A shaky field on opening night

Updated: June 26, 2004, 2:50 AM ET
Associated Press

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Another step in the Olympic selection process made things hazier, not clearer, for the U.S. women's gymnastics team.

Such is life when there are more than a dozen great athletes vying for only six spots.

While co-national champion Courtney Kupets made another case as the country's most electrifying gymnast, no fewer than 10 other women used the first round of Olympic trials Friday night to prove they, too, deserve a trip to Athens.

A supercomputer. A flip of the coin. Who knows how the selection committee will make what USA Gymnastics president Bob Colarossi calls "the hardest decision our organization has ever made."

"We picked lots of teams over 40 or 50 years, but we've never had to pick six kids from this depth. It's frightening," he said.

Among those whose fates will be decided:

  • The other co-national champion, Carly Patterson, who bobbled through her evening, falling off the beam at one point and finishing fourth.

  • Tabitha Yim, an 18-year-old thought to be fading, not getting stronger, finished fifth after an evening that didn't include a score lower than 9.275.

  • Twenty-five-year-old Mohini Bhardwaj put in her best performance of the summer, finishing sixth in an attempt to add a trip to the Olympics to the 11 All-America honors she won at UCLA.

  • Tasha Schwikert. Hollie Vise. Annia Hatch. Courtney McCool. Terin Humphrey. The list goes on and on. And that's to say nothing of Chellsie Memmel, the star of last year's gold-medal world championship team who is recovering from a broken foot and will get a chance to earn a spot at team coordinator Martha Karolyi's selection camp next month.

    The whole notion of picking the team at a selection camp, not at trials, came under scrutiny in the buildup to this event. But after the first of two meets at trials (finals are Sunday) bunched everyone tighter, the folks at USA Gymnastics looked like sages.

    "It's nothing new," Yim said. "I think everyone here knows this team has a lot of depth. I just try not to look at the scoreboard too much."

    Kupets' selection appears to be a no-brainer. Even though she was competing with a split toenail -- she banged it on both the balance beam and uneven bars during training -- she didn't score lower than a 9.375.

    On uneven bars, she seemed to float between the two bars. Her handstand pirouette on the top bar evoked visions of ballerinas. She was rewarded with a 9.675, the second-highest score on any event of the night.

    Her floor exercise felt more like performance art than a mere "routine." Done to a percussion number, she does a series of unusual dances that seem better suited for off-Broadway than the athletic arena.

    "It was the best I could do for tonight," Kupets said.

    So if she's in, who will join her?

    Because of a change in the scoring format, the United States will take two or three all-arounders and then fill in the squad with specialists -- experts in an event or two.

    Patterson, the reigning world silver medalist, will likely be one of those all-arounders. But she looked a little lost Friday.

    She stalled on a pirouette handstand on the uneven bars and fell off the balance beam after losing her footing on a dance move. She scored a 9.05 on the beam, and not even a hug from Vise afterward could console her.

    "I landed off to the side a little and when I came down, I totally knew I wasn't going to make that. It was a silly mistake," she said after finishing fourth.

    Bhardwaj dazzled the crowd -- and Karolyi -- with her uneven bars routine. As she sailed from the high bar to low bar, Bhardwaj did a full twist and caught the bar with ease, a blind move not performed by anyone else in this competition.

    When a replay of the move was shown, the camera panned to a wide-eyed Karolyi, who said, "Wow!"

    "I've accomplished everything in the sport you can. The only thing I haven't done is been on an Olympic team," Bhardwaj said. "I hope I'm making the selection committee really think."

    They're thinking, all right.

    And the gymnasts are trying not to.

    "All it would do was mess with my head," Vise said, "and I don't want to deal with that."

    Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press