- The Washington Times - Friday, June 4, 2004

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Thursday’s national event finals in the U.S. Gymnastics Championships were the first step in narrowing an extremely competitive women’s field before the Summer Olympics. With 10 weeks to go before athletes gather in Athens, the answers to some questions about the makeup of the American team are becoming clear:

Q: Is 2000 Olympian Tasha Schwikert, sidelined with various injuries for most of 2004, still good enough to make the Olympic trials?

A: Yes. Schwikert is third heading into tonight’s all-around competition and looks solid. She is the only female gymnast competing who has Olympic experience, and it shows. Schwikert is able to deliver consistently in a high-pressure situation.

Case in point: While warming up on uneven bars before Thursday’s finals Schwikert missed on a release move from the high bar and fell on her stomach. Although the mishap might haven shaken the confidence of less experienced gymnasts, Schwikert delivered the best bars performance of the night minutes later and won the title in that event.

Q: Courtney McCool is eighth going into tonight even though many in the sport predicted she would finish in the top three. Is she really top-three material?

A: Yes. Remove McCool’s uneven bars routine, and the rest of her scores would have placed her third. McCool’s hand slipped during her dismount and she landed on her back — one of those things that happens to every gymnast. Unfortunately for McCool, her hand slipped in a major competition, but better now than at the Olympics. The mishap will be a learning experience, so expect McCool to rebound tonight. She is one of the best all-around gymnasts in America and virtually a lock for the Olympic trials.

Q: Are Northern Virginia gymnasts Ashley Postell and Katie Heenan still in the running?

A: Neither is capable of receiving an all-around medal at this point, but don’t count either out for the Olympic trials. Postell will be able to rebound from Thursday’s subpar bars routine and squeeze into the top 12. She’s 15th now.

Heenan may have a harder time because she doesn’t typically do as well in an all-around situation. Her strength is uneven bars, but the U.S. team has depth in the event.

Only the top two finishers in the U.S. championships are guaranteed spots in the trials. The Olympic selection committee chooses 10 others from these championships to make up a 12-member national team. Then there are the gymnasts who have petitioned to get into the trials, such as Hollie Vise and Chellsie Memmel, who may also compete in the trials if their petitions are accepted.

At the Olympic trials (June 24-27) the top two finishers from two days of competition advance to the Olympic selection camp. The committee will select at least seven gymnasts to join them and may ask more.

All athletes who make it to the camp (July 13-18) are unranked and in equal contention for the six spots on the U.S. Olympic team.

Q: At 25, is Annia Hatch too old to compete with the younger superstars?

A: The oldest competitor in the field made a strong statement Thursday that she belongs.

The Olympics uses a 6-3-3 format. That means the team consists of six athletes but only three compete in each event and all the scores count. In the past, a 6-5-4 format was used, meaning five gymnasts competed and the top four scores counted.

The 6-3-3 format favors stocking a team with specialists because half the team sits out each event. A specialist will excel in one or two events and be decent in the others just in case she is needed to fill in.

Hatch’s specialty is vault, and she proved it by taking the title in that event Thursday. She was solid in her other three events and is ninth overall, so she certainly fills the requirements of a specialist. Her strongest event also happens to be an area where the U.S. needs help. The top three gymnasts heading into tonight — Courtney Kupets, Carly Patterson and Schwikert — all had their lowest scores in vault.

Q: In this competitive field, who made the best statement to the Olympic selection committee Thursday?

A: By grabbing the top three spots, Kupets, Patterson and Schwikert definitely made strong cases. Kupets and Patterson will have to mess up seriously in the next few months to not make the trip to Athens, and both look solid.

The big surprise is the three gymnasts rounding out the top six: Terin Humphrey, Allyse Ishino and Tabitha Yim. Humphrey doesn’t get as much buzz as some others, but she is a solid all-around athlete. She was a member of the U.S. team that won gold at the world championships in 2003. She also placed in the top three on vault, uneven bars and floor exercise at the 2004 American Cup.

Ishino started turning heads in April when she beat Patterson for the all-around title at the 2004 Pacific Alliance Championships. She didn’t perform as well Thursday, but still had a good night of competition.

Yim was a star in 2001 and 2002, finishing second in the all-around at the nationals both years. Injuries kept her from competing in 2003, and she slipped off the radar. There was a possibility she would skip this week’s competition and petition her way to the trials, but instead she competed, and it turned out to be a good decision.

In seventh place is Liz Tricase, a great start for her. Like Hatch, her best event is vault, and she finished in a three-way tie for second in that event.

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