Kupets, Patterson tie for national title

Posted: Sunday, June 06, 2004

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) The Americans are so deep they have not one, but two national champions.

Courtney Kupets and Carly Patterson shared the title at the U.S. Gymnastics Championships on Saturday night, giving the Americans a 1-2 punch that few other countries can match. They finished with 76.45 points, a full point ahead of the rest of the field.

The title was the first as a senior for Patterson, who is sure to draw even more comparisons to Mary Lou Retton now that she, too, has won the U.S. crown in an Olympic year. It was the second straight title for Kupets, who capped a remarkable comeback after tearing her left Achilles' tendon just 10 months ago.

It's the first time the United States has had co-national champions since 1997, when Vanessa Atler and Kristy Powell tied. Terin Humphrey was third with 75.450 points, and Tasha Schwikert, the only holdover from the 2000 Olympics, dropped from fifth to ninth after falling off the uneven bars and banging knees-first into the mat.

But she rebounded with a 9.050 on balance beam, her last event, to finish ninth and get a spot at the Olympic trials.

The United States is deeper than it's ever been, with almost two dozen women who could legitimately contend for one of the six spots on the Olympic team. Coaches and gymnasts alike have shuddered for months at the prospect of paring that talent pool down into an Olympic team, so it was only fitting the judges couldn't choose between Kupets and Patterson.

Patterson was the early choice to be this summer's Golden Girl, finishing second in the all-around at last summer's world championships and then winning the American Cup in Madison Square Garden in February. Couple that with her fierce determination and magnetic floor presence, and the similarities to Retton are uncanny.

Then there's Kupets. She was a surprise gold medalist on the uneven bars at the 2002 world championships and then won her first national title last summer. But the day before the team finals at worlds last August, she ruptured her Achilles' tendon. While her teammates won the gold medal, she flew home to have surgery.

This was her first major competition since then, and she had the lead after preliminaries. But Patterson is at her best when the lights are on. In ninth place after two events in Thursday night's preliminaries, she fought her way back to the top, not scoring anything below a 9.250 the rest of the two-day meet.

She snatched the lead in the second-to-last rotation with a sassy, saucy floor routine that earned her a 9.8, matching the highest score of the meet.

That brought it all down to the final rotation. Patterson went first on vault. Sprinting down the runway with a look of determination on her face, she cartwheeled onto the takeoff board, did a back handspring onto the horse and flung herself backward, twisting 1 1/2 times before thudding into the mat.

She took a big step on the landing, earning a 9.250.

That meant Kupets needed a 9.6 to tie, and she was on her best event, uneven bars. Flipping back and forth between the two bars with the lightness of a feather, she does tricks kids dream about trying when they're playing on the monkey bars. She tossed herself up and back over the top bar with more ease than most people can do a cartwheel.

When she landed, she looked at coach Kelli Hill and smiled. She was grinning again a few seconds later when her score was posted: 9.6 and a tie for the national title.

That left the drama to the rest of the field, and with a lifetime of training on the line, the competition was fierce. Injured gymnasts can petition for a spot in the Olympic trials, but for everyone else, this was their one shot because only the top 12 finishers move on to the Olympic trials, June 24-27 in Anaheim, Calif.

Courtney McCool; Allyse Ishino; Liz Tricase; Tabitha Yim; Tia Orlando; Nicole Harris; Carly Janiga and Mohini Bhardwaj made the cut. Ashley Postell, a world champion on balance beam two years ago, did not.

The top two finishers at trials are guaranteed spots at a selection camp at the Karolyi ranch north of Houston in early July. At least seven other gymnasts also will be invited. After a two-day competition, women's team coordinator Martha Karolyi and a selection committee will choose the six-woman team and three alternates.

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