Americans, Romanians set up showdown in final

ATHENS, Greece -- There's nothing like a reality check.

The U.S. gymnasts stumbled to the finish of their qualifying
round Sunday, botching their final two events to drop more than a
half-point behind Romania. The Romanians finished with 152.436
points while the Americans scored 151.848.

"We know we left a lot of tenths on the floor,'' said Bob
Colarossi, president of USA Gymnastics. "That's all right. We
didn't come here to win preliminaries.''

And fortunately for the Americans, they get a do-over in Tuesday
night's team final. The top eight teams advance and everyone starts
from zero. Based on the preliminaries, the gold might be a showdown
between the United States, the reigning world champions, and the
Romanians, who won gold four years ago in Sydney.

Russia is third with 149.420 points. China, another medal
favorite, competed later Sunday.

The Americans came to Athens as heavy favorites to win gold.
They haven't lost an international competition since 2002, and this
is their deepest team yet. But struggling in prelims isn't
necessarily a bad thing. They did the same thing last summer and
that team ended up OK, beating Romania by more than 1½ points for
their first team world championship.

"Some real highlights and some things to work on,'' team
coordinator Martha Karolyi said. "Most gymnasts are extra
ambitious, so if they have a few mistakes, they want to be able to
prove themselves.''

The day wasn't all bad, either. Carly Patterson lived up to her
billing as the U.S. golden girl, leading all individual scorers
with 38.337 points, a mark that was unlikely to be topped in the
final two rounds of preliminaries. Daniela Sofronie of Romania was
second with 38.062 points, and teammate Oana Ban was third at

Courtney Kupets, who shares the national title with Patterson,
stood fourth after scoring 37.937 points. Three-time world champion
and reigning gymnastics diva Svetlana Khorkina dropped to fifth at
37.836, but the Russian was in the first session, when scores are

Patterson has been the United States' most consistent gymnast
since 2002, and finished a close second to Khorkina in the
all-around at worlds. But she had some uncharacteristic struggles
earlier this summer, falling off the balance beam twice at Olympic

After insisting she'd put that behind her, Patterson proved it.

The balance beam is only four inches wide -- about the width of a
hand -- and three feet in the air, yet Patterson flipped with such
ease it appeared to be a plank on the ground. On one move, she
leaped, did the splits in the air, landed and followed with an
aerial somersault.

That's hard to describe, let alone do, but Patterson made it
look as easy as a forward roll.

"I trusted Carly all the way,'' Karolyi said. "Yes, she had a
few problems earlier in the season. But in all her gymnastics
career, she always was an excellent beam worker and that doesn't
just fly away with a few mistakes.''

On her dismount, Patterson crossed the length of the beam with a
roundoff and a back handspring, then did a half-twist off the
apparatus and two somersaults. She landed it without a wobble,
sticking to the mat as if it was fly paper.

"I felt like I had a really good meet,'' Patterson said. "I
feel really confident now.''

Patterson's score of 9.725 gave the United States a 0.99 lead
over the Romanians with the meet halfway over, and the Americans
were all smiles in their post-rotation huddle.

Then the trouble started.

Terin Humphrey and Courtney McCool both stepped out of bounds on
floor, normally one of the team's stronger events. McCool was
particularly upset since floor is one of her better events, and she
hurried to the sideline after her score of 9.25 was posted.

Coach Kelli Hill gave her a comforting hug, and team captain
Mohini Bhardwaj followed with a pep talk.

"I told her to take a deep breath, it's not a big deal, we've
got another day,'' Bhardwaj said. "She didn't make many mistakes.
She just went aggressive, and that's a better thing than holding

Besides, it wasn't the only problem. Bhardwaj and Hatch are on
the team largely because they're vault specialists, routinely
earning marks of 9.5 or above on the United States' weakest event.
But on Sunday, neither scored more than 9.387.

How bad was it? The United States dropped Bhardwaj's score, the
lowest of its five.

"I expect much better scores from our girls who are vaulting
specialists,'' Karolyi said. "I'm really confident both will be
able to do the vault the way we expect them to'' in the finals.

They'd better. Unlike preliminaries, where five gymnasts
performed each event and four scores counted, the finals have a
three-up, three-count format. That leaves absolutely no margin for
error. Make the mistakes they did Sunday, and the Americans can
probably forget about a medal, let alone a gold one.

"Going into the finals wipes the slate clean,'' Bhardwaj said.
"We start over.''