When she marched onto the competition floor at the Olympic Indoor Hall, U.S. gymnast Carly Patterson asked where all the people were. It was opening day of women's gymnastics at the Olympics, the realization of a lifelong dream for the 16-year-old from Allen, Tex. But judging by the thousands of empty seats, it seemed few people cared.
U.S. captain Mohini Bhardwaj told her teammate not to worry. Sunday's competition was only the qualifying rounds, she reminded her. The real Olympic crowds would show up Tuesday when the medals were awarded.
A similar hope could be expressed for the U.S. women's gymnastics team.
The squad qualified for Tuesday's team finals, achieving the most important goal of the day. But it did so in uncharacteristically shaky fashion, finishing second (151.848 points) to defending Olympic champion Romania (152.436).
"We did what we came here to do," said USA Gymnastics President Bob Colarossi. "But we didn't do what we are capable of."
While being edged by Eastern Europeans is hardly new for American gymnasts, the 2004 women's team is viewed as fully capable of reversing that trend -- sufficiently strong, gifted and deep to win the prestigious team gold medal. Yet in their Athens debut, all but Patterson and Gaithersburg's Courtney Kupets stumbled at critical moments. They'll have to be more polished on Tuesday to meet the weighty expectations they've carried with them to Athens.
U.S. Coach Kelli Hill remained upbeat. "I'm really happy with how the girls did," said Hill, whose gym is based in Gaithersburg. "I don't think they did a bad job whatsoever. They'll calm down and get it to where they need to be for the day after tomorrow."
Patterson finished first overall after the four mandatory events -- vault, uneven bars, balance beam and floor -- with 38.337, which makes her the gymnast to beat in Thursday's all-around finals. Kupets also advanced to the all-around finals with 37.397 -- fourth overall. "There were little things I did wrong, but I'm satisfied with how I did," said Kupets, who paced the U.S. women on the uneven bars (9.637). "After the first event I kind of calmed down a bit."
While no medals were awarded Sunday, the competition was a crucial stage in the medal process, determining which eight countries will compete for the team gold. In addition to Romania and the United States, they are China, Russia, Ukraine, France, Spain and Australia. It also determined which 24 gymnasts will compete for the all-around title, and which eight gymnasts will compete for gold in each discipline.
While Patterson and Kupets had plenty of reason to be proud, others struggled on their signature events.
Courtney McCool, 16, was penalized twice for stepping out of bounds during her floor exercise, which she normally performs with crowd-pleasing panache. McCool also wobbled on the balance beam.
"I think maybe she has some little jitters, some little nervousness, but physically she is prepared," said Martha Karolyi, the U.S. team coordinator. "She is an excellent gymnast, so hopefully she will get over that and get again back her mental strength."
Even more surprising were the missteps on vault by Bhardwaj and Annia Hatch, who had been named to the squad expressly for their vaulting expertise. Both botched their landings and were penalized. Bhardwaj's score (9.337) was the team's lowest; Hatch's 9.418 didn't reflect her ability, either. "It was really unlucky for our two vaulters," said Bart Conner, a 1984 Olympic gold medalist. "You could see they were trying almost too hard to stick."
Still, Hatch scored high enough to qualify for next Sunday's vault final. Patterson and Kupets will compete in the balance beam final. Terin Humphrey qualified for the final in uneven bars, and Bhardwaj was a surprise qualifier in the floor exercise.
But winning team gold has been the U.S. women's top priority since they were shut out of the medals at the 2000 Olympics. Under Karolyi, who took charge after the disappointment in Sydney, the United States has churned out enough elite gymnasts to field multiple medal-worthy Olympic squads and has won nine world championship medals, including the country's first team gold at the 2003 world championships. The Romanian coach also has restored a sense of unity among the top gymnasts and coaches -- no easy feat among perfectionists driven by Olympic-size dreams.
That unity was evident after the team got off to its rocky start Sunday. The gymnasts huddled in a circle with their arms draped over each other's shoulders after the first two events and held a private pep rally.
"It was halfway done, and we just wanted to make sure everyone was up and ready to go for the last two event," Kupets explained afterward. "Whatever mistakes we had, we can fix it all on Tuesday. We can fix it all."