The thing about John Roethlisberger, what they always say about this stone-faced, 26-year-old gymnast, is that he never makes the big mistake. He may never dazzle with difficult tricks, but he'll always, always stay on his apparatus.
But not Monday.
Just when 30,000 people at the Georgia Dome were rocking, when the U.S. team had moved from fifth to fourth place, and while the third-place Ukrainians kept falling off the high bar, Roethlisberger wiped the chalk off his hands and hoisted himself up on the pommel horse. Just before, teammate Mihai Bagiu had fallen off the horse and scored a 9.000. But because each team can drop the lowest of its six scores on an event, and because, along with floor exercise, horse is one of Roethlisberger's strengths, it seemed as if the U.S. might just move into third, with two apparatus remaining.
And then Roethlisberger put his hand down in the wrong place. And then he fell. And then the U.S. moved back to fifth place and finished there.
When the evening had ended, the kiss-happy Russians were the winners, receiving a standing ovation.
The heavily favored Chinese team took the silver, losing its chance at the gold when three of its competitors fell off the high bar. Ukraine won the bronze, with Belarus fourth.
Roethlisberger was inconsolable an hour after the medal ceremony. U.S. coach Peter Kormann didn't like even the hint that Roethlisberger had let the team down with his fall. "John's one of the most consistent gymnasts in history," Kormann said. "He's allowed to make one mistake and not have everybody blame him."
Kormann was upbeat. "It's the most improved team in the world," he said. "We were in the hunt for a medal today. One year ago, no one would have thought we would have been in the hunt for a medal."
But clearly, Roethlisberger was blaming himself. After the competition, Roethlisberger said he met a 12-year-old girl in the hallway. "This little girl," Roethlisberger said, "God, she was so proud of her country. She told me she was just happy to be cheering for America."
As Roethlisberger told the story, he began to cry: "She was telling me how proud she was of us and we're not champions, we're not even in third place and she's telling me she's really proud of me."
With this, Roethlisberger had tears dripping from his chin. "I can't tell you how many times I've thought about winning an Olympic medal. I've dreamed a jillion dreams of winning a medal. And now it's over."