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LONDON – The tears welled up in McKayla Maroney's eyes and soon the mascara was staining her cheeks. Her lips then began to quiver and her voice cracked.
She wore a silver medal around her neck and couldn't even pretend to smile.
The 16-year-old out of Laguna Niguel, Calif., had electrified the gymnastics world this week with her moon-shot vaults that went almost as high as her scores. Bela Karolyi was heralding her as the purveyor of the greatest vaulter of all-time. Princess Kate showed up Sunday to see it for herself.
And then in an instant it was gone.
On her second vault, with a commanding lead and gold within her grasp, Maroney attempted her tough yet signature Mustafina only to slip and wind up landing on the padding in a seated position.
[ Photos: McKayla Maroney falls during vault final ]
Two vaults later Romania's Sandra Izbasa passed her, winning the gold with a two-vault average of 15.191. Maroney, sunk by her uncharacteristically poor score of 14.300 on that second vault, ended with a 15.003 and silver. Russia's Maria Paseka won bronze.
Maroney was disconsolate after her stunning fall, which produced gasps of shock throughout the gymnastics hall. Her gold-medal teammates, Gabby Douglas, Ali Raisman, Jordyn Wieber and Kyla Ross looked on in shock.
Maroney couldn't bear to watch Izbasa, looked glum on the medal stand and eventually cried when hugging her coach and talking to reporters.
"I didn't really deserve to win a gold medal if I fall on my butt," Maroney said.
[ Related: Maroney fall short of gold in vault ]
Not that she was discounting her silver. In that, she was adamant.
"I do appreciate it," she said. "I do appreciate it so much. It's not the silver medal that I'm disappointed about; it's my performance today that I'm disappointed about."
This was the razor-thin margins of gymnastics. The difference between forever glory and a teary interview can be the single wobble of a thin leg. Yet here too was what gymnastics can create because McKayla Maroney was sad and sick over her performance, but this wasn't some pixie drama show.
She stood straight and strong in front of the reporters, firmly holding the microphone and running through the most disappointing moments of her life like the best of any big, tough NFL star.
She stands 5-foot-3. She weighs 101 pounds. They can't calculate her inner toughness. If gymnastics creates incredibly fierce and focused athletes, then this was a display of it as much as if she beamed a golden smile from the top of the podium.
"It's more just a shock," she said in explaining the emotions. "I wasn't focused on getting the gold medal. I wasn't worried about that. I just wanted to prove to everybody that I could hit two vaults."
Her voice began to catch.
"And I could do my best for USA."
She paused for the briefest of moments.
"And that's what I'm disappointed about. I have just trained so hard and on this day it didn't matter."
She probably could've dashed off into the protective bubble of USA Gymnastics at that point, headed off to find her parents and teammates for hugs and support and understanding. She's a teenager. A high-school kid.
She didn't. She just stood right there and kept answering questions, kept dealing with her disappointment.
Available in glory. Available in grief.
Over the last few months she became one of the great vaulters of all time. She mastered the Amanar vaults, which require a daring two-and-a-half twists in the backward summersault position. Her combination of speed and strength in such a light frame made her a natural.
Tuesday, in team competition, she drilled a remarkable 16.233, which her coach swears was underscored, Bela Karolyi declared the greatest leap in the history of the sport and others said should be renamed in her honor.
So she was an overnight star and the expected favorite on Sunday. The Maroney Leap was a sensation.
Her first vault delivered a score of 15.866. It was nothing compared to team competition but a whopping .466 more than the second-best score anyone put up during individual competition. She was clearly in a league of her own here, everyone else jumping for silver.
All she needed to do was come close to that, really just land on her feet, and she would be Olympic champion.
The option for an easier vault than the Mustafina was there, although it's the easier of her two jumps. She'd already hit the tough one. Going even safer option wasn't considered. She wasn't here to win the gold, she said. She was here to do her best, to perform.
"There's a lot of different vaults that I could've done," she said. "I wouldn't have done it … .That's my vault. That's the vault I was going to compete with."
She said she never fell during the Mustafina, which is officially called a Yurcheiko half-on, front layout full off. Not once.
"I hit that vault every single time … I just happened to mess up on it."
She was going out like a champion, no regrets, no excuses. She sensed trouble early when she sprung toward the apparatus and didn't quite get her hands square for a big push off.
"I didn't really know how to change it at that point," she said.
She tried to make the rotation but in the end landed just on her heels, eventually falling backward, right out of gold. If she could've remained standing, even with a big stumble, she wins.
"It happens, it's gymnastics and you can't be perfect and sometimes things don't go as you planned," she said. "I can't blame it on anything except I screwed up."
Her face was a mess of tears. Her heart was full of regret.
She kept staring out and standing tall, though. She kept handling it like a pro. She couldn't yet recognize that her performance in defeat was giving her country and her fans more to be proud of than if she'd simply stuck that landing.
Sometimes the pride comes after the fall.
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