Sunday, September 17, 2000

Disappointed women's gymnasts lower sights

Karolyi says bronze possible if team can regroup

AP Sports Writer

        SYDNEY, Australia — The United States women's gymnastics team can forget about duplicating its gold-medal performance from Atlanta in 1996. After their first day's performance, they'll be lucky to medal at all.

        “The bronze is still wide open,” team coordinator Bela Karolyi said wistfully.

        The U.S. performances in the preliminary round of the Olympics on Sunday were far from awful. Both national champion Elise Ray and two-time Olympian Amy Chow had a handful of nice moments. But they were in 10th and 11th place in the overall, and they got little help from their teammates.

        “Overall, we had a lot of mistakes,” Karolyi said. “It's not a real surprise. It's things we've seen before in practice and in training. There were some strong efforts. We just have to sit down and think about what it's going to take to get better.”

        The United States took the floor in the morning, then waited an agonizing six hours before learning their spot was secure among the top six, and in the team finals.

        The world powerhouses, Russia and Romania, competed together in the afternoon and showed everyone else what medal-winning gymnastics was about. Russia took the lead, led by current European champion Svetlana Khorkina's grace and flair.

        Romania was next, followed by China and Ukraine. The United States was in fifth — guaranteed to fall no lower than sixth with only Spain competing as a team in the evening session.

        When finals begin Tuesday, the scores will be wiped clean and the U.S. women will have a chance for a new start, something they could desperately use after Sunday.

        “The girls have worked out so well, they've warmed up well,” coach Kelli Hill said. “I don't have anything to blame it on. I have no idea what happened. We're going to figure it out and make sure it doesn't happen again.”

        Opening on the beam, traditionally its worst event, the team stood in the corner with that deer-in-the-headlights look, watching teammate Tasha Schwikert fidget nervously on the mat for about 5 minutes, awaiting her cue from the judges.

        The 15-year-old, last-minute replacement for injured Morgan White scored a 9.237 and waited for the leaders to take over.

        They never did.

        Dominique Dawes, in her third Olympics, fell off the beam.

        Later on the floor, Ray and Kristen Maloney each took huge steps off the mat, costing precious tenths of points in a competition where nothing can be spared.

        Ray left the floor holding her left shoulder, but she continued.

        “She said it didn't hurt after floor and she vaulted and did bars beautifully,” Hill said.

        At the vault, it was Maloney's turn to get hurt. She landed on her knees on her first jump, then walked back down the runway crying and biting her lip. She stuck her second vault, a la Kerri Strug in 1996, although the stakes weren't nearly as high.

        “It hurt pretty bad,” Maloney said. “I was scared because I wasn't sure how it was going to feel to run down and vault again. I just told myself I could do it and to relax.”

        On the bright side, there's a good chance the United States won't face the same fate it did at last year's world championships, when it finished sixth. It was that humbling week in China that brought Karolyi out of retirement to turn this team around.

        The project has had its ups and downs. Last week's departure of White and her coach, Mary Lee Tracy, combined with an ankle injury to Jamie Dantzscher, didn't make things any easier.

        Dantzscher competed on the vault and floor and said the ankle was feeling fine. Her scores — a 9.325 on vault and 8.987 on floor — may have said otherwise.


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