Late on Saturday night in Houston, Phoebe Mills found herself in the spot she deserved: alone on center stage. All the other twisting subplots of the McDonald's U.S. Gymnastic Championships—the sad saga of defending champ Kristie Phillips, the high bar feats of men's titlist Dan Hayden, the epic comeback of Tim Daggett—were relegated to the wings as Mills, the final competitor, began her floor exercise. The crowd of 11,113 at The Summit welcomed her with applause more respectful than adulatory, and her response was an unwavering gaze directly ahead. For Mills this was another moment in which to perform, not entertain.
Though the ultrafocused 15-year-old from Northfield, Ill., didn't know it then, the all-around title was virtually hers. Mills, who had entered the nationals as the solid favorite, rolled through the field, tying for the lead with Hope Spivey after the compulsories and nailing her first three optional events—the vault (9.85), the uneven bars (9.7) and the balance beam (9.8). Now all she needed in the floor exercise was a reasonable performance to defeat Kelly Garrison-Steves and complete her steady upward progression as a world-class gymnast. "Phoebe is the naturally turned-on engine, never stops," her coach, Bela Karolyi, had said on Friday. "Her routines are so strong, so tight, she's going to walk right through."
Mills is warm and engaging off the mats, but on the floor she sacrifices showmanship for getting on with the job. "I like to totally think about what I have to do and stay within that," she says. For a time, Mills's low marks for showmanship bothered Karolyi, but he has backed off trying to change her. And so on the floor at The Summit, in a moment all her own, Mills played it her way, straight and sure, with power and grace. Her 9.85 earned her the national championship and a standing ovation. She graciously replied with a smile and a wave. The mustachioed Karolyi then kissed his latest star pupil on the left cheek and enveloped the five-foot, 90-pound Mills in his burly embrace. Mills, who used to shrink from such displays, responded with a hug. "My parents teased me that I looked funny with him hugging me and me just sitting there," she said. She even popped back out for a curtain call to even greater applause.
Mills might have sent Bela out for a bow as well. For almost three hours on Saturday the former hammer-thrower from Romania had slung his bearish frame around the arena of his adopted city, exhorting seven of his gymnasts on to the 20-woman national team. The scores at the meet also counted 40% toward establishing the Olympic squad of six and its two alternates. (The remaining 60% will be determined at the Olympic trials in Salt Lake City, Aug. 3-6.) In addition to Mills, Karolyi guided three more young women toward Seoul: Rhonda Faehn, 17 ("The gymnastics machine of the United States," he says); Brandy Johnson, 15 ("She has the explosiveness of Mary Lou Retton"); and Chelle Stack, 14 ("She's tough, too").
Phillips, yet another of Karolyi's protègèes, finished ninth, and her chances of making the '88 Olympic team are now precarious. The most heralded U.S. gymnast since Retton, Phillips has endured much misfortune in the past nine months. First came a 45th-place finish at the world championships in Rotterdam last October. "I started believing I'm great, I'm great," the 16-year-old Phillips says, "so I stopped training." Then in February, thinking a motivational change was in order, she dropped Karolyi for Don Peters, the coach of the U.S. women's Olympic team. But her in-gym hours at Huntington Beach, Calif., where Peters is headquartered, were about a third fewer than she was used to, creating more time to munch, less time to burn it off and lots of despair.
"I got to a standstill, and I started really struggling," she says. "I knew I needed more time in the gym or I wouldn't make it." When Phillips tearfully asked Karolyi two months ago to let her return, she was about 15 pounds overweight. A diet of eggs, tuna fish, celery and water, plus 42 hours of training a week, has taken off most of the extra weight. Still, metabolic changes have broadened her, and her strength has not yet caught up with her new body. That was evident at the nationals in her floor exercise, which got a 9.45 and seemed only half as sharp as it did a year ago. In her specialty, the balance beam, she didn't appear much different, but the judges looked at her differently, giving her a 9.80. A year ago it might have been a 10. "I've had to go through more than a normal teenager, that's for sure," she says, her laughter a bit nervous. "But I can handle just about everything now."
For Mills, handling things seems to be her specialty. She contentedly works in a zone of her own. Of her teammate and friend Phillips, Mills says, "I'm sure if she wants it [the Olympic team] badly enough, she can do it." Of her own star potential, Mills notes, "I don't even like Wheaties."
