U.S. gymnastics officials had billed yesterday's unveiling of the 2004 U.S. Olympic women's team as "the ultimate in reality TV," with the selection unfolding live, for the first time, on national television.
And with U.S. team coordinator Martha Karolyi calling the names of six Olympians as 13 hopefuls huddled on gymnasium bleachers, the process delivered plenty of drama, with unexpected plot twists and plenty of tears.
As expected, the U.S. team will be led by Courtney Kupets of Gaithersburg and Courtney McCool of Kansas City, who had essentially earned their spots by finishing first and second, respectively, at the U.S. trials on June 27.
The biggest surprise was the selection of two vault specialists, both in their twenties, who had struggled for nearly 12 years to qualify for the Olympics: Annia Hatch, 26, a seven-time national champion in her native Cuba before moving to the United States in 1997; and Mohini Bhardwaj, 25, who won two NCAA titles at UCLA and all but abandoned the sport after dislocating her elbow in 2002.
"I don't really believe that I made the team," Bhardwaj told reporters in a conference call. "I might believe it tomorrow. To finally make it -- it's just an amazing accomplishment. I don't think words can really explain."
Completing the squad are Carly Patterson of Baton Rouge, La., the 2004 U.S. national co-champion, and Terin Humphrey of Bates City, Mo. -- both excellent all-around gymnasts. Kelli Hill, Kupets's personal coach who coached the 2000 team, was selected to coach again.
Bhardwaj's presence ensures that the U.S. team will have at least one Hollywood celebrity rooting them on. Her training was underwritten by former "Baywatch" star Pamela Anderson, who has vowed to be on hand in Athens if her protege made the team. A supporter of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Anderson donated $20,000 to help pay for Bhardwaj's training after reading that the gymnast, a lifelong vegetarian, was selling raffle tickets to help pay for her trip to the Olympic trials.
Hatch, who became a U.S. citizen in 2001, was equally thrilled at qualifying for her first Olympics after so many years of training.
"I feel great -- not only because I made it, but because I made it for the USA," said Hatch, who co-owns a gym with her husband in West Haven, Conn. "It's really amazing, and just because of that it's double-excitement."
With the U.S. talent pool deeper than it has been in years, competition was fierce for the four remaining spots on the team. The selections were made after 13 gymnasts (including Kupets and McCool) were put through a six-day training camp with Karolyi in New Waverly, Tex.
The camp included two competitions, Friday evening and Sunday afternoon. And just as Karolyi had said all along, the decision came down to who performed best at the time, rather than who had done well over the past few years.
Those with the most experience, Hatch and Bhardwaj, turned in impressive showings Sunday. Meanwhile, two gifted young hopefuls missed the cut. Holly Vise, 16, of Dallas, who had dazzled on both the uneven bars and balance beam in previous competitions, struggled at the camp. Also passed over was Chellsie Memmel, 16, of West Allis, Wis. She was an alternate at the world championships in August but turned into its star, stepping in after two gymnasts were sidelined by injury and illness. Memmel hasn't fully recovered from a broken foot and once again found herself named as an alternate.
Expectations are huge for the U.S. women in Athens following their disappointing showing in 2000 at Sydney, where they were shut out of medals.
Gymnastics officials responded by revamping the way they prepared young women for the Olympics, naming Karolyi to succeed her husband, Bela, as national team coordinator. She had said repeatedly that the country was so well stocked with elite gymnasts that it could send two medal-worthy teams to Athens. The only difficulty, she conceded, would be picking among them.