ATHENS - The team built for gold came up short a few parts last night.
Instead of being atop the podium, U.S. women's gymnasts stood one step down, the medals around their necks silver.
Romania, which won the team gold in 2000 and was runner-up to the Americans in the 2003 world championships, proved to be the superior performer.
"They were the better team tonight," said U.S. coach Kelli Hill. "We opened the door a little bit, and they walked in."
After the disappointing 2000 Summer Games, when the women finished fourth, the president of USA Gymnastics, Bob Colorossi, said the Athens squad would be built to win the team gold. Expectations were raised higher when he and Martha Karolyi, the U.S. women's coordinator, proclaimed this team "the deepest ever."
However, that was before last night.
It didn't help that one of the U.S. stars, co-national champion Courtney Kupets, pulled up lame just before the balance beam and had to be replaced by Mohini Bhardwaj, the 25-year-old who retired once and made a comeback. Nor was it helpful that the other star, Carly Patterson, had a flawed performance on the uneven bars.
But the Romanians were built to win, too, with fiery routines and ice-cold composure.
Kupets, of Gaithersburg, had been nursing a sore right hamstring for a few weeks. Last night, it began to bother her.
"They wanted me to tell them when it hurt," she said of team officials. "The beam is the thing where it hurt worst. Mohini was a real trouper to step in."
Bela Karolyi, the legendary coach and husband of national coordinator Martha, praised Kupets for competing and coming back to finish the night on the floor exercise.
"That's a brave kid, just a really brave kid," said Bela Karolyi, "the one who was squeezing her teeth and trying to deliver her very best."
The evening started well when the U.S. squad held together on its weakest event. Bhardwaj and Annia Hatch, two events specialists, scored 9.500 and 9.562, respectively. Patterson had small mistakes, but scored a 9.325.
After the first rotation, the Romanians were ahead by the slimmest of margins.
The first sign of trouble came on the second rotation - the uneven bars - when the normally steady Patterson had a poor exchange between bars and lost her momentum. She almost stalled going into her handstand and then clipped the low bar with her feet as she swung through.
As her score of 9.287 flashed on the screen, the co-national champion looked stunned and near tears.
But Terin Humphrey was almost flawless, and Kupets, the 2002 world champion on the bars, nailed her routine for a 9.662.
Romania followed with three mediocre bars routines, and, all of the sudden, the U.S. team was in first place with two events to go.
Immediately, the Romanians struck back. Catalina Ponor fired up the crowd with a graceful balance beam routine, earning her a 9.762. Oana Ban and Alexandra Eremia followed with routines of just slightly lesser quality.
The Americans tried to counter. With Kupets in the locker room, Bhardwaj filled in with a clutch performance, scoring a 9.400 and giving her teammates a much-needed emotional jolt.
With one event to go, Romania was in the lead by .124.
In the locker room, U.S. team officials debated whether to let Kupets perform the floor exercise. Humphrey was warming up as a replacement. But Kupets performed for them and convinced them to let her try.
"That's what a gymnast does," said Kupets. "You work so hard, you're not going to let a little pain bother you."
She came out and bounced on her toes at the edge of the floor exercise mat as a "U-S-A" chant started in the crowd. Her teammates stood and clapped. But good karma wasn't enough.
In the middle of her infectious dance, with the crowd clapping along, Kupets stumbled on a double pirouette and missed her next move. The judges gave her a 9.187, and she nodded her head in agreement.
Patterson came in and scored a 9.662, but it was too little, too late.
The U.S. women retreated to seats along the wall and watched glumly as the Romanians danced their way to the gold. The final score was Romania 114.285, United States 113.584.
Walking off the gymnasium floor, Martha Karolyi acknowledged her team could have done better. But she insisted she was satisfied with a silver.
"Carly made uncharacteristic mistakes. Courtney pulled a muscle. We put Mohini on the beam with no practice, and still, we have a silver medal around our necks," she said. "There is no shame in that."
"I don't think anyone should be disappointed. It's a medal from the Olympics, and that's an accomplishment. A silver isn't bad at all, and we're still happy."