GAITHERSBURG -- The lip-biting started yesterday even before Olympic gymnast Courtney Kupets completed her slide to ninth place in the women's all-around competition.
Over the past year, the elite teenage gymnasts she trains with here at Hill's Gymnastics have watched her nail vaults and floor routines with power and grace. But Kupets' early scores from Athens yesterday -- particularly the 8.975 on the balance beam -- rained a quiet disappointment over the leotard-clad girls tumbling and leaping across the cavernous gymnasium.
"It's kind of a bummer," said a friend, Corey Hartung, 17, nibbling her nails as she absorbed the news.
"I just think there's so much pressure," said another training mate, Jennifer Iovino, 14.
Kupets, 18, an honors student at Magruder High School in Rockville, helped lead the U.S. women's team to a silver medal Tuesday. But a sore hamstring led her to abruptly surrender her spot on the beam that night to a teammate.
She made the national team after a recovery from a ripped Achilles tendon last year. Many at Hill's hoped for another comeback yesterday. "She'll pull through," one girl said before it became clear that she wouldn't.
A star, a friend
Hill's Gymnastics Training Center, whose founder, Kelli Hill, is the Olympic women's coach this year, has enjoyed a reputation as a star factory. Since opening in 1990, the gym, in an industrial park in this Washington suburb, has sent Dominique Dawes and Elise Ray to the Olympics.
The 18 girls in the elite squad here train in close quarters 35 hours a week. To them, Kupets is not so much the two-time national champion or world uneven bars champion as a friend and equal. She is the giddy girl who belted "The Thong Song" to a karaoke machine at her birthday party last month, the girl who loves to shop at the mall for purses.
Several described an affinity for pranks, like the time she persuaded a group of gymnasts to sprinkle their entire bodies with silver glitter and show up to practice in bikinis.
Hill's receives a steady stream of fan mail for Kupets, who responds to each letter by hand. One devotee drove from Pennsylvania, waited in the gym's lobby for three hours, and then chased down Kupets in the parking lot for her autograph.
But the gym has no Courtney shrine. The only monument to her is a hand-scrawled paper banner sent by a group of young gymnasts from Pottsville, Pa. When her high school principal put up a big sign on campus saying "Courtney Kupets going to the Olympics," friends said yesterday, Kupets marched into his office and told him to take it down. After the tendon injury nearly derailed her Olympic hopes last year, she was taking nothing for granted.
Over the past few days, her training mates at Hill's -- girls ages 11 to 18 -- have found themselves shouting advice and encouragement at the TV screen, as if Courtney could hear them an ocean away. Catch, they say. Stick. Stay. Relax.
As the all-around competition got under way in Athens yesterday, U.S. gymnastics staff phoned in each of Kupets' scores to the coaches at Hill's.
"9.625! That's good! That's really good!" Jen Bundy, an assistant coach at Hill's who works closely with Kupets, said into her cell phone as she got word of Courtney's score on the uneven bars. "I don't care what color the medal is, I just want a medal."
One of their own
But a half-hour later, the news was less good. Courtney had wobbled on the beam and took a step on a landing. "She makes me sick today," another coach said.
The coaches formed a tight huddle, and soon the young gymnasts were demanding to know what was up.
The girls looked crestfallen for a moment. But a moment later, they were talking about how extraordinary it was to have one of their own in Athens.
"It's good to have her in our gym -- just to know how far she got and that she was once in the same spot you were," said Britney Ranzy, 14, of Gaithersburg. "Even if she takes last, I'll still be happy."