Performance leaves Borden beam-ing

The Cincinnati Enquirer

BOSTON - The scoreboards were superfluous. You could have scored this one on sound.

Amanda Borden flipped from the balance beam onto her feet, and the Fleet Center was Shriek Central. The bubble girl had not blown it. Instead, she had soared into the atmosphere and landed on Olympus.

For 90 superlative seconds, with everything she has trained for at stake, the Cincinnati gymnast had worked a four-inch strip of wood for all it was worth, and then she ran over to her coach for a watery hug.

The deed was done. The team was made. The wrongs of 1992 had been righted with a performance of exquisite poise under excruciating pressure. The judges would give Borden a 9.862 for technical merit. But if you were grading guts, she would have surely rated a 10.0.

''I knew I was going to have to be tough and hang in there,'' Borden said. ''During the competition, I didn't really pay attention to where I was or what everybody else was doing. But I knew coming in that I was on the edge and that it would take a really good performance. And that's what I did.''

No margin for error

Borden started the evening in fifth place, which proved to be the final qualifying position for the U.S. team, and she was able to hold her ground through the first two events, the uneven bars and the vault. Mary Beth Arnold and Theresa Kulikowski began the day less than half a point behind her, and Borden had outscored them both in the first two rotations.

The beam, though, is treacherous. Jaycie Phelps, Borden's teammate at Cincinnati Gymnastics Academy, performed a dazzling series of acrobatic feats only to be severely penalized for failing to land a double backflip on her feet upon dismounting the apparatus.

Phelps could afford this one big error. She finished first in Friday's compulsories, and would fall only as far as third because of her botched landing. Borden lacked that luxury. She mounted the beam in mortal danger of missing out on the Olympics altogether.

''The beam is a monster,'' said Mary Lee Tracy, her coach. ''You have to attack it. If you don't attack it, it attacks you.''

Borden has known mixed results on the beam this month. During the National Championships in Knoxville, Tenn., she had scored a 9.775 in compulsories and a 9.8 in optionals. But she wobbled in Friday's opening round, scoring a 9.487, and a similar judgment would have put her in real peril Sunday.

A lesser gymnast might have been unnerved by this predicament. Four years ago, it might have caused even Amanda Borden to crack.

''She did not get jittery tonight,'' Tracy said. ''She did not get emotional. That's the biggest difference. Amanda used to cry all the time. You can't change that, but you can teach her how to deal with that and how to control it.''

Second time's a charm

Tracy credits some of Borden's new-found grit to ''Toughness Training For Sport,'' a book by James E. Lohr. Experience, too, has been a good teacher. She was bumped off the 1992 Olympic team because two of her rivals were granted injury waivers. It was a difficult blow at the time, but it has since served as a spur.

''Going into this competition, I knew what to expect,'' Borden said. ''I didn't know what to expect in '92. I had only competed once against all the big guys.''

Now, Amanda Borden is one of the big guys. In a manner of speaking.

''I know it's the biggest moment of her life,'' Tracy said. ''It's mine, too. Making the Olympics is sweet for anyone. But when you've been through what she's been through - not just '92, but injuries and growth - it's really, really sweet for Amanda.''

Because Amanda Borden's standard facial expression is beaming, it was tough to tell on sight that making the Olympic team had even made her day. But her sound bites bespoke bliss.

''The Olympics is a once-in-a-lifetime chance,'' she said. ''A lot of us are lucky to have two shots at it.''

Tim Sullivan is an Enquirer columnist.

Published July 1, 1996.