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Women's All-around Final, Gymnastics, Athens 2004

posted June 30, 2008

Carly Patterson was America's #1 female gymnast in 2004, and this unofficial title came with a burden: she was expected to not only win the Olympic all-around gold medal in Athens, but to lead the reigning World Champion American team to gold as well. Things started off promisingly enough in the preliminary round, as she did well on all four events. However, in the team final Carly had serious problems on her bars routine and wasn't completely clean on balance beam, and the team came away with silver instead of gold. The one thing she could do to redeem herself was to rebound and capture the all-around championship two nights later.

Things started off badly that night, as Carly landed outside the lines on her vault in the first rotation and hopped back in. Her score wasn't horrible, but it left her in 8th place going into rotation two, not at all where she wanted to be. She recovered with a solid bar routine in the second rotation to move up to 4th place.

Then came balance beam. She had struggled on the event at the Olympic trials back home. She had done very well in the preliminary round of the Olympic competition, but had then had those minor problems in the team final. Which Carly Patterson would be performing on the beam with the all-around title on the line?

As she mounted the beam she looked confident, and she performed confidently as the routine went on, hitting one skill after another solidly. You had to look closely to detect even a hint of a bobble anywhere. Then came the dismount, the most difficult being performed by any gymnast in the competition: she tumbled the length of the beam, leaped into the air, and did a half twist and two somersaults in midair before landing 'blindly' (i.e., not being able to see the floor before hitting it). On this particular night, she hit the ground so perfectly on this dismount that I immediately had the instinctive thought that it must have been some kind of special effect, that it simply wasn't possible for a person to spin in midair that fast and then suddenly come to a complete and perfect stop on the floor, without the slightest hint of a struggle for balance. Yet somehow Carly did it. It was the most perfect dismount landing possible. Perhaps someday someone will match it, but it's just not possible to do a landing any better.

That perfect landing to end a great routine also pretty much landed the gold medal for Carly. She had gone first, and her high score put tremendous pressure on the other competitors. None responded to it that well. Even veteran Russian gymnast Svetlana Khorkina, the leader after two rotations, apparently felt the pressure, as she seemed to try too hard and made a couple of obvious mistakes in her beam routine. By the time Carly, this time going last, went out on the floor in the 4th and final rotation, all she needed to do was avoid disaster to clinch the gold. She did far better than that, hitting another excellent routine on floor exercise, leaving no doubt as to who was the world's best gymnast on that night in Athens. As her score was posted, making her victory official, NBC announcer Al Trautwig emotionally intoned, "Move over, Mary Lou!" Carly Patterson had joined Mary Lou Retton as the only American women ever to win the Olympic all-around gold medal.

Later, Carly added a silver medal in the balance beam finals, narrowly missing the gold when she had one little hop on the landing. But no matter. That perfect landing during the all-around final, and the gold medal that came with it, had already secured Carly Patterson's place among the all-time greatest American gymnasts.

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