Above Mihai Bagiu loomed the high bar, the final piece of equipment that stood between him and the U.S. men’s Olympic gymnastics team.
Beyond it lay the fork in the road.
One path led to Atlanta.
The other led back home to mom’s.
Bagiu’s mission on Saturday afternoon, concisely put: Hit this for a 9.6 and you can pay the rent for one more month.
“Last week, USA Gymnastics told us, ‘If you don’t make the team, your stipend will stop,’ ” Bagiu said.
No stipend, no more apartment in Albuquerque, where Bagiu has been living while training with the Gold Cup Gymnastics club.
No more stipend, hello Mom and Dad back in Orange County, guess who’s moving back in?
“I’d have had to go back to L.A. and live with my parents,” said Bagiu, 25, who was born in Romania and raised, from the age of 8 on, in Orange.
“Now, it’s going to be a little easier.”
Bagiu staved off the wolves and the landlord by staying with a high-risk high-bar routine and pulling it off well enough for a score of 9.65. That moved Bagiu a fraction of point ahead of Josh Stein--0.584 to be precise--into the seventh and final spot on the Olympic team.
Bagiu’s 9.65 was the sixth-highest score of the day, a sloppy session that was marred by 15 falls. All told, there were only three scores higher than 9.7--and Bagiu had one of them, 9.737 on the pommel horse. The others belonged to all-around winner John Roethlisberger, who scored 9.75 on the high bar and 228.87 overall, and second-place Blaine Wilson, who had a mark of 9.787 on the rings and finished with an overall total of 228.16.
The rest of the seven-man Olympic team is John Macready of Los Angeles (whose overall score was 225.14), Chainey Umphrey of UCLA (223.06), Kip Simons of Ohio State (222.82) and Jair Lynch of Stanford (222.60).
Bagiu (221.33) needed to rally from a ragged start. In his first event, the floor exercise, he was flagged for stepping out of bounds, dropping his score to 8.725. In his third event, the rings, Bagiu failed to fully extend his arms on his first maneuver and was marked down to 8.75.
Following those mishaps with unspectacular scores of 9.15 in the vault and 9.0 in the parallel bars, Bagiu knew he needed something special in his final event. His high-bar routine qualifies. “Technically,” he said, “it’s one of the more difficult ones,” complete with a double somersault over the bar--a move called a “Kovacs"--and a triple-backflip dismount.
“I knew I was right on the bubble,” Bagiu said. “I must have went through the entire routine 100 times in my mind before I did it.”
The 101st time was the charm. Bagiu’s performance had the FleetCenter crowd on its feet by the time he landed, soon to be followed by a bear hug and giddy slaps on the back from Bagiu’s coach, Ed Burch.
The payoff for Bagiu was the last spot on the Olympic team and one more stipend check for $1,250. That will keep the apartment in Albuquerque fully furnished while Bagiu is in Atlanta. After that, there are perks--possibly as much as another $45,000 if Bagiu participates in a post-Olympic gymnastics tour this fall.
So, Bagiu picked a pretty good time to hit a Kovacs.
Roethlisberger and Lynch qualified for the second Olympics, Lynch after falling twice on a nightmarish high-bar exercise. Lynch’s high bar score, 8.1, was the lowest of the entire competition and forced him to scramble back with scores of 9.637 on the floor exercise and 9.625 on the pommel horse.
Umphrey was the only one of four former Bruins at the trials to make the Olympic team. UCLA teammates Chris Waller, Scott Keswick and Stephen McCain placed 10th, 11th and 12th, respectively.
Umphrey’s fourth-place finish was a vindication of sorts. At the 1992 trials, Umphrey just missed the cut, placing eighth--by .018.
“Less than a half a 10th of a point,” Umphrey said, still shaking his head at the memory. . . . It served as good motivation for me the last four years.”