The pop! resounded through Rotterdam's Ahoy Sports Palace, and just that quickly the career of America's top male gymnast almost certainly was over. Tim Daggett lay curled on the landing pad beyond the vaulting horse at the World Gymnastics Championships last Thursday night, grasping his left leg. His teammates looked on in horror as he writhed in pain. "Timmy was our leader," said a shaken Scott Johnson afterward. "He was someone we always looked up to."
Daggett, 25, had been attempting a piked Cuervo vault, in which a gymnast handsprings into the air with a half twist, then backflips. On landing, Daggett broke both the tibia and the fibula and severed a major artery. "He was crooked in the air," said Johnson. "You want to land square so that your knees can absorb the shock, but Timmy hit the floor stiff-legged, going at a sideways angle. That's why the leg snapped."
The loss of Daggett, one of two members left from the team that won the gold medal at the 1984 Olympics, was just one disaster in a week that saw U.S. gymnasts teeter and crash like shares of common stock. America's best-known female gymnast—15-year-old Kristie Phillips of Baton Rouge—made a world-level debut that drew more winces than a grade-school recital. In the end, the U.S. men limped home ninth, a distant 17.4 points behind the winning Soviets and their brilliant all-around champ, Dmitri Bilozerchev. The U.S. women placed sixth, 12 points behind the surprise champion Romanians. Both U.S. teams will be hard-pressed to contend for úven a bronze medal at next year's Seoul Olympics.
Yet from a purist's view, the world has never seen a better gymnastics meet than the one in Rotterdam. An astonishing performance by the Romanian women's team, which upset the three-time defending champion Soviets by less than half a point, 395.40 to 394.95, astonished even veteran gymnastics watchers.
In Friday's team optional finals, the Romanians trailed the Soviets by .45 of a point when Camelia Voinea, Aurelia Dobre and Daniela Silivas earned back-to-back-to-back 10s from the judges. It was the first time in gymnastics history that three teammates had gotten perfect scores in succession. Voinea brought the crowd alive in her floor routine with a funky display of break dancing, and Dobre and Silivas each followed with perfectly spun handsprings, layout double-backflips and "punch fronts"—dramatic, bounce-back somersaults, which make it appear that someone has pushed a rewind button and sent the girls' respective routines into reverse. When the revised standings flashed on the scoreboard and showed Romania in the lead, the Romanian cheering section honked so many air horns it sounded like rush hour in Bucharest.
The future of women's gymnastics was emerging in the 4'9", 77-pound form of Silivas (see-lee-VAHSH), 17, and the 5-foot, 88-pound form of Dobre (DOE-bray), 14. Both girls were swept into the sport during the Nadia Comaneci-inspired boom of the late 1970s, and both have already far surpassed their countrywoman Comaneci in the difficulty and dazzle of their routines. "I wanted to be like Nadia Comaneci," said Dobre, who even has the darkhaired, dark-eyed look of her idol. "And to be better than Nadia Comaneci."
By Saturday night, Dobre had earned something Comaneci never did: a world all-around title. Dobre, who's from Bucharest, edged defending cochampion Elena Shushunova of the U.S.S.R. by .163 and Silivas by .450 to become, at 14 years, 11 months and 8 days, one of the youngest world champions ever.
On Sunday, Dobre added the balance-beam title, then calmly adjusted the Donald Duck barrettes in her hair and became a normal schoolgirl again. She also contemplated what her famous compatriot might think of her showing in Rotterdam. "I think Nadia will be happy," said Dobre with a smile, "because another Nadia is born."
In 1983, the 16-year-old Bilozerchev was the youngest man ever to win a world title. The Muscovite took the all-around crown in Budapest with a graceful, acrobatic performance that inspired comparisons with diving's Greg Louganis. Bilozerchev was expected to dominate gymnastics for the next decade.
But two years later, just a week before he was to defend his world title in Montreal, Bilozerchev drove his car into a tree after a night of drinking. His left leg was so shattered—broken in more than 40 places—that doctors considered amputating it. Bilozerchev, who still lacks feeling in parts of the leg, had to teach himself to walk. He began training just a year after the crash, but two tissue injuries to his right foot, one requiring surgery, set him back again. "There were people who believed I wouldn't be coming back," he said. "They didn't say it openly, but I felt it behind my back." Bilozerchev wouldn't quit. While his foot was mending from surgery in December 1986, he trained on rings, high bar, parallel bars and pommel horse using just his arms and upper body. In September, competing for the first time in two years, he made the Soviet team.
In Rotterdam, Bilozerchev dominated the men's events, winning the pommel horse and the high bar titles and holding off two-time world champion Yuri Korolev in the all-around. Bilozerchev's tremendous upper body seemed to dwarf his tiny legs: He swung his feet so high on the horse he looked ready to fly off into the rafters. Every line in every move was straight and sharp. "He has an elegance and a style that have brought our sport to a new level," said former U.S. Olympic star Bart Conner, watching from the stands. "What is it about Baryshnikov that makes your heart stop? Bilozerchev has it."
The meet in Rotterdam was supposed to have been an equally auspicious coming-out for Phillips. Instead, the 4'11", 87-pound 10th-grader finished in a tie for 45th following a miserable compulsory performance in which she clobbered one of the uneven bars, stumbled on the balance beam and landed facedown on her vault. "I'm just going to go in and hit my routines and show everybody that I am Kristie Phillips," she announced afterward, looking ahead to the optionals. "I'll show them I still have that spark I always had."
Phillips, who trains in Houston under Romanian expatriate Bela Karolyi, former coach of both Comaneci and Mary Lou Retton, had been riding a massive publicity wave that included her appearance on SI's Sept. 1, 1986 cover with the billing, THE NEW MARY LOU.
That designation was premature. Phillips is showy, charismatic and generally good under pressure, but she's not yet Mary Lou. In fact, she's not even considered as physically talented a prospect as, say, Karolyi stablemate Phoebe Mills, 15, of Northfield, Ill., or Melissa Marlowe, 16, of Salt Lake City.
Phillips did perform quite respectably in her optional routines, although she failed to qualify for the all-around final, in which the top U.S. finisher was Rhonda Faehn in 19th place. (Dan Hayden, the only U.S. man to reach the men's all-around finals, placed 22nd.)
Daggett, still hospitalized with his leg in traction as the meet ended, has faced adversity before. He had come back from both mononucleosis and a ruptured disk in the last eight months, and was leading the U.S. men in scoring last week until his ill-fated vault. "If he comes back from this, he's got to be the bravest man I've ever known," said Johnson. Perhaps Daggett can look to Bilozerchev for inspiration. And "the new Mary Lou," still young, can look to the new Nadia.