- Alyssa Roenigk, ESPN The Magazine senior writer
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BEIJING -- Sometimes it is difficult to find the silver lining in a silver medal.
For Alicia Sacramone, Wednesday was that time.
"We would have loved to have that gold," Sacramone said to a swarm of U.S. media moments after receiving the silver medal she wore around her neck. "And because of my mistakes, we missed out."
In the final two rotations of team finals, Sacramone fell on her mount onto the balance beam and again on a tumbling pass on floor. She is the 2005 world champion on floor but has struggled with the event this year, most recently suffering an out-of-bounds penalty in team qualifiers. It was tough to watch as the emotional U.S. team captain walked off the floor, sat down on a step and placed her head in her hands, knowing the team gold was gone.
Four years ago, Sacramone nearly left the sport after a disastrous performance at nationals failed to qualify her for the U.S. trials. Her 2004 Olympic dreams crushed, Sacramone decided four years was too long to wait for another chance, but her coach persuaded her to stick around. She's spent the past four years convincing herself she made the right decision.
As Sacramone watches her teammates compete in the individual all-around Friday and then competes for an individual medal on vault Sunday, let's hope she believes she did. Because it's clear from listening to her after the medal ceremony that she has her doubts.
"It's kinda hard not to blame myself," she said, "so I am just trying to put on a smile."
It was both tough for Sacramone to say and difficult for those in the room to digest. The idea that this 20-year-old gymnast will think back on her Olympic experience and remember only that she cost her five teammates a gold medal somehow seems to fly in the face of this Olympic spirit everyone keeps talking about.
It was an uncomfortable moment, to say the least. Especially considering that just two days ago, it was Sacramone who rallied her teammates to a flawless finish on their final rotation in the team qualifier. It is much easier watching Sacramone play the role of rousing team captain, a role she has grown to fit well the past few years, than that of self-deprecating goat.
Especially considering that, just Tuesday, the members of the men's gymnastics team were giddy, as they should have been, after taking team bronze. And considering that Sacramone was not the only member of Team USA who lost focus and made an uncharacteristic mistake -- both Nastia Liukin and Shawn Johnson stepped out of bounds during their floor routines.
But that's the thing about expectations. They come with a heavy price tag: the cost of failing to meet them.
The U.S. women are the current world champions. Johnson won nearly every meet she entered in the past year. And the Chinese women, the only real roadblock for the Americans, had never won Olympic gold. Even when the U.S. finished behind the Chinese team in qualifying, it was still viewed as the heavy favorite and its missteps in the prelims were blamed on a last-minute injury instead of Olympic inexperience and nerves.
But let's not forget the Chinese women, who were dominant on three of the four rotations and suffered only one major mistake, a fall on beam. This result was not the fault of one U.S. athlete. It was the result of 12 routines.
"The problem I am going to have with the stories that will be written about this is that it was not just Alicia or her mistakes," said 1996 Olympic gold medalist Dominique Dawes, who is working as a reporter while in Beijing. "It was not one person. Alicia knows she didn't do her job, and she is an emotional person, so she'll beat herself up for a while. But I'm afraid the reaction could be quite devastating to her."
Anyone who has ever played a team sport knows Dawes' worries are legit. Most of us can remember the day we struck out on the final pitch of a Little League playoff with more clarity than we remember our first day of school. We remember talking about what went wrong in the car with Dad on the way home and dreaming about our mistakes for the next month. But we also remember picking ourselves up, moving on and, most importantly, living through them. That is something Sacramone should already understand.
"I experienced Opening Ceremonies for the first time this year," Dawes said. "And what I took away is, the Olympics is not about one athlete or one moment. It is about the team and world and the impact these athletes make on the world. No matter how well they perform."
For Sacramone, the falling will be forgotten. It's how she picks herself up that will shape how she is remembered.
Alyssa Roenigk is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.