INDIANAPOLIS – U.S. Rhythmic gymnast Mary Sanders punched a ticket to Athens today by finishing ninth in the All-Around preliminary competition at the 2003 Rhythmic World Championships in Budapest, Hungary.

Sanders’ placement – the best-ever by a U.S. athlete in the Rhythmic World Championships – automatically qualifies a U.S. athlete to the 2004 Olympic Games. The athlete nominated to the Olympic delegation will be selected at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials, June 24-27, 2004 in Anaheim, Calif. The United States did not qualify for the 2000 Olympics.

Sanders is a heavy favorite for the U.S. Olympic Team berth after earning a ninth-place score of 72.425 and qualifying to Saturday’s All-Around final. She also scored a 25.200 to tie for fourth place in the Clubs preliminary, marking the best-ever preliminary finish by a U.S. athlete. She went on to score a 23.775 in the final to take seventh place.

On Wednesday, Sanders took seventh in the Hoop event final with a score of 23.475 after qualifying for the event final in sixth place. The U.S. had never before qualified an athlete for an event final. Sanders finished 10th in the Ball and 13th in the Ribbon preliminary competitions. The top eight athletes in each event preliminary advance to the event final.

Teammates Olga Karmansky finished 47th in the All-Around prelims with a score of 61.300, and Lisa Wang, who turned 15 on Wednesday, scored a 58.300 for 70th place out of 127 competitors.

Sanders, of Toronto, swept the all-around and four event finals of hoop, ball, clubs and ribbon at the Pan American Games and 2003 U.S. Championships, and as recently as 2002 won the Canadian National Championships. The two-time reigning U.S. National Champion, recently declared that she will compete solely for the United States as of 2003. Sanders is carrying on the gymnastics legacy of her father, Fred, the 1963 NCAA Champion in Trampoline, who passed away 10 years ago.

The 2003 Worlds Championships awards group, individual event and all-around medals. The Championships also serve as the qualifier for the 24 individuals and 10 groups (6 athletes) selected to the 2004 Olympic Games. The top eight groups, plus the host nation and one nation selected by FIG based on continental representation qualify for the Games, along with the first 10 athletes in rank order not already qualified by the group rankings. Four more athletes are selected by the FIG to bring the total number of Rhythmic athletes to 84, with a maximum of eight total per country or two per country in the all-around.