- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 18, 2004

ATHENS — The mistakes were so minor. The kind of errors only judges see.

Carly Patterson’s foot grazing the lower of the uneven bars. Courtney Kupets’ twirl ending here instead of there. Mohini Bhardwaj’s itty-bitty wobble on the beam.

Little things, but added together they cost the U.S. gymnastics team valuable fractions of points and, ultimately, an Olympics gold medal.

Done in as much by their own sloppiness as Romania’s sheer superiority, the Americans settled for silver last night.

“Things happen,” said Gaithersburg’s Kupets. “It’s disappointing. But what are you going to do?”

Romania finished with 114.283 points, beating the Americans by 0.699 for its second straight Olympic gold. Russia, never a factor even with diva Svetlana Khorkina prancing and preening, won the bronze.

Silver is hardly anything to be ashamed of, of course. The U.S. men won one Monday night and were positively giddy. And it’s far better than leaving empty-handed, which the U.S. women did in Sydney for the first time since 1976.

But these women are the current world champions, winners of every international meet they’ve entered since 2002 and perhaps the best team the United States has put on the floor. This was supposed to be their coronation.

Instead, they watched somberly as the Romanians partied in the middle of the floor.

“I’m happy because these children have a crown, a medal,” Romanian coach Octavian Belu said.

There was nobody left from the team that won gold in Sydney, but the attention to detail carried over, an obsession with perfection right down to the last routine.

Patterson closed out the Americans’ night with a saucy, sassy floor routine that had the Olympic Indoor Hall rocking. But the Romanians, who finished second to the United States at last summer’s world championships, needed to average only 9.35 points a routine to catch the Americans.

Easily done.

Daniela Sofronie soared above the floor on her tumbling passes, flying so high fans sitting in the first few rows had to look up to see her.

Catalina Ponor, the final Romanian, brought the crowd to its feet with one of the finest routines of the night. Technically perfect, she stuck her landings with sureness and confidence. Her teammates were already hugging each other and crying when her music stopped, and Ponor sprinted off the mat with a grin on her face. Even Karolyi had to applaud.

The Americans, meanwhile, sat glumly in their seats. A few clapped. Most simply stared ahead, perhaps thinking about all the wasted opportunities.

“We made small mistakes,” Bela Karolyi said. “Small mistakes are to be paid for. And we paid.”

This was supposed to be a team immune to imperfection. It was hand-picked by Martha Karolyi, who carefully chose what she hoped would be the right mix of power, grace, determination and steely nerves.

Last year’s world championship team won gold despite losing half of its squad to injury, an awesome display of resilience. With no setbacks, this year’s team should easily have been able to match that gold.

But these are the Olympics, and there are no guarantees.

“I never stated a goal,” Martha Karolyi said. “That was a major competition out there. … We’re happy because we pulled ourselves back up to the medal stand.”

The Americans’ problems began in the unlikeliest of places and with the unlikeliest of people. The uneven bars is the team’s strongest event and Patterson is normally at her best under pressure.

But as she flew from the low bar, she landed too close to the high bar and hit it at a dead stop. With no momentum, she had to muscle her way up to a handstand, but it was slow and looked awkward. With her rhythm off, she clipped the low bar on her next swing around, and even the crowd winced.

“I thought it was good she kept the routine moving and did as well as she did,” U.S. coach Kelli Hill said.

But Patterson was visibly upset, and she hurried to the sideline after seeing her score of 9.287. Evgeny Marchenko, her coach, tried to console her with a pep talk and a pat on the back, but Patterson was having none of it, her lips pursed and face pinched.

“She was so successful the first day, sometimes it’s just hard to keep at that level,” Martha Karolyi said.

Terin Humphrey and Kupets managed to take away some of the sting with dazzling routines. Kupets, the world champion on bars in 2002, flits and flies with the ease of a bird. When she hit the mat with a solid thud, she arched her back, puffed out her chest and grinned so brightly she could have lit up the arena had the lights gone out.

Her score of 9.662 lifted the Americans into first place, but it would be a fleeting stop.

After Alexandra Eremia and Ponor put up the two highest scores on the balance beam, the Americans needed to be perfect to match them. Instead, they started out in a hole when Kupets was pulled from the lineup with a sore right hamstring.

Bhardwaj replaced Kupets, and she gave a clutch performance with only 10 minutes notice. She landed three straight back handsprings as if she was on flat ground. And she did a back aerial somersault from a standing position easier than most people can do a cartwheel.

“Mo stepped up to the plate and did a phenomenal job for us,” Hill said. “She anchored the team cold, and we were very excited for her to do that.”

She made several slight errors, though, including cutting out one move after wobbling on a somersault landing — and she paid for it with a 9.4 score that dropped the Americans behind the winners.

“I was a little stressed out given the amount of time I had,” Bhardwaj said. “Mentally I wasn’t completely prepared, but I thought I did well with what I was dealt.”

The Americans had one last chance at gold, but quickly gave it away.

Prancing and dancing to an infectious percussive beat, Kupets had the audience clapping along. She was grinning, clearly having fun, until it was time to do what looks like a simple dance move.

Spinning in place like a ballerina in a music box, Kupets lost her balance and stumbled out of the pirouette. The crowd gasped, her smile disappeared.

Such a little error, such a big price.

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