- The Washington Times - Monday, August 18, 2008

— After landing out of bounds on floor exercise last Sunday and falling off the balance beam and tumbling onto her back during floor on Tuesday, nobody deserved a better start to Week 2 of the Olympics than Alicia Sacramone.

It didn’t happen. The captain of the U.S. women’s gymnastics team hit her two vaults, but low degrees of difficulty resulted in a fourth-place finish to conclude her first and likely only Olympics.

But at least she didn’t fall.

That, of course, would have been the worst thing for Sacramone, whose personality, looks and obvious athletic talent make her an ideal contestant on “Dancing with the Stars.”

Sacramone pointed the finger directly at herself when the United States couldn’t make up a .875-point deficit against China in the team finals. In an event in which she is a world champion medalist (floor exercise) she fell during a tumbling pass. That was preceded by a beam performance that was over before it started - she had to hop off on her entry to the beam.



The Chinese were so consistent and the judges so kind to the home team (which was evident again Sunday night) that Sacramone’s errors probably didn’t cost the Americans a gold medal but deprived the United States the chance of seeing what a little pressure could do to the young - and many suspect very young - Chinese squad.

Of course, that is of no consolation to Sacramone, a gutsy 20-year old who sealed last year’s world team title with a reliable floor routine.

“I’m sure some day I will appreciate what [the team silver medal] is,” she said. “But I still have to get to that point.”

By the time she arrived at National Indoor Stadium for the first night of event finals, Sacramone was still not at that point.

She didn’t get a great break when she had to lead off the vault competition. As she stepped to the starting line, Sacramone still looked spooked, but when she scored a 15.750 on her first attempt by rumbling down the runway, exploding off the vault and landing cleanly, she sighed with noticeable relief.

Her second vault wasn’t as difficult and she scored 15.325 for an average of 15.537.

“She did a very good job today - I think she deserved the bronze medal minimum in my mind, but I’m her coach,” Mihai Brestyan said.

Two minutes after she completed her second vault, Sacramone wouldn’t have been faulted for thinking her medal chances were breathing on their own.

On her second vault, China’s Fei Cheng landed on her knees. But her score - 15.567 - was enough to move her past Sacramone.

How one person can stick a landing and average 15.537 and the other person can have an amateurish landing and average 15.567 should be noted.

Before the Olympics, the Godfather of Gymnastics, Bela Karolyi, said the new scoring system is a joke, that fans - and us keyboard jockeys - always realized the impact of a perfect 10. Now, what’s perfect?

“They introduced a scoring system that nobody knows - 16.69? What does that mean?” Karolyi said. “We don’t know. Everybody knew the perfect 10 - the trademark. It was a beautiful thing and something we were proud of. Public appeal is very important in this sport, and we were leading because people could get into it. 9.5! Wow! 9.9! Holy cow! Will she get a perfect 10? Perfect 10! Everybody is jumping up and down.”

Now gymnastics folks jump up and down after trying - often to no avail - to understand the scoring system and then explain it.

“Considering [Cheng] landed on her knees, I thought her deduction would be a little higher than what it was, but she still had good form in the air,” Sacramone said.

Sacramone, who will return to Brown University in January, fell into third when Germany’s Oksana Chusovitina scored a 15.575 and fell out of medal contention after eventual winner Jong Un Hong scored a 15.650.

Sacramone’s undoing was low degrees of difficulty. Even though the Chinese gymnast fell, her degree of difficulty was higher than the two Sacramone vaults.

Under these circumstances, she had to be perfect or else the risk takers would jump past her in the standings.

“I’m disappointed I didn’t at least place, but all the girls had higher start values than I did,” she said.

Despite the setback, she was able to keep her emotions bottled up. There was one slip when her eyes got glassy at being asked to reflect on her future. Because she will be 24 in 2012, she isn’t likely to make the trip to London.

“I mean, this is my last gymnastics competition for a while,” said Sacramone, who had to take a second to regroup. “It’s time I get a vacation. … It was really stressful, but it was a great learning experience,” she said. “I felt like it made me a better person, going through [what] I went through.”

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