- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 24, 2004

The United States has so much talent in women’s gymnastics that a half-dozen athletes could decide not to show up at tonight’s Olympic trials in Anaheim, Calif., and the remaining competitors would still be favored to win gold in Athens.

“There is so much depth to the team that every single girl here could go to the Olympics,” said Courtney Kupets, 17, of Gaithersburg. “I wish that we could take two teams, and they would both be great.”

The gymnastics program has come a long way from the 2000 Sydney Games, when the United States failed to bring home a medal in gymnastics for the first time. The only question asked now is how many?

With national co-champions Kupets and Carly Patterson leading the pack, 15 gymnasts compete tonight in what national team coordinator Marta Karolyi is calling a “glorified practice.” Trials is another opportunity to narrow down the overwhelmingly talented field before a selection committee chooses six Olympians in July.

“That selection committee, it seems like they have the hardest job they’ve ever had,” said Tasha Schwikert, the only remaining 2000 Olympian among the women. “I really don’t know what they’re thinking.”

No one does. It is difficult to make any kind of prediction with this field, although it would be tough to imagine a team without Kupets or Patterson, who finished a point ahead of the rest of the field at nationals.

Kupets recovered from what some thought was a career-ending Achilles’ tendon tear to shine at nationals by nailing all eight events and scoring a 9.8 on the balance beam. Tonight she competes in the same arena, Arrowhead Pond of Anaheim, where she was injured almost a year ago.

“What happened, happened, not because of where I was — it was going to happen no matter where,” Kupets said. “I’m going in with the same intensity as at the [nationals] and stay confident that I can achieve my goals.”

For Patterson, 16, the arena is where she won her all-around world silver medal with performances that prompted comparisons to 1984 Olympic gold medalist Mary Lou Retton.

Closely behind are 15 other gymnasts, all with impressive resumes. Of the 16 women who competed at the 2000 trials, only four had won medals at previous world championships. Of the 17 still in the running this year, 11 have medaled.

“Everyone here has the skills — it’s just the mental part,” said Courtney McCool, 16.

The relatively new competition format, first used at the 2000 Games, only complicates the selection process. The old format was a 6-5-4, meaning a team consisted of six gymnasts, five competed in each event and the top four scores counted. For the team finals in Athens, a 6-3-3 format will be used. A team is still allowed six members, but only three compete in each event and everything counts.

“There is no space for a mistake,” said USA gymnastics president Bob Colarossi. “If you make a mistake, you just drop and you’re gone.”

The 6-3-3 format hurts some and favors others in terms of making the team. The team no longer needs six all-around gymnasts, who are able to do every event well. This opens the door for specialists who excel in one or two events but are only fair in others.

For example, the selection committee may favor a gymnast who is strong in vault like Annia Hatch because that is the lowest-scoring event for top gymnasts Kupets and Patterson.

The procedure is like a puzzle with dozens of combinations, and looking for the best one is the selection committee, which consists of Karolyi; Roe Kruetzer, head of the women’s international elite committee; and Larissa Fontaine, a 1994 world medalist.

Still in the running are all six women who helped the U.S. team win gold at the world championships last year, although two will be limited here.

Chellsie Memmel, who missed nationals with a broken foot, will not compete but plans to perform her bar routine unofficially just to show the selection committee her progress.

Hollie Vise, who withdrew from nationals two days before the start with a sore back, plans to compete only on bars and beam. She hopes that will be enough to earn her a spot at July’s selection camp.

“If I did make it to the Olympics, I’m most likely not going to do floor and vault, anyway,” Vise said. “So I just need to show my two events and prove to them I can do them. I think at this point they understand.”

Also competing this weekend are Mohini Bhardwaj, Katie Heenan, Terin Humphrey, Allyse Ishino, Carly Janiga, Tia Orlando, Liz Tricase, Tabitha Yim, Samantha Sheehan and Melanie Sinclair.

Nicole Harris also qualified for trials, but a hairline fracture in her left ankle forced her to withdraw. She will be replaced by Heenan, the 2001 world bronze medalist on uneven bars who trains in Burke. Heenan initially missed the cut after finishing 14th at nationals. Harris, who finished 10th overall at nationals, was approved by petition to skip trials and advance to July’s selection camp.

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