MILWAUKEE -- Bela Karolyi was so disheartened when he got back from the Sydney Olympics all he wanted was to go hunting and get as far away from the gym as he could.
No way, his wife told him. There's a camp for the junior-level gymnasts starting, and he needed to be here. So Karolyi trudged over to the gym, and what he saw dazzled him so much he's still excited three years later.
"I just leaned against a wall and my eyes were closed and all of the sudden I heard this 'BOOM!' Kids were flying all over," Karolyi said, grinning. "My eyes got big and wide, and another five minutes, I was ready.
"It's no comparison between the ability level and what we could find four, five years ago."
Just three years after the debacle in Sydney, the United States has made a stunning recovery. When the U.S. Gymnastics Championships begin Thursday, the competition at the senior level will be fiercer than anything the country has seen since the early 1980s.
Only six gymnasts will make the team for the world championships in Anaheim, Calif., in August. But the United States has so much depth it could easily field three teams, with each being a legitimate medal contender.
"I think we knew we were deep and strong," said Bob Colarossi, president of USA Gymnastics. "I don't think we knew how deep and strong. To see what's happened in the last two years has just been spectacular."
The U.S. women won the bronze medal at the 2001 world championships, despite that most of its best gymnasts were back home, too young to compete. At last year's individual event world championships, Americans won half of the gold medals.
And at a meet with Australia and Canada earlier this year, American gymnasts took the top 11 places.
"I can't think of any other country that's this deep," said Kelli Hill, who coaches world uneven bars champ Courtney Kupets.
The resurgence dates back about 12 years, when the United States created a development pipeline to target promising young gymnasts. The first generation to come out of that program is now at the senior level.
They also got a boost from the national training program Karolyi began in 1999, when he was coordinator of the U.S. team. While the fitness tests, conditioning programs and skill requirements were designed for elite gymnasts, coaches brought them back to their own gyms and they carried over to the next generation.
Soon, instead of a handful of top athletes, the United States had dozens. The more they trained together, the more they pushed each other.
"They know they've got to be extremely consistent," longtime coach Donna Strauss said. "On any given day, most of these kids could be contenders."
The top three finishers at nationals make the world championships team, with the remaining three and two alternates chosen at a training camp in July. While Carly Patterson, who has won every event she's entered this year, will miss nationals with a stress fracture in her left arm, there will be plenty of competition for those three spots.
Tasha Schwikert is the two-time defending champion and the only returning Olympian from the 2000 squad. Though she's been slowed by an ankle injury, she still has to be considered the favorite.
She'll be challenged by Kupets and Ashley Postell, the gold medalists at the world championships last fall. Postell was the top-ranked gymnast at the national team training camp last month, while Kupets won the U.S. Classic two weeks ago.
"I'm going to be nervous," Schwikert said. "Even though there's a lot of people that are injured, and a lot of people competing watered-down routines, I still think it's important as ever."
Especially considering what's at stake. These gymnasts have trained for more than a decade with the dream of going to the Olympics and the world championships.
The talent depth might a boon to the United States, but it also means someone will be disappointed.
"You've got to think that it's for the team. Whoever's most prepared and ready for it, then they'll send them," Postell said. "You want the best person to go out there and represent the country."
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