Bringing home a medal or two from next week's world gymnastics championships would be nice.
But the U.S. men and women are eyeing something even bigger than the individual event titles up for grabs in Debrecen, Hungary. Like the shiny souvenirs to be handed out at next summer's world championships in Anaheim, Calif. And the Athens Olympics a year after that.
The only way to get those big prizes is to start with the smaller ones.
"We don't want to go in and have nobody in the finals because it would look bad for next year," said Sean Townsend, the reigning gold medalist on the parallel bars. "They might think, 'Oh, if they can't do well individually, then why would they do well as a team?'
"It's important just to make a stand for our team."
There is no team or all-around competition at this year's world championships, which begin Wednesday. Instead, gymnasts will compete for individual event titles.
Townsend, for example, will defend his title on the parallel bars while national champion Paul Hamm will compete on floor exercise, high bar and pommel horse.
While being a world champion is impressive no matter what, this year's worlds is really just the preview. The big competition comes next year.
But by doing well as individuals, the Americans can send another message that they're the teams to watch.
"It would mean so much. Being a world champion is just something that you've dreamed of," Hamm said. "At the same time, it would really help for the world championships coming up in Anaheim next summer. It would help give me some confidence. And as far as the judges go, they'd look at me differently."
American gymnastics has had rough times since the gold rush at the 1996 Olympics. At the 1997 world championships, the women were last and the men were fifth in the six-team finals. In 1999, both teams finished last.
The Sydney Olympics were even worse. Expected to contend for at least a medal or two, the United States suffered its first shutout at a non-boycotted Olympics for the first time since 1972.
But the United States is on its way back. Both squads won team medals at the world championships last fall - a first - even though neither sent all of its top gymnasts. Americans won two individual medals - including Townsend's gold on parallel bars - and three gymnasts were in contention in the all-around.
The timing for this resurgence couldn't be better. Not only is the United States hosting the world championships next summer, but the meet serves as the qualifier for the 2004 Olympics in Athens.
"It's one of the most important world championships," said Martha Karolyi, coordinator of the U.S. women's team. "It has major importance."
So the Americans are starting their preparation early, beginning next week in Hungary.
Competition begins with a qualifying round, and the top 16 gymnasts in each event move on to the semifinals. Eight gymnasts advance to the finals.
Of the nine gymnasts the United States is sending, Hamm and Townsend have the best chance to win medals, possibly golds. Townsend will be favored on the parallel bars, the event he won last year, while Hamm is among the world's best on high bar and floor exercise.
"I think that's very realistic. He and I both have the routines to do that," Townsend said. "It's just going to be a matter of doing our jobs. There are three days of competition, and you have to do good every day."
The women's team is a little more intriguing. Most of the top senior women are nursing nagging injuries while the top juniors are still too young. So the in-between, up-and-comers are going.
Ashley Postell, Terin Humphrey, Courtney Kupets and Samantha Sheehan are all talented, but none has a lot of international experience. Just 16, they're in their first year of senior competition.
That, Karolyi said, is the point of sending them.
"We will have to see how they stand up under the pressure of this type of big competition," Karolyi said. "It's much better to send these girls into the battlefield because next year, our chances are extremely big.
"Between all of these three generations, we will be better able to put together a team that will be able to compete extremely well with the Russians and the Romanians."
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