ATHENS, Greece -- Before you turn America's two beautiful gold medal gymnasts into magazine covers and TV stars and cereal boxes, before you bathe in their deserved glory, before you allow them to become the icons of the 2004 Games, there's one person I want you to meet.
You're not going to see her on TV in America, because American TV doesn't broadcast a Brit who was laughed at by people in the stands, who cried as her Olympic medal dreams painfully disappeared. She's no Carly Patterson or Paul Hamm. She's not even Courtney Kupets or Brett McClure.
But I want you to meet Elizabeth Tweddle anyway.
She's 19, got shiny brown hair and sweet hazel eyes. She giggles a lot, and has a big smile that's highlighted by teeth that remind you of Rebecca Lobo's, and likes going shopping. She lives in Cheshire, Great Britain.
And for most of Thursday night, she was the worst female gymnast in the world.
She started her rotation on the balance beam. I always cringe when I watch gymnasts on the balance beam. It's as hard as rock, as thick as the yellow pages, and people flip and twist over it. Gymnasts wear nothing to protect themselves. Most, at least on the world-class level, always safely land feet first.
Elizabeth Tweddle didn't. On the night she'd waited her whole life for, she started her routine and fell off the beam. She was OK, and got on the beam again. Then, she took two leaps and spun into the air, flipping forward. When her feet came around, expecting to land squarely on the beam like she'd practiced hundreds of times, she missed.
Elizabeth's left foot missed the beam altogether, and her right banged hard and bounced off. She was hurling face-first toward the beam in free fall. Her knee slammed hard, then her chest did. Her face narrowly avoided it, thank God, but the right side of her head clunked. Why in the world these gymnasts aren't required to wear helmets on this is beyond me.
She crashed to the floor, got up, and bent over. The wind was knocked out of her. She was shaking. She looked like she was in shock. She cried, then tried to hold it in. A few people in the crowd closest to her were laughing. Elizabeth stayed hunched over, counted to 10, and in the most gutsy, brave, Olympian move I've seen in these Games, breathed deep and climbed back on.
"In my mind," she said later, "I had to finish."
She got up, and slow-motioned her way through her routine, mostly just moving her arms. She did a cartwheel dismount and fumbled her landing.
Elizabeth, woozy, hobbled to the bench crying. Her coach, Amanda Kirby, rushed to her. A doctor did, too.
"Are you crying because you missed or because you're hurt?" Kirby asked.
"Because I'm hurt."
"Can you carry on?"
The arena camera was on her, capturing it all. Elizabeth's head, hand, shin, knee, foot and heart were all hurt. But you know what she did?
She looked into the lens, put her best smile on, and waved, just to let her parents, Ann and Jerry, and her brother James and his girlfriend Gerry, know she was OK.
She didn't quit.
Elizabeth was awarded a 7.800, the worst score any gymnast got Thursday night. Things didn't get much better. On her next event, the vault, she fell on her warm-up. When it was her turn, the arena announcer introduced someone else's name. On the floor exercise, her leg was trembling, and her knee had swollen so badly, it looked like a salad bowl. Still, she kept limping on, missing all of her landings, almost falling. Going into her final event, the uneven bars, she ranked 24th out of 24.
The medal wish she'd had her whole life had turned into a pumpkin long before midnight. She started gymnastics at age 7, when her parents saw her climb trees and jump on the bed and have all this energy that needed to be spent. She was so talented, she was placed with girls four and five years older than her, but she got scared and asked to go back to the lower league. Eventually, she made it back to the older league, and overcame a broken foot that needed metal screws and made her first Olympics this year.
Since Elizabeth has been in Athens, she has received handmade cards in the mail from strangers, flowers, food, and teddy bears. "I've gotten so many teddy bears," she says. "I could start my own toy store."
Now, the joke was on her. Now, it was her last event in a miserable night -- the uneven bars. Warming up on them, she tried a move and landed flat on her butt. Five minutes later, the announcer called jersey No. 365 for the last time.
What happened next was unreal, gorgeous, and lump-in-your-throat-worthy.
She hurled herself between the bars, looking secure and confident. She did blind-release moves and twists and wiggles, and nailed every one of them. Finally, she shot herself into the air, spun round and round and over and over and drilled her landing, not a step forward or back or in any way wobbly. She raised her arms to the sky and smiled.
No one applauded. That's because everyone's eyes were on Patterson, who was about to win gold and become the next American idol.
Elizabeth got a 9.562, second best in her rotation and good enough for 19th.
She didn't finish last.
Moments later, I saw Kirby and asked her about Elizabeth's toughness. She nodded, but was clearly annoyed, as if she had been let down. "Well, she just wasn't good today. It was a bad performance."
Twenty steps behind her was Elizabeth. She was happy and glowing. We talked for 10 minutes, and she smiled and laughed. "I hit a bit of everything on that fall," she said, almost self-deprecating. "A lot hurts. It just wasn't my day."
She continued. "But the Olympics, oh they've been fantastic. I've had such a good time."
Elizabeth will start her first year of college this fall, at James Moore University in Britain, on a gymnastics scholarship. She'd like to try for the Olympics in 2008 but knows she might be a long shot. In the meantime, she'll major in sports science. She wants to be a trainer. "I have to stay around sports for the rest of my life," she says. "I love it too much."
Behind her, Patterson came through with her gold medal and headline smile. The media mobbed her, snapped pictures of her, glorified her.
That's your brand new superstar, America. So take Patterson and Hamm and celebrate them as the heroes that they are, that they deserve to be.
I've already got mine.
Seth Wickersham covers the Olympics for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.