CLEVELAND -- Humiliated by their resounding defeats, the American gymnasts couldn't leave the Sydney Olympics fast enough.
Expected to contend for at least a medal or two, they went home with their necks bare. Not counting the boycotted Moscow Olympics, it was the first medals shutout since 1972, a stunning fall from the gold rush of 1996.
"We had to step back," Bela Karolyi said. "And it was a painful experience."
Two years later, the Aussie misadventure is merely a bad memory. The United States is on its way to being an international force again, with a depth of talent in both the men's and women's programs never seen before.
Both squads won team medals at the world championships last fall - a first - even though neither sent all of its top gymnasts. Americans also won two individual medals, and three gymnasts were in contention in the all-around.
"People are starting to look a little bit over their shoulders at the United States again," said Bob Colarossi, president of USA Gymnastics. "They know we're coming, and we're not going to stop until we've passed them."
While the turnaround might seem sudden, it's been a decade in the making. That's when USA Gymnastics created an athlete development pipeline, targeting promising young gymnasts and nurturing their growth.
Most of these gymnasts are just now reaching the senior level. Paul Hamm and Tasha Schwikert, winners at this weekend's U.S. Gymnastics Championships, are products of the program. So are junior champ Carly Patterson and Sean Townsend, gold medalist on the parallel bars at worlds.
And there are dozens more behind them.
"No country has anything close to what we have," Karolyi said. "It takes years and years and years and then, suddenly, you wake up and you have them."
Just look at nationals. Schwikert won her second straight title with relative ease, but most of her best competition wasn't even on the same floor. Patterson, 14, would have finished third if she competed as a senior. Hollie Vise, also 14 and the junior silver medalist for a second year, would have been fourth.
And Chellsie Memmel, the bronze junior medalist, would have been sixth - even though a nasty hamstring injury sidelined her all last year.
Then there's Kristal Uzelac, the first U.S. woman to win three junior titles. Uzelac competed as a senior for the first time, but she wasn't at full strength after breaking the little toe on her right foot Tuesday night.
She still managed a 9.525 on uneven bars Saturday, the best bars score of the two-day meet. She also won the bronze medal on floor Thursday night.
"We're on the right track," said Martha Karolyi, coordinator of the women's team. "I think we definitely belong on the podium and I think we will be there."
The men, meanwhile, are the strongest they've been since Bart Conner and his gold medal gang in 1984. Besides Hamm, there were at least three others - his twin, Morgan; Townsend; and five-time national champ Blaine Wilson - who had a shot at the title.
More importantly, they can hold their own on the international scene.
There were years in the 1990s when even the best U.S. man had no chance against the Eastern Europeans and Chinese. The Americans simply didn't have their tough tricks. But U.S. gymnasts have increased their difficulty and are finally on par with the world's best.
Townsend is a world champ. Paul Hamm won the Pacific Alliance Championships, an international event. Morgan Hamm was seventh on floor exercise in Sydney.
"2002 is really what this program needed," said Ron Galimore, program director of the men's team. "We've come so close so many times, you get tired of telling people how close you are.
"I believe we have gained a lot of respect from the rest of the world," he added. "We have athletes that are recognized as among the best."
The United States has also altered the way its athletes train. Centralized training sites, which help give the Russians and Chinese an edge, will never work here. But instead of everyone going their own way and only coming together for a week or two before worlds and the Olympics, there's now a cohesive plan.
There are regular training camps for both the men and women, where athletes are evaluated by national officials. There are standards to be met, and the competition fosters progress.
There's also a greater emphasis on experience. The men are going to China this week for a dual meet. The junior women were sent to the Goodwill Games last year so they could get big-meet exposure.
"I think we're here to stay," Colarossi said. "Our system will continue to produce high-level athletes and a good number of them."
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