BEIJING - It wasn't until he went through team processing and got what athletes call "The Stuff" - the equipment bag, the warm-ups, the various parade and award outfits, the village wear, all the Ralph Lauren goodies - that Raj Bhavsar understood that it really had happened, that he'd finally made an Olympic gymnastics team.
"I just felt like a kid in a candy store," said the 27-year-old Bhavsar, who was brought up from an alternate's limbo when Paul Hamm, the defending all-around champion, withdrew and who'll now be competing for a medal Monday with his American teammates. "This is the beginning. It's all coming true. It feels very good inside."
Four years ago in Athens, Bhavsar was the kid with his nose pressed up against the window of that candy store while his teammates, guys he'd won two world silver medals with, gorged themselves on the Olympic experience. When the Hamm twins and the rest of the US sextet stood on the award stand with silver medals around their necks, Bhavsar was sitting in the stands, both delighted and tormented.
"Once I got to Athens and I was watching that meet take place, it sank in how difficult it is to come so close, to be given a free ticket to the Olympic Games as an athlete and then have to watch it," said Bhavsar. "That is a very tough emotion to swallow, but I had to put my personal ambition aside for the team. It's a selfless position to be an alternate. I couldn't have been happier for those guys when they garnered that medal. In a way, we were all part of that. Every gymnast back home was a part of that. Team USA goes a lot deeper than just the six guys here."
Except that only those six guys get to compete. In track and swimming, the relay alternates compete in the prelims and get medals if their teams make the podium. In gymnastics, the alternates get a free trip and free tickets but they get no medals and no Stuff and their names don't appear in the record book as the guys who were next in line.
But the alternates still have to stay in shape, just in case. Gymnastics is a sport where a snagged finger or an awkward landing can change a lineup in a blink of an eye. At the 2003 world championships in Anaheim, half of the US women's team went down within a couple of days. Chellsie Memmel, who'd been an alternate to the alternate, ended up competing in every event and won a gold medal.
Most of the time, though, the alternates spend weeks in the gym preparing for a moment that never comes. Bhavsar had done it once and found it extraordinarily difficult to stay motivated.
"You have to dig to the center of your heart," he said.
He'd come close to making the 2004 team in the post-trials camp and he was even closer this time, missing one of the two automatic spots by .09 points after 24 events at the national championships in Houston and Olympic trials in Philadelphia. When the coaches filled out the roster and Bhavsar found himself odd man out again, he told himself that his performance, one of the best of his life, was reward enough.
"I said there was no extrinsic award that was going to take away my sense of inner accomplishment and that is true," said Bhavsar. "But I found out as the days progressed that living those words is actually a challenge. I'll be the first to tell you, it's no easy task. I had to continuously dig down deep and reach into the toolbox at times and pull out the proper tool in order to keep me going and keep me motivated."
What was different about this time was that there was a reasonable chance that one of the three alternates - Bhavsar, Alexander Artemev, and David Durante - would get the call. Hamm had broken a bone in his right hand in Houston, had missed the trials, and had been put on the team provisionally.
Though Hamm's spot was confirmed last month when he showed competitive readiness in camp, he still wasn't fully fit. His surgically repaired hand still bothered him, his left shoulder had started hurting, and word was getting around that he might have to give up his spot.
"I started to get some text messages from friends and family," Bhavsar said. "They were asking, 'Have you heard the news?' 'What's the deal with Paul?' So I got on the Web and Googled it myself and saw from the Associated Press that Paul had withdrawn. Once I found out, it was a roller coaster from there."
Who was going to get the nod? Would the selectors go by the combined order of finish at nationals and trials? If they did, it would be Bhavsar. Were they looking for someone who was strong in Hamm's events? Or to shore up weak spots? What if Bhavsar were passed over again?
"I remember saying to myself, 'My God, it can't really happen,' " he said. "For so long I felt like I was going to be kept off this Olympic floor or any Olympic floor at all costs, stuck in this alternate universe. As soon as my name was announced, it was just an immediate paradigm shift. I was very thankful and very honored for the opportunity."
The door to the candy store finally had swung open, both for him and Artemev (who replaced Morgan Hamm last week), and Bhavsar vowed to savor everything on the shelves. He had seen the Olympic rings as an alternate, but he'd felt an outsider. What he wanted was to feel the rings.
"I want the whole thing," he said. "I want the whole journey, the whole package."
Getting the star-spangled gear was one part of it. So was living in the village with all manner of archers, judokas, and weightlifters. But the most important part of the Olympics, as founder Baron de Coubertin said, was taking part. Bhavsar already has done more than he'd figured on, going up on five of the six events in Saturday's qualifying round, where the Americans finished sixth, comfortably making the team final.
While he is Paul Hamm's replacement, Bhavsar has no illusions that he's replacing him.
"I don't ever believe any athlete is replaceable," he said. "In my mind, I'm just the next guy in line for the job."
Bhavsar has been that guy before and the job never opened up. This time it did and Bhavsar isn't asking why. "There's an old adage that the universe tends to unfold as it should and I'm finding out that that couldn't be more true," he said. "It puts me at ease sometimes and I think that's a big reason as to why I'm here. Just an enormous amount of effort on my part and many people's part to make sure that it wasn't a repeat experience of Athens. And while it almost was, something shifted and it brought me here and I'm just ever so thankful."