SYDNEY, Australia - It was two inches that broke Elise Ray's heart last night.
She knew something was wrong during practice, when she took off from the vault, flew wildly in the air and landed on her back. But she couldn't figure out what to do, couldn't understand why something she had done thousands of times in a gym was now so hard.
In the biggest competition of her life, the women's gymnastics' all-around final at the Summer Olympics, Ray barreled down a runway, flying twice, landing on her rear both times, shaken by a combined score of 7.618 and devastated that her chance at a medal was gone at the start.
"I was really, really scared," said Ray, 18, of Columbia, Md. "But then I thought I was just nervous. But I never had trouble like that. Having it happen going out on the first event, falling on my butt, that shakes your confidence."
It turned out her fear was justified.
In one of the more monumental equipment blunders in Olympic history, gymnastics officials acknowledged that during the first half of the meet, the height of the vault was improperly set. Gymnasts who were in the first two rotations were given an opportunity to vault again at the close of competition.
Ray was one of six to take up the offer, taking off her sweats and limbering up while the crowd sat still and confused.
Ray couldn't win a medal - they were swept by the Romanians - but it didn't matter.
This was personal.
"I wanted to prove to everyone in the audience, the judges, the other countries, that I do these vaults in my sleep," she said. "I had to prove to everyone that I could do them."
And she did. She wasn't perfect, but she boosted her vault score to 9.487 and soared in the standings from 35th to 14th.
But for both Ray and the sport, a haunting question remains: What might have been?
No one was sure how the vault was placed five centimeters lower than the normal 125 centimeters, a difference of 1.9685 inches. One explanation could be that it was incorrectly adjusted after the men's competition the night before.
But that doesn't explain how gymnastics officials stood by and watched some of the world's best tumblers struggle to land on their feet.
It doesn't explain why the officials didn't react after Britain's Annika Reeder flew off the vault, damaged an ankle and had to be taken away in a stretcher.
And it surely doesn't explain why no one bothered to measure the apparatus before the sport's grandest spectacle.
"It's unthinkable to have this happen at the Olympics," said Robert Colarossi, president of U.S. Gymnastics. Asked if he could recall such an incident at an Olympic, world or national competition, he said never, and added, "Not even at a state meet."
The tiniest of changes can produce dire results in a sport in which competitors are taught to perform by rote, taught to place their hands on an apparatus as they launch themselves into the air.
"Gymnastics is a pretty precise sport," said Donna Strauss, coach of U.S. gymnast Kristen Maloney. "It's like your hand is supposed to hit there, and you hit there."
It was only after a spunky Australian gymnast named Allana Slater told her coaches that something was wrong with the vault that officials acted.
"I just thought it felt too low," she said. "I turned around and looked at it: 'That doesn't look like the right height.' My coach was standing next to it. I said, 'Nah, it can't be right, unless he has grown.'"
A technical committee, competition marshals and a head judge are charged with inspecting the equipment, according to Slava Corn, a spokesperson for FIG (Federation Internationale de Gymnastique), the worldwide gymnastics organization.
"It's unfortunate no one noticed it," she said. "It's supposed to be measured before every competition."
There's no telling the mental anguish some of the gymnasts felt after failing on the vault. They had to carry lower than expected scores through a tense, taut competition in which one stumble would be the difference between victory and defeat.
Russian star Svetlana Khorkina, the pre-Olympic favorite who is 5 feet 5 inches tall and perhaps most affected by a lower setting, had an awful time on the vault and faded after falling off the uneven bars.
But all-around champion Andreea Raducan, who was in the first group, had no problem handling the vault, scoring 9.706.
For Ray, the vault became a nightmare that she could not recover from, even after scoring 9.750 on her signature event, the uneven bars.
She fell of the balance beam, scoring 8.887, and lacked her usual sparkle on the floor exercise, scoring 9.537.
"It definitely carried through the rest of the competition," said Ray, who will compete in the balance beam in the apparatus finals. "I was so disappointed, and my performance level went way down."
She trained most of her life for this one moment, this one Olympics, when she was 18 and an American champion.
"I just can't believe the setting at the Olympic Games was wrong," she said. "It could have been more serious. Thank God no one was hurt seriously."