SYDNEY, Australia - Elise Ray never imagined the Olympics would be like this, the stuff of struggles endured instead of dreams achieved, of feeling a pop in her shoulder on a first routine and making one last tiny misstep on the balance beam.
No one could have predicted that the 18-year-old from Columbia would storm down a runway at breakneck speed and fly over a vault that was set 2 inches too low and fail to land on her two feet.
And few could have foreseen the turmoil that engulfed her team, with officials squabbling and the U.S. team failing to gain an Olympic gymnastics medal for the first time since 1972.
"It's not everything I hoped it would be, the whole experience of it and how I did personally," Ray said. "But I sure learned a lot. Some things happened, but I learned a lot."
For Ray and the rest of the American gymnasts, the Olympics became a difficult journey with an unsatisfying finish yesterday.
On the final day of competition, Ray was the last American left with any chance to medal, appearing in the final eight of the balance beam final. With all the pressure in the world on her square shoulders, she attacked the beam on the mount, but wobbled on a pass and finished last.
Later, in a runway beneath the seats, she talked for a few minutes, her eyes seemingly welling with tears.
"I don't think we have to have a medal around our necks to have pride," she said.
Ray tried hard, real hard, to bring the American team together. Her shoulder was sore after she felt it pop on her first tumbling pass of the competition. Still, she persevered, giving a consistent performance in the team final to help the United States move from sixth to fourth in the world.
But in the all-around, she literally courted disaster, flying over the vault that was improperly set, and then, taking up the challenge to try the apparatus again, even though there was no chance to medal, only, to settle some scores.
The vault provided a bizarre note to a soap opera of a season for the American women. They were swept up by forces beyond their control, from the trial selection process to the choice of Bela Karolyi as national team coordinator.
Karolyi was supposed to whip the team into shape during a pre-Olympic training camp. In some ways, he was successful. The Americans performed better here than they had in a year. But they fell far, far short of the standard set by the 1996 Olympic gold-medal champions, the Magnificent Seven.
There was tension surrounding the American team nearly every step of the way during the long road to Sydney. There was controversy over the dumping of one assistant coach, Mary Lee Tracy, the Monday before the Olympics after a foot injury forced the withdrawal of Morgan White, her only athlete on the team. There was uncertainty over what Karolyi was looking for. And it culminated with gymnast Jamie Dantzscher calling the selection system ridiculous and saying Karolyi didn't know how to deal with her.
Asked whether there was bickering in the program, Ray said: "There was a little too much of that, whether in the arena or in our own gym, between coaches and gymnasts, it could take our focus away. But at the same time, our job as gymnasts is to focus on the job at hand, so it's a two-way street."
Kelli Hill, the head coach, said of the American women, "I guess we need to work harder."
She added: "In the next four years, everyone needs to get on the same page, regardless of whether they like it or not. We need to marry the programs."
Unlike Olympic women's team champion Romania, which has a national training center, the U.S. program is diverse, comprising gymnasts from scores of gyms, creating a compilation of athletes with different styles, body types and training methods.
Despite having some top junior gymnasts in the pipeline, Hill predicted "it will be a rough 2001."
The men's program faces different problems. The United States has two rising stars, 18-year-old twins Morgan and Paul Hamm. But the Americans are still expected to be led by veteran Blaine Wilson, who performed below expectations and struck a sour note nearly every time he talked with the media during the competition.
"I'm tired of explaining that a medal doesn't make you a person," he said. "I'm a two-time Olympian."
Was he disappointed by the U.S. showing?
"At this point, I really don't care," he said. "We're good. We'll see what happens in the next four years. The Olympics are surrounded by how many medals you win, not by what the competition is like. Our sport is based on how someone judges you. If they don't like the way you look, you're not going to get the score."
"They don't like Americans, I think," Wilson said of the judges. "Some do, some don't; it's all subjective."
It's difficult to judge how long many of the gymnasts will hang on.
Many, including Ray, will be part of a professional exhibition tour that is due to wind around the United States in the coming months. Ray still plans to enroll at the University of Michigan, but reaffirmed yesterday that she will not compete in collegiate competition.
Most of the gymnasts were packing up and ready to leave town for a trip to the Great Barrier Reef to get some sun and relief from the pressure of competition and a stressful season.
"It is disappointing, but at the same time no one has ever gone through what we have gone through this year," Ray said. "So, it's a whole new ballgame. I don't know what's going to happen in the future."