You might think that winning a world title has its privileges. For area gymnasts Courtney Kupets and Ashley Postell, it does. The 16-year-olds have the privilege of training some more.
When they returned from the world championships in Hungary late last month, they were greeted at Baltimore-Washington International Airport with a mini-hero's welcome. Although they arrived relatively late in the evening, friends from their respective gyms brought handmade congratulatory signs, flowers and teddy bears. One of Postell's coaches, Tatiana Perskaia, was treated to a ride home in a limousine courtesy of the gym's owner.
After that, they each enjoyed Thanksgiving with their families, but then it was back to work. They are world champions -- Kupets won on the uneven bars, Postell on the balance beam -- but they haven't become overnight stars. Unlike their counterparts in figure skating, neither Kupets nor Postell has appeared on any national morning or late-night talk shows. They are bound by NCAA rules and therefore cannot accept any money, so they haven't received any endorsement offers, either. They haven't even gotten much fanfare close to home: Kupets, a sophomore at Magruder High School, was still in Hungary when her accomplishment was broadcast during the school's morning announcements.
With the Summer Olympics in Athens less than two years away, one might think that athletes from one of its most popular events would garner more publicity, but Kupets and Postell, who were both surprise winners, have not exactly become household names.
"I've noticed that," said Postell with a laugh. "You did, too?"
Perhaps the U.S. gymnastics community has learned some lessons from too much time in the media spotlight. Kim Zmeskal won the 1991 world championship title and was considered the favorite for the 1992 Olympic gold medal. Media pressure mounted as the Barcelona Games drew closer, and Zmeskal stumbled out of medal contention. Before the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, Dominique Moceanu was dubbed "the next Nadia," but she, too, faltered. Vanessa Atler was the star-to-be in 2000.
The coaches for Kupets and Postell will talk to the media about their gymnasts, but neither of them made the initial contact with The Post for this story.
"I don't seek out attention," said Kelli Hill, the 1996 Olympic team coach who works with Kupets in Gaithersburg. "I think we need the media, but it makes things tough, too. It will be easier going into 2003 and 2004 keeping a low-key handle on things."
"It's nice for them to come home and be normal again," said Jen Bundy, who coaches Kupets along with Hill. "And for us as coaches it's great. They don't get too much attention, so they don't get big heads."
Even though Kupets and Postell are still stars in the making in the United States, they made names for themselves abroad. Neither was considered a gold medal favorite before the meet in Hungary. In fact, they weren't even the top two gymnasts at the U.S. championships. Postell finished third and Kupets, who had suffered a stress fracture in her toe and underwent arthroscopic knee surgery before the meet, placed eighth. The top two Americans, Tasha Schwikert and Tabitha Yim, were injured and did not qualify for the world championships.
The U.S. women placed fourth at the Sydney Olympics, the first time they had finished out of the medals in 28 years. With a team of newcomers, the United States was not expected to seriously challenge the Russians and Romanians, let alone beat them.
Postell had won beam titles at meets in Scotland and Ukraine, but had not faced a full slate of top competitors. Marina Gerasimova, who coaches Postell with Perskaia and Victor Vetrov at Capital Gymnastics in Burke, works most with Postell on the beam. Gerasimova believed that Postell's chances of winning the world title were distant enough that she made a bet.
"A long time ago, the girls said we needed a new beam," Gerasimova said. "So I said, when you win a world championship, I'll buy a new beam. I guess now I have to buy a new beam."
Kupets, who had never flown overseas for a meet before the world championships, was the first American to win in Hungary. The following day, Postell claimed her title. Samantha Sheehan, who trains in Cincinnati, captured a bronze medal.
"We were all shocked," Kupets said. "We were all underdogs. We were all there just trying to make the finals."
The top eight gymnasts at the meet qualified for the finals. Kupets was the fifth gymnast to perform a routine on the uneven bars and she received a score of 9.55. Next to compete was Svetlana Khorkina, a former world champion and the 1996 Olympic bars titlist. Surprisingly, she fell twice.
"After that, I knew I had a medal," Kupets said. "Then right before the last girl was about to go, a girl from the Netherlands told me, 'I think you're going to get the gold medal.' I was just so excited. I just couldn't believe it."
The next day, she was nervous again, but this time for her longtime friend, Postell. In the warmup session that day, Postell had the jitters. But later on, she calmed down. The last to compete on the beam, Postell had to beat a 9.35 for the gold medal. She earned a 9.537.
"I was thinking that I had a pretty good chance," Postell said. "I was so anxious to see the score. When I did, I started crying."
A few weeks before the meet at a USA Gymnastics training camp, Postell's coaches increased the difficulty of her beam routine. Had they not, there's a good chance Postell would not have won the gold.
The gymnasts celebrated in the hotel before returning home. And then they had a few days off before training again. They have another training camp outside of Houston next month and their performances there will determine some of their future meet assignments. So even though they are world champions, they are not guaranteed anything.
"They don't make it easy for the gymnasts but it's in their best interests to do to it this way," Hill said. "It gets some of the politics out of there."
So the worlds of Kupets and Postell continue on as normal: Sleep, eat, train and do homework. When asked if she still has to do household chores, Kupets smiled.
"I can't get out of that stuff," she said. "But I'll always have my name as the world champion and no one can take that away from me."