They are so tiny, and with the glitter sparkling on their eyelids and their hair fastened by identical red ribbons, the six female gymnasts on the 2004 U.S. Olympic team look like painted china dolls. So it's only natural, although utterly foolish, that you instinctively talk to them in baby talk, sweetly and simply, as if they might not understand otherwise, or break if your tone is too harsh.
But the team members are among the most seasoned Olympic gymnastics squad ever assembled, with a 25-year-old college graduate and former cocktail waitress (team captain Mohini Bhardwaj) and a 26-year-old married woman (vault specialist Annia Hatch) among them. They're tough as shoe leather, too, having survived a winnowing process that saw several medal-worthy gymnasts dropped from the roster and left to watch the Games from home. And that's what it will take -- an uncommon measure of experience and grit -- to win the team gold at the 2004 Olympics, the first to be contested under a new format that leaves no cushion for error.
The task is daunting for the U.S. women's and men's teams alike after being shut out of the medals at the 2000 Sydney Games. They've spent the past four years trying to restore a measure of respect for U.S. gymnastics, and they've made huge strides. The U.S. women enter as the defending world champions; the men arrive with silver in hand, having narrowly lost to China at the 2003 world championships in Anaheim, Calif., one year ago.
U.S. women's coach Kelli Hill called hers the best squad the country could have assembled. "We have girls ranging from 16 to 26, and they are all dear and close friends that will help each other through the competition," said Hill, a former Maryland gymnast who has trained competitors for three consecutive Olympics (Dominique Dawes, Elise Ray and Courtney Kupets).
Gymnastics will be contested over eight days. Though the first medals won't be awarded until Monday, this weekend's qualifications will be critical to what lies ahead.
All gymnasts compete in qualifications, and the results determine which eight countries contend for the coveted team medal on Monday (for men) and Tuesday (for women), as well as which individuals may contend for the all-around medal and medals on individual apparatus.
The U.S. women are considered favorites for the team gold, though Romania and China will mount stiff competition. Gold would be a stunning achievement and a first for the United States.
On the men's side, China is regarded as the prohibitive favorite, followed by Japan and the United States.
The trick for every country will be managing the new format for the team finals, which represents a change from the Sydney Games.
During qualifications, each six-member team will choose five gymnasts to compete on each apparatus. The best four scores will count toward the total. But during the finals, each team chooses three gymnasts to compete on each apparatus, and all three scores count. That means a single gymnast's fall will kill the team's gold medal hopes, and a bobble or missed landing can be calamitous.
And that surely figured prominently in coaches' thinking in naming the squads.
"Under the format from Sydney [known as 6-5-4] you could take a chance with a guy who was phenomenal but maybe is a little inconsistent, hoping that he was going to do the job that you expected him to," said Miles Avery, coach of U.S. gymnast Blaine Wilson, who is making his third and final Olympic appearance at age 30. "If he didn't, then you had another guy to add to the team score. In this format [known as 6-3-3] you can't take such chances. You want to put up the most consistent guys in the competition -- guys that you know -- because if someone falls, if someone makes any little mistake -- all of that matters now. Tremendously so. We don't have any buffers."
And that's largely why Bhardwaj and Hatch were named to the women's team -- for their steadiness and seasoning. Hatch won seven national titles in her native Cuba before love and marriage led her to the United States. Bhardwaj, who turns 26 next month, gave up on the sport for three years but has clawed her way back since 2001, finally fulfilling her dream of making an Olympic team.
But it's likely that the team's two Courtneys -- Kupets, 18, of Gaithersburg and Courtney McCool, 16, of Lee's Summit, Mo. -- will make the biggest splash. They were the first to secure spots on the team, finishing 1-2, respectively, at the U.S. trials in June. They're also considered contenders for the individual all-around medal that will be awarded Thursday. The other two Americans who'll vie for the honor are Bhardwaj and Carly Patterson of Allen, Tex.
"Right now the all-around isn't important," said Kupets, who like Wilson, returned from a serious injury to earn her spot in the Athens Games. "The team competition is."