OLYMPIC update ATLANTA '96

U.S. in second place

Women gymnasts have legitimate medal hopes


BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

ATLANTA - Jaycie Phelps heard the roar before she knew the reason. She had not found much comfort in the scoreboard Sunday afternoon, so she had not spent much time consulting it.

But now, the noise aroused the young gymnast's curiosity. The sudden din at the Georgia Dome signaled a dramatic development: a perfect 10, perhaps, or maybe even a sighting of Mary Lou Retton.

Or maybe it was the United States of America 193.669, Romania 193.138. Maybe the spectators sensed a gold medal was there to be grabbed.

For one sweet, solid hour, the U.S. women's gymnastics team found itself in an unusual position Sunday: first. They would later be overtaken by the Russians (193.796) but would complete the compulsory round of Olympic competition closer to first place than to third.

''This is the best team effort I've ever seen,'' said assistant coach Mary Lee Tracy, of the Cincinnati Gymnastics Academy. ''We all have put our egos aside and have come together as one.''

Team gymnastics is a curious concept. Only three weeks ago, the American women competed under intense pressure for individual places on the Olympic team. Today, they are allies in common cause.

The U.S. women have never won a team gymnastics gold medal in world or Olympic competition, but there has been no previous time like the present. This is the legacy of Mary Lou: Where once were a few inspired individuals is now strength in numbers.

Lilia Podkopayeva of the Ukraine leads the Olympic competition following compulsories, but four of the top 11 scores Sunday were made by Americans. Shannon Miller stands second; Dominique Moceanu fifth; Kerri Strug ninth; Dominique Dawes 11th. Phelps was 29th in the field of 103, despite a costly fall from the balance beam.

''I think we have an incredible chance at a gold medal,'' said Cincinnati's Amanda Borden, ''the best chance the U.S. women have ever had at an Olympic Games.''

For most of them, a team medal is the loftiest available goal. Only the top eight women are allowed to compete for the all-around title or in individual event finals. Following Tuesday's team optionals, most of the competitors will serve mainly as cheerleaders.

This is OK by Borden, whose profound perkiness prompted her peers to elect her team captain. The U.S. coaches entered Borden in only two of Sunday's four events - the balance beam and floor exercises - but she has accepted her limited role as if she had been asked to play Blanche DuBois on Broadway.

''When Dominique (Dawes) told me her stomach hurt and she was nervous, I said, 'You've got to stay calm and believe in yourself. God is there to guide us,' '' Borden said. ''Then I think she did one of her best bar routine ever. I was glad I was there for her.''

Similarly, Shannon Miller came to the aid of Jaycie Phelps, though her help was of the non-verbal variety. Immediately following Phelps' fall from the balance beam - ''I just sort of . . . I don't know what I did,'' she explained - Miller achieved the highest score of the day on that treacherous four-inch width of wood, a 9.737. It was probably the single most significant performance of the afternoon for the Americans and, in the dispassionate opinion of Steve Nunno (Miller's coach), ''rocked the house.''

''The beam is the event where it really gets a little shaky,'' said U.S. coach Martha Karolyi. ''When one makes a mistake, all the others can get nervous, too.''

''I just told myself, 'You've done it a zillion times,' '' Miller said. ''I know that program. I can do that program.' I thought our team did really well at not letting it (pressure) get to us.''

The 14-year-old Moceanu is the sensation of American gymnastics, but Miller, 19, remains the standout.

''When the media decides there's a new up-and-coming star, the other stars don't fall by the wayside,'' Nunno said.

The big difference in American gymnastics is depth. Nowadays, there are enough stars for a constellation.

Tim Sullivan is an Enquirer columnist.

Published July 22, 1996.