Like Phillips, Hayden has undergone a change of scenery this year, but with less traumatizing effect. Over the winter he and his identical twin, Dennis, packed their families and belongings into their identical '87 Dodge Colts—"Both gold," says Dan—and drove four days and some 2,000 miles from Tucson to Woodward, Pa. (pop. 250), about 30 miles from State College and Perm State. Making ends meet while training in Arizona had been tough for the 23-year-old Haydens, so they joined the staff at Ed Isabelle's gymnastics camp, where their wives also work. "It's made our lives almost stress-free and given us financial consistency," Dan says. "There are no distractions in Woodward, so it's very easy to focus on our gymnastics."
That time allowed Dan to upgrade his floor exercise and vault. On Saturday his duel with Kevin Davis of Nebraska for the all-around title effectively ended on the fifth rotation as Dan executed his usual impressive high bar routine while Davis struggled with his grip on the still rings. Hayden earned a 9.75, Davis a 9.55. Dan's winning margin for the all-around title was .6—116.85-116.25. Two of Davis's Nebraska teammates—Tom Schlesinger and Wes Suter—also finished in the top six. Tied with Suter at No. 6 was 18-year-old Lance Ringnald, who intends to compete at Nebraska next year.
Besides the Haydens—Dennis finished 11th—Woodward supplied another talented camper, and one who put on an amazing show. "Tim Daggett used to clean the gyms [at camp] when he was 10," Isabelle says. "He cleaned them with aggression. They haven't been cleaned like that before or since." Daggett had some big pieces of his life to sweep up after he shattered his left tibia and fibula on a relatively routine vault landing at the worlds in Rotterdam. He was operated on twice and injected with morphine every three hours for a month. His nightmares seemed endless. That wasn't the only aftereffect. He has a lack of flexibility in his left ankle and pain in his entire lower left leg. Only four months ago, Daggett began training again for six to eight hours a day. Still, his recovery has been remarkable. "I would say he's eight to 12 months ahead of what a normal person would be," says U.S. trainer Jack Rockwell.
After the compulsories on Thursday, Daggett, an '84 Olympic gold medalist who competed in all events but the vault in Houston, was last in the 44-man field. As he warmed up for the optionals on Saturday, he looked pained, tense. The fear he has to live with was evident in his face as he dismounted from the rings. Daggett again declined to vault, though he had been practicing a handspring lately. His coach, Yefim Furman, worked over his injured leg and ankle between rotations and tried to shout away his terror. "I'm scared, I'm scared," says Daggett, 26. "He really has to push me."
It came together, however, for Daggett on the parallel bars. Long one of the nation's strongest upper-body gymnasts, he seized the apparatus with ferocity—while somehow managing to look as serene as a child playing with his blocks. The control was there again. And when he stuck his tuck double-back dismount, he threw both fists out, twice, to a relieved, rejoicing crowd. One excited judge flashed a 10; Daggett earned a 9.85. He then scored a 9.45 in the high bar, aborted his floor exercise and looked at ease again on his favorite routine, the pommel horse (9.90). "I've done so much more than I thought even possible," said Daggett, who finished 43rd.
Since he, along with fellow '84 Olympian Scott Johnson (who has a broken bone in his hand), has been granted a medical waiver, the score he gets at the trials will be the only one that counts toward his qualifying for the Olympic team.
Meanwhile, Peters is having rosy Olympic visions. The women's team he will likely take to Seoul is solid. Along with Karolyi's kids will be Garrison-Steves, Spivey and Stacey Gunthorpe. (Karolyi, however, says he won't be going to Seoul. He had been given a post as Olympic delegation leader, but resigned it Sunday in a dispute over the coaching selection process and lack of access to his charges during competition. Olympic gymnastics officials say they hope to persuade Karolyi to change his mind.)
Peters was especially pleased with the improvement in the women's compulsory performances in Houston. "I think we'll contend for one of the team medals," he says. "We're going to be as strong as we were in '84." The U.S. women finished 2nd in L.A.
True, in Seoul they may have to face the Soviet and Romanian women without a new Mary Lou. But in Mills America will have a steadfast flag-bearer just hitting her stride.