Americans, Romanians set up showdown in final

Updated: August 15, 2004, 9:30 PM ET
Associated Press

ATHENS, Greece -- There's nothing like a reality check.

The U.S. gymnasts stumbled to the finish of their qualifying round Sunday, botching their final two events to drop more than a half-point behind Romania. The Romanians finished with 152.436 points while the Americans scored 151.848.

Courtney McCool
Team USA's Courtney McCool struggled to keep her balance at one point during her floor exercise.
"We know we left a lot of tenths on the floor,'' said Bob Colarossi, president of USA Gymnastics. "That's all right. We didn't come here to win preliminaries.''

And fortunately for the Americans, they get a do-over in Tuesday night's team final. The top eight teams advance and everyone starts from zero. Based on the preliminaries, the gold might be a showdown between the United States, the reigning world champions, and the Romanians, who won gold four years ago in Sydney.

Russia is third with 149.420 points. China, another medal favorite, competed later Sunday.

The Americans came to Athens as heavy favorites to win gold. They haven't lost an international competition since 2002, and this is their deepest team yet. But struggling in prelims isn't necessarily a bad thing. They did the same thing last summer and that team ended up OK, beating Romania by more than 1½ points for their first team world championship.

"Some real highlights and some things to work on,'' team coordinator Martha Karolyi said. "Most gymnasts are extra ambitious, so if they have a few mistakes, they want to be able to prove themselves.''

The day wasn't all bad, either. Carly Patterson lived up to her billing as the U.S. golden girl, leading all individual scorers with 38.337 points, a mark that was unlikely to be topped in the final two rounds of preliminaries. Daniela Sofronie of Romania was second with 38.062 points, and teammate Oana Ban was third at 37.975.

Courtney Kupets, who shares the national title with Patterson, stood fourth after scoring 37.937 points. Three-time world champion and reigning gymnastics diva Svetlana Khorkina dropped to fifth at 37.836, but the Russian was in the first session, when scores are lowest.

Patterson has been the United States' most consistent gymnast since 2002, and finished a close second to Khorkina in the all-around at worlds. But she had some uncharacteristic struggles earlier this summer, falling off the balance beam twice at Olympic trials.

After insisting she'd put that behind her, Patterson proved it.

The balance beam is only four inches wide -- about the width of a hand -- and three feet in the air, yet Patterson flipped with such ease it appeared to be a plank on the ground. On one move, she leaped, did the splits in the air, landed and followed with an aerial somersault.

Svetlana Khorkina
Svetlana Khorkina dominated the first qualifying session, helping Russia into third place overall.
That's hard to describe, let alone do, but Patterson made it look as easy as a forward roll.

"I trusted Carly all the way,'' Karolyi said. "Yes, she had a few problems earlier in the season. But in all her gymnastics career, she always was an excellent beam worker and that doesn't just fly away with a few mistakes.''

On her dismount, Patterson crossed the length of the beam with a roundoff and a back handspring, then did a half-twist off the apparatus and two somersaults. She landed it without a wobble, sticking to the mat as if it was fly paper.

"I felt like I had a really good meet,'' Patterson said. "I feel really confident now.''

Patterson's score of 9.725 gave the United States a 0.99 lead over the Romanians with the meet halfway over, and the Americans were all smiles in their post-rotation huddle.

Then the trouble started.

Terin Humphrey and Courtney McCool both stepped out of bounds on floor, normally one of the team's stronger events. McCool was particularly upset since floor is one of her better events, and she hurried to the sideline after her score of 9.25 was posted.

Coach Kelli Hill gave her a comforting hug, and team captain Mohini Bhardwaj followed with a pep talk.

"I told her to take a deep breath, it's not a big deal, we've got another day,'' Bhardwaj said. "She didn't make many mistakes. She just went aggressive, and that's a better thing than holding back.''

Besides, it wasn't the only problem. Bhardwaj and Hatch are on the team largely because they're vault specialists, routinely earning marks of 9.5 or above on the United States' weakest event. But on Sunday, neither scored more than 9.387.

How bad was it? The United States dropped Bhardwaj's score, the lowest of its five.

"I expect much better scores from our girls who are vaulting specialists,'' Karolyi said. "I'm really confident both will be able to do the vault the way we expect them to'' in the finals.

They'd better. Unlike preliminaries, where five gymnasts performed each event and four scores counted, the finals have a three-up, three-count format. That leaves absolutely no margin for error. Make the mistakes they did Sunday, and the Americans can probably forget about a medal, let alone a gold one.

"Going into the finals wipes the slate clean,'' Bhardwaj said. "We start over.''

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press