GAITHERSBURG - The line between elation and despair is a rust-colored scar, the length and width of a ballpoint pen, that runs from Courtney Kupets' heel to her calf.

In June, Kupets was on top as the 2003 U.S. all-around women's gymnastics champion. Now, the 17-year-old is pushing herself through the grind of rehabilitation, trying to prepare for the U.S. championships and Olympic trials in June.

"I have plenty of time from my point of view," says Kupets, who sandwiches a full day of classes at Gaithersburg High School between grueling exercise and physical therapy sessions.

Kupets' carefully charted course to the Athens Olympics was derailed on the eve of the team finals at the world championships in August. While practicing her floor routine, Kupets tore an Achilles' tendon.

"She did her first pass and turned to make her second. It snapped on takeoff," says Kelli Hill, her personal coach and U.S. women's team coach. "I knew right away."

Gymnastics insiders called the accident to one of the team's most versatile and consistent athletes "disastrous" and "devastating," with USA Gymnastics president Bob Colarossi predicting it would take Kupets a minimum of seven months to recover.

Hill agrees: "It's not career-ending, but after a head or neck injury, it's as close to career-ending as you can get."

There had been warnings. Kupets complained of tenderness two days earlier. But a magnetic resonance imaging test read by three doctors found nothing alarming, and the team physician cleared her for competition.

Through the vault, the uneven bars - on which Kupets was the reigning world champion - and the balance beam, things seemed fine. She was on her final event of the all-around program when the tendon gave out.

On the drive to the hospital, Kupets cried. Team officials insisted she return to Maryland immediately for surgery. The trip home from Anaheim, Calif., with her mother, Patti, took forever. First, she sat on the runway for four hours, her foot encased in ice, then had an overnight stay in Chicago when they missed their connection.

With Kupets and teammates Ashley Postell and Annia Hatch sick or injured during the competition, the team went to what Colarossi called "Plan E."

The reworked roster took the team gold medal, with Carly Patterson, Tasha Schwikert, Hollie Vise, Chellsie Memmel, Terin Humphrey the picture of triumph, holding aloft yellow and blue flowers tied with a golden ribbon.

Kupets learned the good news when her father reached her and her mother by phone.

"I was happy for them because they worked so hard, but I was kind of sad that I couldn't be there to see it," she says.

Hill now regrets Kupets' swift departure. "I kicked myself for not keeping her at worlds. She worked hard to get there. What difference would one day have made?" she says. "When the kids were on the podium and she wasn't, I wanted to laugh and cry. I still have trouble looking at the pictures."

Back to work

Three days after surgery, doctors removed the splint and she began exercising. She wore a protective boot and hobbled around on crutches for a month, then she was liberated from them.

"I had a limp for a long time," she says. "Pity? Right in the beginning. But if you keep being mad, it takes longer to get well."

Her mother kept her busy by letting her paint her room - wide horizontal stripes of pink, white, purple and blue. The down time also enabled Kupets to get her driver's license.