NEW YORK -- The brighter the lights, the bigger the stage, the more Carly Patterson shines. And there's no place bigger than Madison Square Garden.
Patterson won her second straight American Cup title Saturday, putting on a show worthy of the New York stage. By the time she finished her floor routine, her last event, the audience was on its
feet waving 10 signs while renowned coach Bela Karolyi was bearhugging anyone within range.
"I really like competing in bigger meets," Patterson said. "The crowd gets me going. I like performing for people."
As the 16-year-old skipped off the podium, the entire U.S. team was grinning -- and with good reason. The Athens Olympics may be almost six months away, but win this event, and you automatically become the one to watch in Athens.
Six months after Nadia Comaneci won the first American Cup, she captivated the world at the Montreal Olympics with her seven perfect 10s. Mary Lou Retton won the event in 1983, the year before she became the first -- and so far, only -- American to win the all-around title in the Olympics.
And you can be sure that Patterson noticed that both Comaneci and Retton won the event at Madison Square Garden.
"A lot of great people won it here," she said. "I was really hoping to come defend my title."
She did it convincingly, finishing with 38.949 points, more than a half-point ahead of Courtney McCool. The Americans made it a clean sweep, too, with Chellsie Memmel finishing third.
Jason Gatson continued his impressive comeback, winning his first American Cup title. Marian Dragulescu of Romania was second and world champion Paul Hamm was third, done in by falls on the pommel horse and high bar.
A serious injury to five-time U.S. champion Blaine Wilson was the only damper on the Americans' big day. Wilson tore his left biceps muscle, putting his chances for Athens in jeopardy. He'll
have surgery this week. No recovery date was given, but most athletes with similar injuries have been out at least six months.
The Athens Olympics are Aug. 13-29.
"As far as I know, it's just as serious as any of the shoulder injuries I've had, so I'll get the necessary surgery or treatment, rehab," Wilson said. "But I'll be in Athens."
Barring a disaster, so will Patterson.
The 2002 U.S. junior champ had a breakout season last year, winning the American Cup, helping the U.S. women win gold at the world championships and then adding a silver medal in the
When Patterson got home from worlds, though, she found out the sore elbow she'd been competing with actually had two stress fractures and an injured ligament. She had surgery in September to insert two screws and rehab the ligament, and she was out for three months.
But the layoff didn't slow her down any. When it comes to coming through under pressure, few are better than Patterson. Her lowest score, on vault, was 9.575. For many gymnasts, that would be their high score for an event.
While Patterson is solid in every event, it was her balance beam routine that really stood out. She does aerial backflips and blind twists on the apparatus with such assuredness it may as well be 6
feet wide instead of a mere 4 inches. Her score of 9.85 was the highest in the women's competition.
"Carly's performance is absolutely outstanding," said Martha Karolyi, the coordinator of the women's national team. "She just proved again she is one of our greatest competitors."
Gatson was the youngest U.S. man to make a world championship team in 1997 at 17, but he blew out his right knee twice in the next four years. He was sidelined for almost three years, and
considered quitting. But he persevered, and has become one of the most consistent American men in the last year.
He got off to a rough start Saturday, struggling though his pommel horse routine. He didn't fall off, but it took every bit of his considerable upper body strength to stay on. His score of 8.950
left him in sixth place, but he climbed from there.
He went into the final routine, the high bar, trailing Hamm and Dragulescu. But his high-flying routine wowed the crowd -- and the judges. His Kovacs release move, where he somersaults backward over the bar before catching it again, looked like a circus trick.
Gatson knew he'd done well when he landed, pumping his fists at the crowd. He scored a 9.65, then had to wait to see how Hamm would do. But Hamm missed the second of three straight release moves, falling to the floor and taking his chances for the title along
"I'm glad I stuck with it," Gatson said. "That I can still do gymnastics at a top-level, I love it."