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Sanders finished 15th

ATHENS, Greece -- Mary Sanders is taking her ball and going
home.

America's only rhythmic gymnastics representative failed to make
it out of qualifying Friday, finishing 15th out of 24 gymnasts.
Only the top-10 advanced to Sunday's all-around final.

Defending world champion Alina Kabaeva of Russia was first with
105.875 points. Fellow Russian Irina Tchachina, third at last
year's world championships, finished second. Anna Bessonova of
Ukraine was third.

"Overall, I'm really happy with all of my performances,"
Sanders said. "I decided to go out there and do two consistent
routines with no drops. It was a little harder for me today, but
I'm glad I got through the circumstances."

Though Sanders was ninth at last year's world championships, she
had little chance of making the final after a questionable score on
the first day of qualifying.

Her technical score -- the measure of difficulty -- for her hoop
routine was a 4.6, lower than she's ever scored in competition and
lower than everyone in the field except competitors from Australia,
South Africa and Cape Verde.

The Americans protested, but it was rejected by the
International Gymnastics Federation. That left Sanders in 18th
place after half of qualifying, too far down to make any kind of
meaningful move.

"I really didn't think about it," she said. "I'm not here for
scores."

Good thing, too. Rhythmic gymnastics is a lot like ice dancing
in figure skating -- right down to the garish eye makeup, mystifying
technical requirements and costumes in colors not even seen in
Crayola's box of 64. The standings rarely change until someone at
the top retires or joins Cirque du Soleil, and the favorites get
all the breaks.

Just look at the qualifying. Kabaeva, a two-time world champion,
lost track of her ribbon and had a club bounce off her hand Friday.
Thursday, she dropped her hoop. The only clean routine she had was
in ball.

Yet she still finished first.

"I am satisfied," Kabaeva said. "As far as Sunday's final,
only God knows what will happen. I am very positive."

And better for Kabaeva to get her slippery fingers out of the
way now. She was the overwhelming favorite for gold in Sydney, but
she had to settle for bronze when her hoop went skittering off the
mat in the finals.

Her mistakes weren't that glaring Friday. In her first routine,
with the clubs, Kabaeva tossed one club high into the air and then
the other. The goal was to catch them both, but one bounced off her
hand and dropped onto the floor, drawing a gasp from the crowd.

In her routine with the ribbon, Kabaeva threw the kelly-green
strip up, twirling as it fluttered back down. She was supposed to
catch it in her left hand, but it didn't even come close.

That should have been enough for Tchachina, who looked like a
matador as she pranced around the floor, whirling and swirling her
deep red ribbon.

But Tchachina had a blunder of her own. In her second routine,
she was flipping her clubs in her hands, a move easier for rhythmic
gymnasts than picking out their eye shadow. But one slipped out of
her hands, and a look of surprise crossed Tchachina's face.

While rhythmic gymnastics is widely popular in Europe -- the
Galatsi Olympic Hall was packed with raucous fans -- most in the
United States don't quite get it yet. All that dancing and twirling
with ropes, hoops, balls, ribbons and clubs is a little confusing
to people used to seeing gymnasts flipping and tumbling.

But Sanders is trying to change that. Her finish at worlds last
year was the best ever by an American, and judges no longer lump
the United States in with the also-rans from, say, Cape Verde.

So when Sanders finished her final routine, she thrust her right
hand skyward and a huge grin crossed her face. She blew a kiss to
the crowd and then waved to her family in the audience.

"I don't know about the next Olympics," Sanders said. "Right
now, I'm just happy to be done."