In the biggest competition of her young life, Carly Patterson made a four-inch balance beam look as wide as a sidewalk. And she danced, leapt and tumbled her way across it Thursday to become only the second American to win the women's all-around Olympic gymnastics title, 20 years after Mary Lou Retton did so at the 1984 Games in Los Angeles.
Patterson's gold medal completed a U.S. sweep of the highest individual honor for a gymnast at the Athens Games, coming one night after Paul Hamm's stunning comeback to win the men's all-around by 0.012 of a point over South Korea's Kim Dae Eun.
Patterson, 16, won by a far heftier margin (0.176 of a point). And the achievement is even more significant because she beat Russian Svetlana Khorkina, who has reigned over women's gymnastics for nearly a decade. The graceful Khorkina wobbled during her beam routine and, at 25, lacked the tumbling skills to outscore Patterson, a spark plug nine years her junior.
"I am just so excited and happy," Patterson said. "You dream about this your whole life, and then you win the gold medal. I worked all my life to be an Olympic champion, and it's finally come true, and all my hard work has paid off."
Patterson, of Allen, Tex., distanced herself from Khorkina as the competition wore on, vaulting into first place with a superior beam routine and clinching the gold with a dazzling display of tumbling.
"She is a high-class gymnast," U.S. national team coordinator Martha Karolyi said of Khorkina, a three-time world champion. "But Carly edged her out. And that is the normal way of history. The young generation always is coming and always has to be prepared, better and stronger in order to beat the old generation. That is what happened."
Defiant and dramatic to the end, Khorkina opened her news conference with a subtle but squarely landed dig at the still-dazed Patterson, whose first comment was, "I don't even know what to say right now."
"I know perfectly well what I'm going to say," Khorkina said through an interpreter. "I'm still Olympic champion."
Khorkina was referring to the Olympic gold she won on the uneven bars in 1996 and 2000. After praising her Greek hosts, Greek cuisine and Greek fans, she cast aspersions on the scoring. "If the judges were Greek, I would have no difficulty winning the gold medal," Khorkina said. "They are the ones who are going to have to live with their conscience."
Patterson got off to a mediocre start Thursday, landing outside the lines on her vault. Her score of 9.375 placed her eighth among the 24 gymnasts vying for the title after the first event. But her coach, Evgeny Marchenko, calls her "Harley" instead of Carly for a reason. She's as tough as a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, he likes to say. And he told her to keep fighting and reminded her of Hamm's comeback the night before, when a botched vault plummeted him to 12th place.
Patterson edged up to fourth after scoring a 9.575 on the uneven bars, the event that gave her trouble during Tuesday's team competition.
Teammate Courtney Kupets of Gaithersburg did even better in that event, climbing to fifth overall after scoring 9.625. But Kupets, competing with a painful strained right hamstring, faded and finished ninth.
Up next was the balance beam, Patterson's favorite event. Barely 5 feet tall and 97 pounds, she glides across it with unusual lightness and poise and finishes her routine with one of the toughest dismounts in the sport -- a round-off back-handspring into a one-and-a-half twist with two somersaults. She gave judges little to quibble with, sticking the landing to wild cheers of flag-waving U.S. supporters, and moved into first place on the strength of a 9.725 score.
The long-legged Khorkina didn't come close to matching it after teetering during one sequence and ends her Olympic career without an all-around gold -- the one major title to elude her. When the scoreboard flashed 9.462, she stuck out her tongue and pursed her mouth in disgust. Asked about the mistake afterward, Khorkina said, "I don't want to discuss such matters."
She has long considered herself on a different plane than other gymnasts, and with good cause. At 5 feet 5 inches, she stands nearly a foot taller than most of the elfin tumblers, and she knows how to use her height to her advantage in her routines.
As she explained to a journalist in May, "These little girls don't have my experience, my maturity and my pleasure to the public."
As if to underscore the point, she wore a rhinestone studded, jet-black leotard that set her apart even more from her rivals in jelly-bean-colored outfits and pastel hair bows. And Greta Garbo couldn't have delivered more drama in a floor routine, but Khorkina's lacked the athleticism of other gymnasts'. A natural beauty with vanity to match (she posed for the Russian edition of Playboy at age 18), Khorkina is far thinner than she was at the 2000 Olympics, with sunken cheeks, knobby knees and no appreciable muscle tone. Whether limited by age or lack of stamina, she performed just three tumbling passes in the routine, which reduced her start value from 10 to 9.9. That meant that even if she performed it flawlessly, the best she could earn was 9.9, giving up one-tenth of a point at the outset.
Khorkina wasn't flawless, dragging her heel on the mat during a simple dance move, and finished with a 9.562.
That made Patterson's task simpler when she took the floor as the last to perform. Needing just a 9.537 for gold, Patterson delivered far more -- a stylish routine with four tumbling passes, each more ambitious than the last. And after striking her last pose, she ran off the floor and flew into the arms of her coach, breaking into sobs as she buried her head in his shoulder.
"She just broke down with tears because there were a lot of emotions," Marchenko said. "Svetlana is a great gymnast, and she has made a statement to the world forever. But Carly said her words today. She proved she's the one who can handle the pressure."
Nan Zhang of China won the bronze medal.