Members of the U.S. Olympic women's gymnastics team hope to stand on the top medal podium at the 2004 Athens Olympics. The same podium position the team won last August at the World Championships in Anaheim, California.
Two women in their 20's, thought to be too old for competitive elite-level gymnastics, and four teenagers make up the U.S. team that will try to win gold in Athens.
As an 18-year-old, Mohini Bhardwaj, just missed making the 1996 U.S. team, finishing 10th at the team trials. Now 25, the last time she competed at an international competition was as a member of the United States 2001 World Championship bronze-medal team.
After her disappointment in 1996, Bhardwaj, the daughter of a Russian mother and Indian father, went on to compete at the University of California Los Angeles. There she was an 11-time collegiate All-American, and received eight perfect scores of 10 in a season, the school record.
After finishing at UCLA, Bhardwaj realized she had accomplished everything else in the sport and made it her goal to make the Olympic team.
"I am so happy that I made it, and so elated because if I would have not made the team I would have probably thought that I wasted the past year training and it just makes it that much sweeter," she says. "I had a goal that I went for about a year ago and I can now say that I accomplished it."
Bhardwaj placed 12th in the all-around at this year's nationals and finished sixth at team trials and then traveled to the Olympic team selection camp in Texas, where she was chosen for the team.
Annia Hatch was the first Cuban gymnast to medal in a world championship when she won bronze on the vault in 1996. Hatch had her chance to compete at the 1996 Olympics as part of Cuba's national team, but Cuban gymnastics officials failed to fill out the necessary paperwork.
After that disappointment, she quit the sport and married American gymnastics coach Alan Hatch and moved to the United States. She returned to competitive gymnastics after hearing that a former Cuban teammate was still competing after giving birth to a son. Annia Hatch came back strong to win the 2002 United States Classic, qualifying her for that year's national championship.
In 2003, Hatch qualified for the world team, but she injured her knee and could not compete. She came back to finish 11th at the 2004 team trials and attended the team selection camp where she was chosen to compete in Athens.
The 26-year-old is excited to finally be going to the Olympics and even more excited to be a part of the United States team.
"Right now I feel great not only because I made it, because I made it for the USA and we are really talented, we are really amazing and just because of that it makes it double excitement," she adds.
Carly Patterson and Terin Humphrey are the only Athens Olympics team members that were part of the United States' first world gold-medal team last year.
Patterson also won the silver medal in the world championship all-around and was the 2004 co-national champion. But at the Olympic team trials, the 16-year-old fell off the balance beam twice and dropped to third place. So Patterson later had to prove that she was good enough to be picked for the Olympic team at the team selection camp in Texas.
She is not worried about her mistakes on beam and is confident that she can still perform well in the event.
"Those were just kind of fluke things, and I just went home and trained them and fixed them, and everything is okay," she says.
Terin Humphrey was originally an alternate for the world championship team, but competed after two athletes were injured.
She continued her success at the 2004 nationals, finishing third all-around. She finished seventh at the Olympic trials after faltering on the vault.
Like Patterson, Humphrey went to the team selection camp to prove she was ready to compete at the Olympics.
Courtney Kupets and Courtney McCool secured spots on the team after finishing first and second, respectively, at the U.S. gymnastics team trials in June.
Kupets made the 2003 world championship team, but ruptured her achilles tendon during a training session, which required her to have surgery instead of competing. Almost a year later, she came back to share the 2004 national title with Carly Patterson and also finished first at team trials.
McCool burst onto the international scene with second place finishes in the all-around, vault, and floor exercise at the 2004 VISA American Cup. The 16-year-old gymnast also won the all-around title at the Athens Test Event earlier this year.
Terin Humphrey compares this year's team to the 1996 women's Olympic gymnastics team.
"This team is so talented right now," says Humphrey. "I think we are just as good as the magnificent seven [the 1996 team's nickname] and our goal is the same as theirs, to win a medal for the USA."
The Americans are expecting the same teams that finished behind them in the World Championship to challenge for the gold medal in Athens. Romania finished second to the United States, while Australia finished third, followed by China and the Russia.
Whatever challenges these teams present to the United States, the American gymnasts are hoping to leave Athens as the Olympic women's team champions.