A shaky field on opening night

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Another step in the Olympic selection
process made things hazier, not clearer, for the U.S. women's
gymnastics team.

Such is life when there are more than a dozen great athletes
vying for only six spots.

While co-national champion Courtney Kupets made another case as
the country's most electrifying gymnast, no fewer than 10 other
women used the first round of Olympic trials Friday night to prove
they, too, deserve a trip to Athens.

A supercomputer. A flip of the coin. Who knows how the selection
committee will make what USA Gymnastics president Bob Colarossi
calls "the hardest decision our organization has ever made."

"We picked lots of teams over 40 or 50 years, but we've never
had to pick six kids from this depth. It's frightening," he said.

Among those whose fates will be decided:

  • The other co-national champion, Carly Patterson, who bobbled
    through her evening, falling off the beam at one point and
    finishing fourth.

  • Tabitha Yim, an 18-year-old thought to be fading, not getting
    stronger, finished fifth after an evening that didn't include a
    score lower than 9.275.

  • Twenty-five-year-old Mohini Bhardwaj put in her best
    performance of the summer, finishing sixth in an attempt to add a
    trip to the Olympics to the 11 All-America honors she won at UCLA.

  • Tasha Schwikert. Hollie Vise. Annia Hatch. Courtney McCool.
    Terin Humphrey. The list goes on and on. And that's to say nothing
    of Chellsie Memmel, the star of last year's gold-medal world
    championship team who is recovering from a broken foot and will get
    a chance to earn a spot at team coordinator Martha Karolyi's
    selection camp next month.

    The whole notion of picking the team at a selection camp, not at
    trials, came under scrutiny in the buildup to this event. But after
    the first of two meets at trials (finals are Sunday) bunched
    everyone tighter, the folks at USA Gymnastics looked like sages.

    "It's nothing new," Yim said. "I think everyone here knows
    this team has a lot of depth. I just try not to look at the
    scoreboard too much."

    Kupets' selection appears to be a no-brainer. Even though she
    was competing with a split toenail -- she banged it on both the
    balance beam and uneven bars during training -- she didn't score
    lower than a 9.375.

    On uneven bars, she seemed to float between the two bars. Her
    handstand pirouette on the top bar evoked visions of ballerinas.
    She was rewarded with a 9.675, the second-highest score on any
    event of the night.

    Her floor exercise felt more like performance art than a mere
    "routine." Done to a percussion number, she does a series of
    unusual dances that seem better suited for off-Broadway than the
    athletic arena.

    "It was the best I could do for tonight," Kupets said.

    So if she's in, who will join her?

    Because of a change in the scoring format, the United States
    will take two or three all-arounders and then fill in the squad
    with specialists -- experts in an event or two.

    Patterson, the reigning world silver medalist, will likely be
    one of those all-arounders. But she looked a little lost Friday.

    She stalled on a pirouette handstand on the uneven bars and fell
    off the balance beam after losing her footing on a dance move. She
    scored a 9.05 on the beam, and not even a hug from Vise afterward
    could console her.

    "I landed off to the side a little and when I came down, I
    totally knew I wasn't going to make that. It was a silly mistake,"
    she said after finishing fourth.

    Bhardwaj dazzled the crowd -- and Karolyi -- with her uneven bars
    routine. As she sailed from the high bar to low bar, Bhardwaj did a
    full twist and caught the bar with ease, a blind move not performed
    by anyone else in this competition.

    When a replay of the move was shown, the camera panned to a
    wide-eyed Karolyi, who said, "Wow!"

    "I've accomplished everything in the sport you can. The only
    thing I haven't done is been on an Olympic team," Bhardwaj said.
    "I hope I'm making the selection committee really think."

    They're thinking, all right.

    And the gymnasts are trying not to.

    "All it would do was mess with my head," Vise said, "and I
    don't want to deal with that."