By NANCY ARMOUR, AP Sports Writer
CLEVELAND (AP) - Tasha Schwikert was on one of those incredible rolls, where everything goes right and the medals pile up.
The 2000 Olympian won her first national title last summer, then helped the United States to a bronze medal at the world gymnastics championships. She dominated the Pan American Championships and practically swept the Pacific Alliance meet, collecting golds in the all-around, team competition, balance beam and floor exercise.
She even managed to take home the prestigious American Cup title despite falling on her backside on floor.
"It's been fun and exciting," she said. "It's crazy because almost every single meet that I've been in, I've won, which is kind of cool."
Then came last month's U.S. Classic. Schwikert had been working on some new skills before the meet, and wasn't quite as prepared as she needed to be.
For the first time since the 2000 Olympic trials, she lost a major meet in the United States.
"It was definitely a really good lesson for me," she said. "I think it was an awakening. It pushes me even harder."
Which is bad news for everyone else at the U.S. Gymnastics Championships, which begin Wednesday. The women's competition begins Thursday night.
"I know my capabilities now," Schwikert said. "And I know if I hit and do well, I can win."
Schwikert is favored to win her second U.S. title, although the competition at nationals could be the toughest since the days of the Magnificent Seven as some much-hyped up-and-comers of the past few years have finally graduated to the senior level.
One of them, however, three-time junior champ Kristal Uzelac, broke the little toe on her right foot while attempting a front flip mount onto the balance beam and will miss the competition.
Uzelac is expected to be sidelined 4-to-6 weeks.
Young Katie Heenan got a huge confidence boost at worlds last fall, winning a bronze medal on the uneven bars. And Annia Hatch, who beat Schwikert at the U.S. Classic, is getting stronger with each meet after being out of competition for almost four years.
Hatch, who won a bronze medal on vault at the 1996 world championships when she competed for Cuba, became a U.S. citizen in December. Cuba has not yet released her to compete for the United States internationally, but she's expected to be eligible for next summer's world championships in Anaheim, Calif.
"We have depth like we've never had before," said Bob Colarossi, president of USA Gymnastics. "If you talk to Bela Karolyi right now, he'll say our women's program is the deepest, most talented he's ever seen, anywhere he's ever coached."
That's a pretty big statement, but the Americans have the talent to back it up. The dismal showing at the Sydney Olympics is a distant memory, and the United States is once again a medal contender on the international scene.
And it starts with Schwikert. Just 15, she was a late addition to the Sydney squad. Though the women faltered miserably, she's used that experience to become one of the world's top gymnasts.
She was fifth in the all-around at worlds, finishing just 0.068 away from a medal.
"The experience has helped me so much, and I think it really helps me when I compete," she said. "I feel like every time I go to a big meet, I'm not just going to be happy about being there. My goal is to make the event finals and go for a medal, go for a gold."
She's not the only one. With most of the best gymnasts still too young to compete at worlds last fall, no one expected much from the U.S. women.
But the team that took the floor in Belgium was confident and unified -- something the Sydney squad never was. They were second in qualifying and then finished third behind Romania and Russia.
"It was an amazing experience," Schwikert said. "We were ready to win and go for a medal. I think that's why we did so well at the world championships. That's what it's all about, I think, going into there and knowing you can win."
While Schwikert can expect some tougher challenges in her own country over the next two years, she's looking forward to it. The more talent the Americans have, the bigger the medal haul at worlds and the Olympics.
"I love a good competition, I think it makes it more exciting," she said. "When it gets more exciting, my adrenaline really gets going. So I'm really looking forward to it."
(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)