you just want to get out of the gate and run," he said. "It's not about the first day, it's about the second day."

Mohini Bhardwaj acknowledged butterflies but said she settled down halfway through the competition.

Afterward, she thought to herself, "Wow, I just competed in the Olympics."

Bhardwaj, who is sponsored by actress Pam Anderson, took the eighth and final spot in the apparatus finals in floor exercise.

It wasn't just rookies who felt the pressure.

Svetlana Khorkina, a nine-time world champion from Russia, fell on her second vault yesterday. Still, she qualified for the all-around final, ranked just below Kupets.

Although it isn't a glamour event, the qualification round is a key to medals success. In addition to setting the team competition roster, it also determines which 24 athletes (maximum of two per country) will advance to the all-around competition and which eight athletes will perform in each of the four apparatus events.

Colarossi said the U.S. focus is on grabbing the team gold medal.

"Whatever happens after that, happens," he said.

Still, there were troubling signs for the U.S. team.

Annia Hatch, 25, a vault specialist who was brought in to bolster the team in its weakest routine, could muster only a 9.418, the sixth-best score. Though it didn't do much for the team score, it did qualify Hatch for the apparatus finals.

"We were trying to do it so hard. Sometimes it doesn't happen," said Hatch, a Cuban immigrant and that country's former national champion. "I wanted to do it so bad that I couldn't do it."

Perhaps more disturbing was the meltdown of Courtney McCool just one event into her performance.

The 16-year-old from Missouri struggled to stay on the balance beam and had an awkward dismount, which earned a dismal score of 9.112.

On the third rotation -- floor exercise -- she landed with both feet out of bounds. At the end of the routine, a visibly shaken McCool walked to a corner of the Olympic Indoor Hall, where she was consoled by Hill and her teammates.

She recovered slightly for her vault, but clearly she was not the same supremely confident gymnast team coordinator Martha Karolyi was counting on for the final, in which just three of the six gymnasts compete in each event and all three scores count.

But Hill said she wasn't worried.

"When she gets her nerves under control, she'll be fine," Hill said. "I told her, `Life goes on.' "

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