In the extraordinary process devised by USA Gymnastics to select its 2004 team, the Olympic team trials, which begin tonight, will be about as decisive as a World Series Game 2.
The 33 gymnasts invited to Anaheim, Calif., for the trials -- misleadingly named unless it is intended to convey the strain on the competitors -- hope to perform well enough to secure invitations to the third and final stop in USA Gymnastics' unofficial Olympic tryout series.
That is a selection camp -- arguably the real Olympic trials -- at the famous Karolyi ranch outside of Houston in mid-July.
"I'm excited, and a little bit scared, that we have to get the right kids on the floor," USA Gymnastics President Bob Colarossi said during a conference call last week.
Two Olympic men's slots will be awarded to the top scorers from this event and the early June U.S. championships in Nashville (with the scores from the trials more heavily weighted than those from nationals). All-around world champion Paul Hamm, who won his second U.S. title this month, is an early favorite and his twin, Morgan, who finished third at nationals, isn't far behind.
But no women's positions will be determined. Instead, the top two finishers are guaranteed invitations to the Karolyi ranch before the July 18 selection deadline. They will also receive places on the U.S. Olympic team -- pending women's national team coordinator Martha Karolyi's stamp of approval after the camp.
The selection process is riddled with complex math, injury exceptions and this caveat: At the end of the day, the women's and men's team selection committees are essentially allowed to do whatever they want for the good of Team USA.
"Whoever is ready at the [July] camps, whoever is more consistent, will make the team," said Carly Patterson, who tied with Gaithersburg's Courtney Kupets for first place at nationals. "Competing at camps is more nerve-wracking [than at trials]. I like to compete in front of big crowds."
Kupets and Patterson are unofficial front-runners for two of the six U.S. Olympic women's team spots. Beyond that, however, it's impossible to handicap the field. It can be argued that each of the 16 female competitors could make a strong case for being on the team.
At this summer's team finals in Athens, three athletes will compete in each event and all three scores will count. Previously, more gymnasts competed and the lowest score was thrown out. Without a margin of error, versatility among the Olympic six will be a priority.
The U.S. women's side is stacked with specialists. Even Katie Heenan of South Riding, who received the 16th spot by virtue of an injury opening last week, has a shot thanks to her résumé and reputation: She won a world bronze medal on the uneven bars in 2001.
Hollie Vise, who did not compete at nationals because of a back injury, is the defending world champion on the uneven bars. Annia Hatch, who withdrew midway through the U.S. championships because of knee pain, won a world bronze medal in vault in 1996.
Kupets won a world gold medal on the uneven bars in 2002. Samantha Sheehan won a world bronze in the floor exercise in 2002. Tasha Schwikert was fifth at the 2001 worlds on the balance beam.
"I want to express how excited we are about the depth of our teams right now as we look back at our Visa U.S. Championships last week and forward to trials and Athens," Colarossi said. "I can't think of a time when our women's program was so deep.
"It's important to realize the athletes will be chosen by the value they add to the team score, not their value in individual competitions."
On the men's side, injuries provide the biggest questions as the men's national team selection committee strives to fill its six positions.
U.S. leader and two-time Olympian Blaine Wilson has been pushing to return from a biceps tear just four months ago. Wilson intended to compete at nationals, but was urged to withdraw at the last minute to protect his chance of petitioning into trials.
If Wilson is fully healthy -- which could take until mid-July to ascertain -- he is all but certain to make the team. And Jason Gatson, who withdrew on the eve of the U.S. championships with a back injury, is another favorite.
At the moment, no one is complaining about the process, perhaps because every athlete believes he has a shot.
"The selection process is there to make sure we send the best and strongest team to Athens," said Raj Bhavsar, who finished sixth at nationals.
"We've got two of our top U.S. guys who are kind of injured right now, but would really benefit the team," said Brett McClure, second to Paul Hamm in Nashville. "This way, the process gives them a chance to compete."