Women's gymnastics team has golden chance

ATHENS, Greece -- Remember the 2000 Games? There were no cereal boxes. No commercials. No celebrations. No new American prepubescent sweethearts.

All because there were no medals.

Not from women's gymnastics, anyway.

Four years after Kerri Strug's one-footed stab of a gold medal in '96 -- which brought out more tears around our nation than "Beaches" -- Team USA was shut out. And so, we had to look elsewhere for our Olympic hero, and found that hero in ... wait. Who was the hero of the '00 Games again?

The track stars who rubbed the flag around themselves as if they were drying off from a dip in the ocean?

Nope. America loves its gymnasts. And we had our crowns ready, but the princesses tripped on the way over.

Things have changed. Now, Team USA is being headlined as the deepest, most talented, most gold-medal hungry American squad ever, despite the fact that no one on the team has ever won a medal. That likely will change Tuesday, when the team finals are decided.

Featured on the U.S. team are a pair of 26-year-olds, which in gymnastics years is so old you might as well have moved from MTV to VH1, from a Beemer to an minivan, from double cheeseburgers to "My doctor says ..."

Yet here is Team USA: bold, confident, friendly, giggling, and ready to leave town with a pirate's treasure. "I don't think it matters what position we're in," says one of the 26-year-olds, Mohini Bhardwaj. "Maybe people think we're coming in as underdogs. That's fine. The fact that we're reigning world champions, that's great too. This is a different team."

Different indeed. This team beat Romania at the world championships last summer by 1.74 points -- a whipping so bad it was as if Romania were the Bills in a Super Bowl. This is a team that features world champion Courtney Kupets and Carly Patterson, the only American scheduled to compete in all four events in the team finals. Courtney McCool, who also will compete in the all-around, is only an alternate in one event Tuesday. Terin Humphrey would have been a favorite in the all-around in any other year. Bhardwaj and Annia Hatch are vault specialists.

This team is so good that three -- yes, three -- world champions were left off.

But with all the talent comes hype.

Skim the packet of articles that USA Gymnastics hands out to media members and you'll see these lines:

  • "Possibly the most dominant gymnastics team in the history of our sport."

  • "One of the strongest and deepest teams ever."

  • "Most talented U.S. lineup ever?"

    Other than that, no pressure.

    While some were pleased to see the Karolyis, gymnastics version of a Bobby Knight couple, go home empty in 2000, they learned from the disappointment. They loosened up the training schedule, letting the gymnasts work out in their hometowns and visit Camp Karolyi in Texas once a month for progress reports. They had their coach, Kelli Hill, make sure that friendship on the team was a 9.9.

    Kupets and Patterson, who finished 1-2 at the U.S. trials, are the superstars, 1 and 1-A. McCool is lurking as an all-around contender if she can recover from her shaky performance in Sunday's team prelims. Humphrey's balance is being counted on to win the team medal. The 26-year-olds are the feel-good stories: Hatch a Cuban immigrant; Bhardwaj the reborn star who's dream is being aided by a certain implanted "Baywatch" star who flew halfway around the world to be here.

    In the next few days, you'll hear and read every one of their stories, but the overarching bill is that this is the team that will knock out every other country. A hero will emerge. Or maybe six will.

    Either way, America is ready. The gymnastics team had better be, too.

    The crown is getting heavy.

    Seth Wickersham covers the Olympics for ESPN The Magazine.