Even when you are a gymnastics world champion, there are no gimmes. No time to relax. No automatic entries into events. Not even if you live within driving distance of a major competition.
Since its dismal showing in the 2000 Olympics, USA Gymnastics has changed the way it selects its female competitors. Before every major event the women attend a training camp at the Texas ranch of Martha and Bela Karolyi -- the U.S. women's team coach -- and the top athletes are chosen to compete.
World champions Courtney Kupets of Gaithersburg and Ashley Postell of Mitchellville were considered front-runners to compete in the Visa American Cup, to be held Saturday at Patriot Center. But neither was certain she would be competing in front of family and friends until Tuesday, when the team rosters were announced.
"I was a nervous wreck," said Patti Kupets, Courtney's mother. "We have 16 family members and friends coming, not to mention the whole Hill's Gymnastics family. Until I saw her name on the Internet, we weren't sure if she had made it or not. Then she called us and we knew for sure."
The week leading up to the camp was stressful for the Kupets family as well. Courtney, the world champion in the uneven bars, had been battling a sinus infection and had fevers of up to 102 degrees. She had just completed her prescription of antibiotics when she was boarding the plane to Houston last week. She also had been working on a new vault and a challenging maneuver on the beam that she hoped would impress Martha Karolyi.
"It is a lot," said Kupets, 16, of the number of training camps. "It's every month, it seems. But I like it. It's like a mini-meet before the meet. And it's good to have a little competition under your belt. I think it gives you more confidence."
At Karolyi's ranch, where Mary Lou Retton and Dominique Moceanu were groomed for gold, the gymnasts work out nearly six hours a day. The ranch is so remote that cell phones don't even connect to the rest of the world.
Tatiana Perskaia, who coaches Postell at Capital Gymnastics in Burke, said the camps are no different to what she experienced as a gymnast in Ukraine during the 1970s. Under the former Soviet system, gymnasts would attend training camps for two to three weeks, then return home for about a week or so and return for some more pounding.
Perskaia said that Postell usually trains about 34 hours a week. Three days a week, she has two workouts -- one for 21/2 hours in the morning and another for 41/2 hours in the afternoon. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, Postell works out for about 41/2 hours and she has another five hours of practice on Saturdays.
So those Tuesdays and Thursdays are relatively easy to the camps, right?
"Easy?" Perskaia said with a laugh. "Yeah, yeah, easy."
Maybe the camps were the wake-up call the Americans needed.
"I don't know if it's a wake-up call or not, but it's a pretty good system," Perskaia said. "It teaches you that you have to be ready at any time."
"So far for our country it's proven to be very good," said Kupets's coach, Kelli Hill, who was a vocal critic of the training camp format when it was first discussed during the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. "It's hard on the kids and the coaches, but the country comes first."
The United States wants to ensure it has strong showings at events such as the American Cup because the 2003 world championships are scheduled for Anaheim, Calif., in August, with the 2004 Olympics just around the corner.
After winning its first team gold medal with the "Magnificent Seven" in 1996 in Atlanta, the U.S. women failed to win a single medal in Sydney.
Opponents of the training camp system initially believed that it was a ploy by Bela Karolyi to take control of U.S. gymnastics. But Hill likes the fact that some of the politics of team selection is removed by having training camps. No longer is someone chosen simply on name recognition.
USA Gymnastics easily could have selected two-time national champion Tasha Schwikert for the American Cup roster, but she is recovering from ankle surgery and, according to Martha Karolyi, Annia Hatch is healthier.
"She's in excellent physical shape," Martha Karolyi said of Hatch. As for Schwikert, "I fully expect she will be back in competition the second part of the competition season."
The message to the women's team: Watch out. There's a lot of depth in U.S. women's gymnastics and at any given meet, it's up for grabs.
"You can not rest on your laurels anymore," said Barry Neff, owner of Capital Gymnastics. "It's hard but I think that's what the U.S. needs to succeed at this level, and it's working."