The Olympic medal that was within reach a decade ago will finally be in the grasp of the U.S. women's gymnastics team, and with it will come vindication and the bragging rights that should have been theirs in Sydney.
For a brief time this week, Elise Ray, Dominique Dawes, Amy Chow, Jamie Dantzscher, Kristen Maloney and Tasha Schwikert will be allowed to enjoy what power plays and bickering stole from them in 2000. They will be reunited with their coach, Kelli Hill, who stood with them and for them when expectations and pressures threatened to crush their spirits.
"I would never have imagined at 33 years old I would be getting another Olympic medal. It feels good," says Dawes, who with this bronze medal will have team medals from three consecutive Olympics.
"It doesn't feel real yet," says Ray, who was team captain. "It's not revenge, but it is redemption for all we went through."
An awards ceremony for the team bronze medal is scheduled for Wednesday night in Hartford, Conn., at the 2010 national championships. A "Today" show appearance will follow Thursday, with a reception that night.
"I'm happy for Elise and Dom -- for all the girls," says Hill, who runs the gymnastics training center in Gaithersburg where the two women trained and who also coached the 2004 women's Olympic team. "They worked so hard, and they never got recognition or got to enjoy the Olympic experience."
In April, the International Olympic Committee stripped China of the team bronze medal after an investigation confirmed that one of its gymnasts, Dong Fangxiao, was 14, two years below the Olympic minimum age, at the time of the competition. The medal was awarded to the U.S. squad, which finished slightly more than a point behind the Chinese.
Before the decision, the 2000 U.S. squad had the distinction of being the only one since 1976 that failed to win an Olympic medal.
"It's unfortunate that it happened this way," Dawes says. "Dong really didn't have a say. It's not like she's going to tell her country, 'Oh, no, I'm not going to compete because I'm underaged.' She's pretty much going to do what she's told to do."
But in the run up to the 2000 Games, misfortune and mismanagement carried a Made in America label.
Less than a year before the Sydney Games, panicked USA Gymnastics officials, fearing the team would finish out of the medals, brought in coaching legend Bela Karolyi. Like a tornado, the new "team coordinator" shredded the old training regimen and installed one foreign to the athletes and coaches.
"Our worlds were just flipped. Everything -- eating, sleeping, training -- was upside down," recalls Ray. "I don't think we had a day off between Olympic trials and the Games. I was so tired, so sad. I didn't want to compete. I just wanted to go home."
Morgan White, who was named to the team, was hurt before the Games and was replaced by Schwikert. Dantzscher's father was seriously injured in a car accident. Karolyi clashed with everyone and undercut Hill, USA Gymnastics Coach of the Year in 1991 and 1993, a coach for the 1992-1994 and 1996 world championships teams and 2003 U.S. head coach.
"You name what could have gone wrong, and it did," Hill says. "It was coming at us from all sides."
Still, with the memory of the 1996 "Magnificent Seven" team in Atlanta fresh in everyone's mind, expectations were high when the competition in Sydney began. It didn't last long. Unsure of themselves and afraid to make mistakes, the U.S. women began falling from the apparatus like autumn leaves from a tree.
"There were so many nightmare things going on," recalls Dawes. "Amy Chow and I had been to the Olympics. For the rest of the girls, this was their first Olympic Games, their only Olympic Games. ÃÂ It was disheartening to see them go through that."
Hill recalled the athletes feeling like failures. "They did well. They didn't deserve a hard time."
"Does this vindicate them? I think it does," Hill says. "I just wish the girls hadn't gone through the last 10 years feeling the way they did. But on the other hand, they could have gone through their lifetimes feeling that way."
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