For US team, the night of decision

The makeup is a heavy patina of showgirl color; the sparkles, a giddy concession to teenage fancy. But even from a distance, one thing is more noticeable than any amount of lipstick or glitter on the faces of America's women gymnasts: promise.

They are a Wheaties box waiting to happen.

For some time, adulation seems to have come with a leotard. America's fascination with tumbling sprites began three decades ago with the despair of Olga Korbut in Munich and the perfection of Nadia Comaneci in Montreal, and it has grown in a direct line through Mary Lou Retton to Kerri Strug's one-legged landing.

But this year's team has a chance to take the sport to a place Americans have never seen. No US team has ever won Olympic gymnastics gold away from home. Tuesday night, the women are favored to do it.

Working against them will be an old foe in Romania and a new judging system that makes the Americans' extraordinary depth an asterisk.

But if ever a US team was built to overcome adversity, it would have to be this one.

Among the team members: Mohini Bhardwaj, the 25-year-old vaulter who finally made the Olympic team after more than 10 years of trying. Courtney McCool, whose last name is a résumé of her temperament. And Carly Patterson, the heir apparent to Mary Lou Retton's legacy.

Quite simply, this is the strongest US women's team ever assembled. "The United States Olympic Committee is in a situation it has never been in," says Timothy Daggett, a former Olympic gymnast and now an analyst for NBC. "It could send two squads and win gold."

To be sure, it is a bit of hyperbole not unlike that swirling around swimmer Michael Phelps. But there is a kernel of truth to it as well. The US women's team has not lost a meet since 2002, and during that streak the team won its first-ever world championship. Then, when it came time to select the Olympic squad, three of those girls didn't make the cut.

The six that were chosen are a mix of grit and grace, youth and experience concocted in the Texas gym-turned-lab of Martha Karolyi, wife of former US coach Bela Karolyi. In a sport that has been characterized for years by new-age Nadias - thinner than a tuning fork and not yet out of the Cocoa Puffs demographic - it is an eclectic bunch.

Added to the reserve of McCool is the effusiveness of Terin Humphrey. In defiance of the unspoken age barrier in international gymnastics, there are 20-somethings Bhardwaj and Annia Hatch. McCool and Humphrey grew up training together in a gym in Kansas City, Mo.; Hatch learned to vault under Cuba's communist regime before marrying an American and moving to Connecticut. Courtney Kupets overcame a career-threatening injury. Both Hatch and Bhardwaj have retired for periods of at least a year.

Yet when the words "Mary Lou" are let loose into the air over the gymnastics arena here in Athens, they inevitably settle on Patterson.

She is, on one hand, a 16-year-old who text-messages with her friends, sleeps in a lime-green room, and has a peculiar affinity for straight teeth. Yet Patterson is also the one who spins through the air like a foosball goalie controlled by a 5-year-old. The one who hurtles herself across the tumbling mat as if she were a human experiment in momentum - a problem in her physics textbook working itself out in three dimensions.

Clearly, the construction of the team is a nod to the new way that judges will decide the team finals. In past Olympics, the coach could choose any combination of five gymnasts to compete on the vault, floor exercise, balance beam, and uneven bars. The worst score on each would be tossed. This time, coaches choose any combination of three gymnasts to compete in the four events, and each score counts.

The answer has been to supplement the three all-arounders that formed the core of the world championship team - Humphrey, Kupets, and Patterson - with up-and-comer McCool and vaulters Bhardwaj and Hatch. The hope is for consistency, bolstered by the excellence of the vaulters.

During Sunday's preliminaries, though, it didn't work that way. After starting strong, the Americans barely held things together on the floor and vault, stumbling to a second-place finish behind Romania. Though the scores do not carry over to Tuesday night, the lessons must.

The talk about having the talent to send two gold-medal teams stopped, and it quickly became apparent that the US could easily end up short of its goal.

"We made some mistakes, but that is normal," said coach Yevgeni Martchenko in a press conference. "If we are a little bit careful in the finals, I think we can do much better."

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