When Courtney Kupets sets foot on the balance beam, she never knows what she might encounter. It's not so much her twists and flips that concern her as it is the whereabouts of her coach, Kelli Hill.
During Kupets's practices recently, Hill has done everything possible to distract Kupets, the latest in Hill's line of elite gymnasts.
"I've laid underneath the balance beam while she's doing her routine," Hill said. "Sometimes I'll stand really close to it while she's doing her routine. It's become a game with us. For me, the goal is to see if I can distract her."
There is a method to this unorthodox madness. This week, Kupets will compete for the first time in the World Gymnastics Championships in Hungary. If Kupets can't keep her focus in the friendly confines of her Gaithersburg gym, how will she be able to handle the fans and the pressure in Europe?
The whole U.S. team might need a crash course in that. All four members of the American team competing in Hungary are newcomers to the world scene. Joining Kupets in Hungary are Ashley Postell, who trains in Burke, Terin Humphrey of Bates City, Mo., and Samantha Sheehan of Cincinnati. All four are 16 and have limited international resumes.
The top two finishers from the U.S. Gymnastics Championships, Tasha Schwikert and Tabitha Yim, are battling injuries and did not qualify for the world team. A sore hamstring hampers Katie Heenan of Burke, who captured a bronze medal in the uneven bars in the 2001 world championships.
In a sport in which international reputation plays almost as much a role as tumbling and twisting, the Americans are at a distinct disadvantage. Schwikert, for example, far exceeded expectations as a last-minute replacement in the 2000 Olympics, and finished fifth overall at the world championships last year. The general sentiment within USA Gymnastics, however, is to send the best-conditioned athletes at this moment, not necessarily the big names.
The four upstarts proved themselves worthy of the trip when they prepared in training camps. There, they were under the watchful eyes of Martha Karolyi, the women's national team coordinator, and her omnipresent husband, Bela. The training camps were held at the Karolyis' ranch outside of Houston.
"This group showed good preparation and readiness," Bela Karolyi said. "We're missing the so-called big shots, but let me tell you, these young ones earned it."
Postell is the highest-ranked of the foursome, having placed third at the national championships in August. Humphrey was seventh, Kupets placed eighth and Sheehan finished 11th.
Their placement at the national championships was only part of the world team selection process. In addition, they had to show their mettle at the training camps.
And even though all four gymnasts were named to the world team, they still cannot breathe easily. Just before heading to Hungary, they convened at the Karolyis' ranch once more to determine which athletes will compete in which events -- or if they will compete at all. Kupets and Postell each are expected to compete in two or three events.
"You are never guaranteed," Hill said of the selection process. "It will be crucial every step of the way."
The Americans, who placed third at the world championships last year, will face tough competition from the traditional powerhouses: Russia and Romania. There is added pressure on the young American squad since the women had a disastrous showing in the 2000 Olympics. In Sydney, the U.S. women were kept off the medal stand for the first time in 28 years. Next year, the United States is looking for a strong showing since the world championships will be held in Anaheim, Calif. Then come the 2004 Olympics in Athens.
Two years might seem like an eternity to some, but in the world of gymnastics, it is as quick as a flip over the vault. Now is a crucial time for the Americans to set the stage for Olympic medals.
No small task for this group of freshmen.
"There's always pressure, no matter what," Postell said. "But right now for the people coming up, maybe there's even more."
Postell, 16, is trying not to let the magnitude of the world championships get to her. Ever since she saw gymnastics on TV during the 1992 Summer Games, she has set her sights on making the Olympic team. She was too young to know that Shannon Miller and Kim Zmeskal were the stars then. All she knew was that she couldn't stop dancing in front of the television.
These days, she trains with Tatiana Perskaia at Capital Gymnastics and is one of the U.S. hopefuls. Postell has won beam titles at two international events and plans to attempt a new series -- a full back handspring, handspring layout -- at the world meet.
"She works hard," said Perskaia, a native of Kiev. "I coached Oksana Omelianchik to the world championship in 1985 and she's at that level. I've heard a lot of good comments from Russian coaches about Ashley. They said she has nice form and good difficulty.
"My experience will probably help her, but you never know. You cannot predict anything. It's hard to say how young kids will handle the pressure."
What helps Postell is that she is close friends with Schwikert, and the two often e-mail or talk on the phone. Perhaps Postell will follow Schwikert's example at the world championships. No one knew much about Schwikert leading up to the 2000 Olympics. She had finished ninth in the U.S. championships and was a second alternate for the Games. But she wound up outshining some of the veterans.
"I've talked to Tasha about the Olympics," Postell said. "She's told me some things about it, but mostly what she talks about is teamwork."
Kupets, meantime, has had similar role models. She trains at the same gym where three-time Olympian Dominique Dawes and former national champion Elise Ray worked out, and her coach, Hill, headed the 2000 U.S. Olympic team.
"She is as talented, if not more so, in different areas than any other athlete I've worked with," Hill said. "She's kind of a blend of Dom and Elyse. Dom and Elyse were two different kinds of athletes. Courtney has the power that Dom had. She's not as quick, but she has the power. And Courtney has the competitiveness that Elyse had."
Kupets nearly upset Schwikert in the American Cup in Orlando in March but injuries prevented her from challenging the Olympian at nationals. In the months leading up to the national championships, Kupets suffered a stress fracture in her toe and underwent arthroscopic knee surgery. The injuries have hampered Kupets's tumbling and vaulting, but Hill said she is healed and ready for the world championships.
Hill is more concerned about making sure Kupets's mind is ready.
"Hopefully," Hill said, "these kids will get a good experience. And if they hold their heads together and do what they can do, they'll be a surprise."