USA Gymnastics is in the midst of a historic run in which the United States has won more medals in World Championships competition in the past three years (15) than in any three-year stretch in the sport's history.
The U.S. has captured eight gold medals, including two historic firsts – the first-ever men's world all-around title by Paul Hamm, and the first-ever women's world team title in 2003. At the same time, the U.S. rhythmic and trampoline teams earned their best placements ever at the 2003 World Champion-ships.
Considering the United States did not win a single world-class medal from 1997 through the 2000 Olympic Games, Team USA hopes that 2004 will be the highlight of the program's complete 180-degree turnaround since Sydney .
The U.S. Men's Gymnastics Team is coming off its second consecutive team silver medal, having finished a distant second to Belarus in 2001, and close second to China in 2003. Whereas the United States was a full three points behind the Chinese in 2000, the USA showed it is on the verge of gold by closing the gap to just 0.775 at the 2003 Worlds.
In the process, Paul Hamm captured the first-ever men's world all-around title for the USA , a victory that makes him a marked man in Athens . Hamm was just inches from winning the title in 2001, but a fall on his last event – the high bar – cost him the title. In 2003, Hamm nailed his high bar routine, including five consecutive release moves, to stun his competition, whose premature celebration was followed suddenly by dismay.
Hamm has since won five medals at the recent Pacific Alliance Championships against the top competitors from the Pacific Rim , restating his readiness for what lies ahead in 2004.
Jason Gatson is in fine form, having finished eighth in the all-around at the World Championships and winning the 2004 Visa American Cup in Madison Square Garden . Gatson, a child prodigy when he became the youngest ever member of a Worlds team in 1997, has undergone four reconstructive knee surgeries since 1999, putting his career in doubt. But his recent victory in New York and strong showing at the Pacific Alliance make him a top contender in 2004.
Two-time Olympian Blaine Wilson will forever be the bad-boy of gymnastics, for his many tattoos and carefree attitude. However, his struggles have been tumultuous and saddening, from the loss of his first child in 2001 to the birth of his daughter in 2002, his shoulder injury in 2002 to his Visa American Cup victory in 2003 and his first-ever world medal.
In what appeared to be the final blow, Wilson tore his left biceps tendon at the 2004 Visa American Cup, yet the prognosis is promising, and Wilson vows to return for the 2004 Olympic Games in hopes of winning his first Olympic medal in his third team berth.
Bolstering the U.S. team are Hamm's twin brother, organ Hamm, a standout on floor and pommels; Sean Townsend, the 2001 world parallel bars champ who also narrowly missed an all-around medal; Brett McClure, the break-dancing DJ-ing member of the 2001-2003 worlds teams; and Steve McCain, who at 30 is making his final push for an Olympic medal.
The U.S. Women's program is enjoying its deepest talent pool in history, with as many as 15 athletes vying for a spot on the U.S. Olympic Team. Case in point: six world medalists were unable to compete in the 2003 World Championships due to illness or injury, yet calling on the program's deep talent reserves, Team USA still won its first-ever team gold medal by nearly two points.
Leading the charge is world all-around silver medalist Carly Patterson. Patterson, considered by many to be the next Mary Lou, led the all-around at the World Championships through three rotations. However, competing with a broken elbow, the powerful Patterson was forced to water down her vault, and finished a close second to Svetlana Khorkina.
The healthy "Harley" is considered a favorite to ride to the top of the podium in Athens . Patterson is chased by the surprise of 2003, Chellsie Memmel, who finished a dismal 10 th at the U.S. Championships and had written off her dream of competing at Worlds.
She spent her August stunning the competition at the Pan Ams, winning all-around, team and uneven bars gold. When the flu bug struck the Worlds team, Memmel was called in at the last moment, where she went on to earn the highest all-around score of all athletes in the team final, finished eighth in the all-around, and won a share of the uneven bars gold.
One of those athletes struck down at Worlds, first by the flu then by an Achilles injury, was 2003 U.S. All-Around Champion Courtney Kupets. The personable teen from Gaithersburg , Md. looked to be a leader on the 2003 Worlds Team after winning a surprising uneven bars gold at the 2002 Worlds. Now the determined Kupets is on the comeback trail in hopes of returning to competitive shape in time for the Olympic Trials and team selection camp.
The latest name to surface from the pool as an Olympic contender is Courtney McCool. A relative (OK, totally …) unknown in 2003, McCool's plan to peak in 2004 is right on target. The Kansas City native demonstrated consistency at national team camps throughout the fall and got invited to the prestigious Visa American Cup in New York City .
The small town girl shined in the big city, finishing second only to Patterson. A few weeks later, McCool took on a world-class field at the Athens Olympic Test Event, winning the all-around and all but reserving her ticket for a return trip in August.
Any one of a number of athletes could complete the roster, including 2000 Olympian, two-time National Champion and consummate athlete Tasha Schwikert; 2003 World uneven bars co-champion Hollie Vise, adjusting to a three-inch growth spurt in early 2004; or Annia Hatch, a Cuban immigrant and vault specialist returning from a torn ACL, among others.
The U.S. Rhythmic program's hopes rest north of the border, on the shoulders of Toronto 's Mary Sanders. Sanders is a dual citizen who recently declared for the United States before earning an historic ninth-place finish in the all-around at the 2003 World Championships. She also finished fourth in prelims in clubs and hoop, taking sixth in each event final, marking the best finishes ever for a U.S. Rhythmic athlete.
Sanders, in competing for the U.S., is following in the footsteps of her late father, Fred, who was the 1963 NCAA runner-up and Big Ten champion in trampoline. Trampoline
Jennifer Parilla is leaping toward her second Olympic Games after placing 16 th in the trampoline event at the 2003 World Championships, qualifying the United States for one women's entry in the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens . After the maximum of two athletes per country rule was applied, Parilla earned the 12 th -place qualifying position. Parilla, of Lake Forest , Calif. , most recently finished fourth in the Trampoline World Cup event in Prague in September, and took first at the Grenzland Cup in March in Aachen , Germany .