June 28, 2004

Gymnastic Trials Produce Two Olympians

ANAHEIM, Calif. - Fifteen gymnasts showed up. Fifteen gymnasts moved on. The Olympic trials did very little to cull the deepest American field in history. They did, however, identify Courtney Kupets and Courtney McCool as almost-locks for the squad, while leaving no fewer than 10 others thinking they have a legitimate chance to go to Athens, too.

"I'm just praying I make it," said Hollie Vise, a key player on last year's world championship team who now must fight for one of the remaining four spots.

Kupets, the co-national champion, won the Olympic trials and McCool came in second Sunday, earning them spots on the team, assuming they show "readiness" at team coordinator Martha Karolyi's training camp next month.

Karolyi said "readiness" is almost a foregone conclusion. So is the addition of the other co-national champion, Carly Patterson, who fell off the beam twice during the trials and finished third.

Beyond that, it's anybody's guess. The final three Olympians and three alternates will be chosen at the end of the camp, July 18, after a two-day competition in a secluded gym in the Texas countryside.

"Of course, I really want it," said Tasha Schwikert, the lone holdover from the 2000 Olympic squad. "But all I control is my routines. I just do what I can. The decision is in their hands."

Schwikert, Tabitha Yim, Mohini Bhardwaj. Vise, Annia Hatch and Chellsie Memmel. All have impeccable credentials. None can be guaranteed a spot. But Karolyi wants to see them all again, and she's not apologizing for failing to trim numbers after the Olympic trials.

In reality, the 15 who go to her camp won't be the same 15 who finished the trials. The two-day competition eliminated three athletes, but their spots were filled by three others who petitioned to the camp due to injuries.

"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 the most intriguing prospects is Bhardwaj. At 25, she's at the age where most female gymnasts are coaching, not trying for the Olympics.

With her dream still intact, the former UCLA All-American was selling raffle tickets in Los Angeles to fund her training. None other than former "Baywatch" star Pamela Anderson saw her and donated $20,000 to keep Bhardwaj afloat - an investment that is paying off so far.

"She deserves it," said Anderson, who was in the stands for both days of the trials. "This sport usually ends at such a young age for women. But she's 25, and she's still doing great."

Kupets finished tied with Patterson at nationals earlier this month, but after two more days of competition, she made her case as the best gymnast in the country.

Kupets held the lead throughout both days and never scored below a 9.225.

She's at her best on the uneven bars, but the attention grabber comes on the floor, where she twirls, spins and scoots her way through 90 seconds of fun. 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 kept on 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," said her coach, Kelli Hill. "First is a tough place to be. It's always easier to climb. I hoped she learned something here."

McCool, meanwhile, took a pass on world championships last year, opting to remain at the junior level for more seasoning.

The decision was a wise one.

She went 8-for-8 in the trials, adding to an already impressive resume that included a fine performance at the Pan Am Games and a victory at a test event in Athens earlier this year.

"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."

Patterson was somewhat of a disappointment. Her two falls off the beam were uncharacteristic, yet she still finished third and had the best overall score on Sunday. Asked if she was happy with the meet, she paused.

"I feel pretty good," she said. "I made a couple of mistakes. I've just got to go back to the gym and work on it, try not to make any more mistakes."

Still, the pressure to avoid mistakes won't be as intense for Patterson as it will on the rest.

"I think the selection camp is different because you're going to be watched constantly for four or five days," Bhardwaj said. "In competition, they just watch you for that routine. But this will be a whole lot different."