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' heelto her calf.
In June, Kupets was on top as the 2003 U.S. all-around women's gymnasticschampion. Now, the 17-year-old is pushing herself through the grind ofrehabilitation, trying to prepare for the U.S. championships and Olympictrials in June.
"I have plenty of time from my point of view," says Kupets, who sandwichesa full day of classes at Gaithersburg High School between grueling exerciseand physical therapy sessions.
Kupets' carefully charted course to the Athens Olympics was derailed on theeve of the team finals at the world championships in August. While practicingher floor routine, Kupets tore an Achilles' tendon.
"She did her first pass and turned to make her second. It snapped ontakeoff," says Kelli Hill, her personal coach and U.S. women's team coach. "Iknew right away."
Gymnastics insiders called the accident to one of the team's most versatileand consistent athletes "disastrous" and "devastating," with USA Gymnasticspresident Bob Colarossi predicting it would take Kupets a minimum of sevenmonths to recover.
Hill agrees: "It's not career-ending, but after a head or neck injury, it'sas 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 nothingalarming, and the team physician cleared her for competition.
Through the vault, the uneven bars - on which Kupets was the reigning worldchampion - and the balance beam, things seemed fine. She was on her finalevent of the all-around program when the tendon gave out.
On the drive to the hospital, Kupets cried. Team officials insisted shereturn to Maryland immediately for surgery. The trip home from Anaheim,Calif., with her mother, Patti, took forever. First, she sat on the runway forfour hours, her foot encased in ice, then had an overnight stay in Chicagowhen they missed their connection.
With Kupets and teammates Ashley Postell and Annia Hatch sick or injuredduring the competition, the team went to what Colarossi called "Plan E."
The reworked roster took the team gold medal, with Carly Patterson, TashaSchwikert, Hollie Vise, Chellsie Memmel, Terin Humphrey the picture oftriumph, holding aloft yellow and blue flowers tied with a golden ribbon.
Kupets learned the good news when her father reached her and her mother byphone.
"I was happy for them because they worked so hard, but I was kind of sadthat I couldn't be there to see it," she says.
Hill now regrets Kupets' swift departure. "I kicked myself for not keepingher at worlds. She worked hard to get there. What difference would one dayhave made?" she says. "When the kids were on the podium and she wasn't, Iwanted 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 beganexercising. She wore a protective boot and hobbled around on crutches for amonth, 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 horizontalstripes of pink, white, purple and blue. The down time also enabled Kupets toget her driver's license.
"The injury was my left foot, and I drive with my right," says Kupets,grinning.
But despite the distractions, Kupets still faced the deadly dull routine ofrehabilitation.
"It's hard at 6 in the morning when we're driving to therapy," acknowledgesher father, Mark Kupets. "I'm sitting there thinking, `Why doesn't shecomplain ... why doesn't she say, "I've had enough"?' She doesn't."
Kupets has faced adversity before. She went to the 2002 world championshipsin Hungary with a stress fracture in her big toe. After reviewing her options- the worst that could happen was a clean break that would end her chances -Kupets decided to compete.
When she fell off the beam, the questions started.
"I'm outside running and talking to God, wondering what it's all about,"says Mark Kupets. "Then a voice told me, `Because she's going to win thebars.' "
And Courtney Kupets did, capturing the U.S. team's first gold medal bydefeating five-time world champion Svetlana Khorkina, who fell twice.
In June, she won the U.S. all-around title by the slimmest of margins tojoin Dominique Dawes of Silver Spring and Elise Ray (Wilde Lake) as the thirdHill-trained gymnast to hold the top honor.
"She's tough," Hill says. "She's not a fearful kid. She has greatcoordination and awareness. While she's flipping and tumbling, she can feelwhat's wrong and make a correction."
Hill says she hopes to enter Kupets in competitions in January andFebruary, starting with bars, then adding the beam, vault and floor exercise.
"She's slowly bringing her skills back to the competition level," Hillsays. "She got a better than 50-50 shot [at the Olympics]. The Achilles' isholding strong. If everything stays the same, she'll make it."
Making her comeback even more difficult is that Kupets will have to climbpast women who ably filled in at the worlds. Six gymnasts and two alternateswill be chosen to go to Greece.
"It's going to be close," USA gymnastics spokesman Brian Eaton says. "She'sstill got until June. In some sports, that's a long time, but in gymnasticssome of the athletes already will have competed for months."
With a massive American flag looming behind her, the tiny gymnast practicesa series of precise pirouettes and powerful jumps on the balance beam over andover again, her face a mask of intense concentration.
Afterward, she carefully lowers herself from the beam to the floor andstretches her lower legs.
"The hard part is getting up early to actually do it," Kupets says of hersix-day-a-week training regimen. "I take it week to week. I'll be ready. I'mnot going to have any more setbacks."