-- There was a reason Courtney Kupets rushed home to Gaithersburg after tearing her Achilles' tendon at last year's world championships in Anaheim, Calif.

Kupets didn't stay to watch her teammates compete, though it would have been a nice gesture, because she had more important things to do -- namely, start her rehabilitation. She didn't want to waste a day.

Given the serious nature of the injury, Kupets could have shown up to the U.S. Gymnastics Championships on Thursday night walking with a limp and she would have been lauded for the progress she had made. But Kupets wore no wrap around her ankle. She displayed no wobbles, no signs of fatigue, no competitive rustiness from the injury nine months ago.

No, she just looked very much like a woman intending to compete for the Olympic all-around gold medal. She could have done that on Thursday, if necessary. Kupets merely dominated the preliminary round of an intense first night of all-around competition here, then fended off challenges from Carly Patterson, last year's all-around silver medalist at the world championships, and Tasha Schwikert, the 2002 America Cup champion who is trying to reestablish herself after a quiet season.

"She was so good today," Patterson said about Kupets. "She's a great competitor. For her to come back fully, and even better, is just amazing."

Kupets, a senior at Magruder High, finished first on the balance beam as she accrued a leading total of 38.225 points in the four-event rotation. Patterson finished second with 38.150 points and Schwikert finished with 37.700. Rising star Courtney McCool, just 16, had a chance to overtake Kupets on the uneven bars, her last event. But McCool landed on her back on the dismount, earning a crushing score of 8.725 and dropping her from second place to eighth.

That left Kupets alone at the top.

"I had a long struggle with the Achilles'," Kupets said. "I feel great. The foot feels fine. It never gives me any pain."

Burke's Ashley Postell didn't have nearly as successful a return to competition as Kupets did. Postell, who dropped out of last year's world championships because of the flu, started with a major error on the uneven bars and did not recover. She finished in 15th place, putting her in a difficult position entering the last night of competition Saturday.

Only the top 12 women from this event will be invited to the June 23-27 Olympic Team Trials in Anaheim. From there, it will be on to the final Olympic Team Selection Camp at the Karolyi ranch in Houston in July, where six women will be chosen for the 2004 Olympics.

Rounding off the top six tonight were Terin Humphrey, Allyse Ishino and Tabitha Yim. The night's competition was tight; only 1.225 points separated the top 12. All the while, Martha Karolyi, the national team director and ultimate talent arbiter, looked on.

"She was eyeing every single routine," said Schwikert. "I was the most nervous I've ever been."

Among those who shined: Annia Hatch, the oldest woman here at 25, finished ninth, putting herself in position to make an Olympic team for her adopted country. Hatch, a seven-time Cuban national champion, moved to the United States after retiring from the sport in 1997. She returned to training in 1998 in gained her citizenship in 2001.

Like Kupets, she is coming back from a major injury: She tore a knee ligament at last year's world championships. On Thursday, she had the top score on the vault -- the very apparatus on which she suffered her injury. "It's a lot more competitive than in Cuba," she said. "It would be a dream come true to compete in the Olympics, but it's going to be tough."

No comeback, however, could be deemed more impressive than Kupets's.

Kupets didn't as much as walk for three months after having surgery to repair the tendon (she was, however, able to obtain her driver's license). She felt pain every time she trained until April, when she started to feel she was regaining her old form. Despite being on crutches, unable to do anything resembling her customary training, she said she never lost hope.

"I've learned you have to be positive," she said. "If you doubt it, it's going to set you back more."

"She was so good today," fellow gymnast Carly Patterson said of Courtney Kupets, above.Carly Patterson is in second place in the U.S. Gymnastics Championships. She trails Marguder's Courtney Kupets.