Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Success comes in all colors

Team's finish deserves respect

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ATHENS - She was satisfied, as all of them should have been. Mohini Bhardwaj will walk away from 21 years of gymnastics with an Olympic silver medal and the peace in knowing that a lifetime spent in gyms - dancing, flipping and defying gravity - was not ill spent.

"This silver medal represents everything I've done for the past 20 years," the 25-year-old said, and that about summed it up. Or should have.

Because we are Americans, we see silver as the minor leagues. Especially when we are supposed to win gold. That was the position the U.S. women were in Tuesday, when they finished second to the Romanians.

It didn't help that Martha Karolyi, the national team coordinator and proprietor of the post-Olympic Trials boot camp, joined that chorus. "We could do better," she said. "We have some mistakes. It's nice to have a medal, but we were hoping for gold."

[Special section]

Mohini Bhardwaj
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Yeah, well, OK. What happened was the Americans got whipped. The Romanians beat them by seven-tenths of a point which, in the Land of the Pointed Toe, is the same as three touchdowns. One American pixie, Courtney Kupets, was pulled from the balance beam moments before competing because her right leg was sore.

Another American, Carly Patterson, suffered a "dead hang" on the uneven bars, which sounds life threatening. She stopped moving. All it really cost her was a few, precious fractions of points. And some smiling criticism from Martha. "I think Carly gave 100 percent her first day (during qualifications) and wasn't able to pump herself up. She made some totally uncharacteristic mistakes."

That was all it took. The Romanians weren't flawless. But they were close. As Australian coach Peggy Liddick said: "The Romanians made fewer mistakes. That's what this format is all about. Hit on demand."

It isn't enough that you smile, glitter your eyelids and offer human geometry whenever the footlights are up. You have to do it when the pressure could cook a rock. That's the truth about these (mostly) little kids: They have the nerve of a jewel thief.

As Bhardwaj said, "People better hit every single routine."

She did for perfection what she could. After Kupets pulled out of the beam, Bhardwaj was pulled in.

Kupets had enough right leg to compete in the floor exercise, but left out a jump element after a double pirouette left her off balance. That was more fractions of points. And so it goes. As the last gymnast of the night, Romania's Catalina Ponor, soared through her floor routine as if she'd borrowed a dove's wings, the U.S. girls sat against the back wall, glumly intrigued.

But as Bhardwaj said, silver is not bad. Silver is good. Better than four years ago, when the U.S. women didn't medal at all. As Kupets said: "(Gold) is what you think about when you go to the Olympics. That shouldn't be how it is. We have a medal. That's awesome. We're proud of ourselves."

Leave it to Annia Hatch, at 26 and married the oldest member of the team, to hit a perfect 10 in perspective:

"Everybody expects the United States to win," she said. "We won the (world championships) last year. But in gymnastics, you have to be exact. You have to show consistency. If it doesn't happen that day, it doesn't mean we are less, or we're not the champs."

What do you think of silver, I asked Hatch.

"Last year I thought I would never be here. This year, I have an Olympic silver medal around my neck. What do you think I think?"

I think second-best by seven-tenths of a point is a heck of a way to go. But this is gymnastics, where everyone tries to be perfect, but no one ever is. The Romanians were slightly less imperfect than the Americans. And so it goes.



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