NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Even if Courtney Kupets had finished second last night at the U.S. Gymnastics Championships, it would have been a storybook comeback to a year filled with injury and rehabilitation.
Instead, with a gutsy final routine, the 17-year-old from Gaithersburg won her second consecutive national title, tying Carly Patterson of Texas with a two-day total of 76.450 points.
"What a wonderful way to win this, to tie with somebody who's your friend," said Kupets, unaware of the score she needed when she swung onto the uneven bars. "This win is a little sweeter since I came off the injury."
If the outcome disappointed Patterson, 16, she didn't show it.
"We all want each other to do our best," said the two-time American Cup winner.
There have been three co-champions, the last time in 1997.
Terin Humphrey, 17, of Missouri, finished third (75.450).
It was a year ago in Milwaukee that Kupets earned the title of best all-around U.S. women's gymnast. Then, two months later, after helping her team secure a spot in the world championship finals, she tore her left Achilles' tendon while warming up for the floor exercise.
Last night, Kupets took up where she left off from Thursday's dominating preliminary round. On the first routine of the evening, the balance beam, she scored a 9.8, besting her mark from Thursday's preliminary by four-tenths of a point.
High above the action, her father, Mark Kupets, stood and cheered, tears filling his eyes. Her mother, Patty, was so nervous that she left to walk the concourse at the Gaylord Entertainment Center.
Patterson needed a 9.785 on the uneven bars to take the lead away but could only muster a 9.55. The Texan moved to the balance beam, her best apparatus, and proved why, with a 9.7.
Kupets, in floor exercise, needed a 9.375 to keep the lead and did slightly better with a 9.425, but her lead was down to a wafer-thin .050 point.
However, there wasn't much air in the rest of the field at the halfway point in the four-routine event. Five-tenths of a point separated third and ninth place.
On their third events, the top two gymnasts traded places. Kupets went first with a flawed vault, good for only a 9.4. Then Patterson put the crowd and the lead in her pocket with a high-voltage 9.8 floor exercise.
Kupets, the 2002 world champion on the uneven bars, ended the competition there. Patterson finished on the vault.
First up was Patterson, who was penalized for a huge step on her landing and got a 9.250.
The door was open for Kupets. As she chalked her hands, she traded smiles and small talk with her coach, Kelli Hill.
"I talked to her the way I always do," Hill said. "I knew she needed a 9.6, but I'd never tell her. I told her, 'One skill at a time. You can do it.'"
It was the same way Kupets staged her 10-month comeback from Achilles' surgery.
Insiders said the U.S. team was so deep that a recovering Kupets might have trouble regaining her place.
But Mark Kupets said his daughter never had doubts.
"In her mind, there was never a moment that she thought it was impossible. She said, 'I have unfinished business,'" he said.
In January, the gymnast attended a team training camp in Texas and won the strength and conditioning award. Weeks later, Kupets took part in her first competition, the Parkette Invitational in Allentown, Pa., and scored a 9.825 to win the uneven bars and placed fourth on the beam.
By May, she was on a roll. First, she won the uneven bars and finished second on the beam at the U.S. Classic in Rochester, N.Y. Then, against 16 athletes from six other countries, she took the all-around gold medal at the International Friendship Camp in Texas.
"After all she's been through, she repeated," said her father. "A co-champion is as good as a champion."
Courtney Kupets doesn't mind, either. "It shows the rest of the world how strong we are. We don't have one champion. We have two. We're telling the world that we're coming and we're coming on strong."