- The Washington Times - Monday, June 28, 2004

ANAHEIM, Calif. — Courtney Kupets and Courtney McCool can relax, knowing their trip to the Athens Olympics is all but assured.

As for the rest of the U.S. gymnastics hopefuls, they still have one more test. And it’s a biggie.

Kupets and McCool grabbed the two almost-but-not-quite guaranteed spots on the U.S. Olympic team yesterday with a 1-2 finish in the final day of trials. They still have to prove “readiness” at next month’s selection camp at national team coordinator Martha Karolyi’s ranch, but even Karolyi said that’s just a formality.

“It definitely helps, pressure-wise,” said Kupets, the co-national champion from Gaithersburg. “You know what’s going to happen. You don’t have to worry about all the other stuff.”

Plenty of other people do. Co-national champ Carly Patterson, local favorite Mohini Bhardwaj and 2000 Olympian Tasha Schwikert were among the 10 athletes from trials chosen for the training camp. Three more athletes were added through injury petition, including Chellsie Memmel, a double gold medalist at last year’s world championships.

Do the math and that means there will be as many athletes — 15 — at the selection camp as there were at the trials.

So why even bother with the so-called trials? After losing half of her team at last summer’s world championships to injury or illness, Karolyi isn’t taking any chances. She will put the hopefuls through a pressure-packed two-day competition before she and two others choose the remaining four athletes and three alternates July18.

“The top girls are perfect. Everything else is open,” Karolyi said. “We left the squad pretty large so we make sure we have the right people to select at the right time.”

One of those is almost sure to be Patterson. Normally rock-solid, she fell off the balance beam each day at trials. But she still managed to finish with the best overall score, and Karolyi said if the rules allowed it, she would have put Patterson on the team.

“That makes me feel good,” said Patterson, who was the silver medalist in the all around at last summer’s world championships. “I think I’ve proven myself a lot, and I think I deserve a spot on the team.”

Bhardwaj does, too. Though the 25-year-old is almost a decade older than most of her competitors, the former UCLA All-American still has the tricks to contend. With former “Baywatch” star Pamela Anderson cheering her on, Bhardwaj put up two of the field’s highest scores on vault and uneven bars.

Her vault earned her a standing ovation — and, more importantly, enthusiastic applause from Karolyi.

“She’s amazing,” said Anderson, who gave Bhardwaj $20,000 after seeing the gymnast selling raffle tickets to raise funds for her training. “She’s been fantastic.”

And Anderson is certain there’s more to come.

“She’s going to the Olympics,” the actress predicted.

Barring something drastic, Kupets and McCool are already on their way.

Anaheim hadn’t exactly been an amusement park for Kupets, who blew out her Achilles’ tendon during a training session at the world championships here and split one of her big toe nails during practice this week.

“You have to stay positive,” she said. “If you get negative, it doesn’t help you at all. I thought, ‘Why not put myself in a position to do the very best I can?’”

And that’s just what she did. She was clearly the class of the field, finishing first in both days of the trials and not scoring anything below a 9.225.

She’s at her best on the uneven bars, gliding so effortlessly she appears to be floating. Her floor exercise is more like performance art. Done to a heavy drum beat, she mixes unusual dance steps with powerful tumbling passes.

She even manages to make her mistakes look good. When she sailed out of bounds on her second pass, she dashed right back onto the floor and just kept dancing, earning an approving nod from Karolyi.

Securing a spot “might calm her down a little bit in that she has some time to work on some fine points and mistakes she made,” coach Kelli Hill said. “First is a tough place to be. It’s always easier to climb. I hoped she learned something here.”

McCool has learned plenty in the past year. The 16-year-old spitfire opted to stay in the junior ranks last year, knowing it would cost her a chance at the world championships. But she dazzled at the Pan American Games and has been on a rapid climb ever since.

She won a test event at the Olympic venue earlier this year and showed this weekend she’s ready to go back when it really counts.

“I thought of myself as equal to everyone else coming in,” McCool said. “I didn’t think about where I stand, where everybody else stands. I just focused on right now.”

When she’s focused, look out. She didn’t miss a routine in two days here, making everything look effortless. She does aerial flips on the 4-inch-wide balance beam with such ease she may as well be standing on flat ground.

“I’m so ecstatic right now, I can’t even think,” she said.

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