One gold medalist made it; the other gold medalist didn't. The hometown favorite made it; the coach of the women's Olympic team didn't. The women's national champion made it; the men's national champion—quite unforgettably—didn't.
So it went at the U.S. Olympic Gymnastics Trials last week in Salt Lake City, where political infighting eventually took a backseat to a competition filled with pathos and surprise. Phoebe Mills of Northfield, Ill., and Charles Lakes of Newhall, Calif., were the unquestioned stars of the trials, though they had to battle mightily to shift everyone's attention away from the messy feud between rival coaches Don Peters and Bela Karolyi.
This imbroglio was unexpectedly resolved on Monday afternoon when Peters shocked the gymnastics community by resigning as coach of the U.S. women's Olympic team. Later it was announced that Peters's position would not be filled and that each member of the women's team would be accompanied by her personal coach to Seoul.
Peters—whose affection for Bela goes as far as these words: "I don't really consider us to be mortal enemies"—had been named the women's coach in January after a vote by the U.S. Gymnastics Federation's International Committee, which includes Peters, his handpicked Olympic assistant, Tom McCarthy, and a former gymnast of Peters's, Kathy Johnson. But it became clear at the trials that Karolyi deserved the job more than Peters: Three of the six Olympic qualifiers (plus both alternates) train at his gym in Houston. None of the team members trains with Peters, whose top prospects, Sabrina Mar and Doe Yamashiro, both pulled out of the trials with injuries after Thursday night's compulsories.
August 14, 1988
Complicating matters, Karolyi had been informed that because he was not an Olympic coach, he would not be allowed on the gym floor during the Olympics. In disgust, Bela resigned his ceremonial post as head of the U.S. gymnastics delegation and vowed not to go to Seoul. "For what?" said Karolyi. "To stay in the bleachers like a monkey? If I could coach my kids on the floor is the only way I'm going."
USGF executive director Mike Jacki vowed to work out a compromise. "The gymnastics community will make sure Bela is in Seoul," he insisted. "First and foremost is our responsibility to those six kids." On Monday, Peters set the compromise in motion with his abrupt but very honorable resignation.
In addition to Mills, the women's team for Seoul includes Kelly Garrison-Steves, a 21-year-old senior at Oklahoma and two-time NCAA all-around champion; Hope Spivey, 17, who trains with Bill and Donna Strauss at Parkettes in Allentown, Pa.; a pair of 15-year-olds, Brandy Johnson and Chelle Stack, both coached by Karolyi; and Salt Lake City's own Melissa Marlowe, 16, who pulled herself up from 11th to sixth place during the two-day competition. The bid of Kristie Phillips, 16, once hailed as the new Mary Lou Retton, was undone by her compulsory routines on the vault and uneven bars. But Phillips battled back to finish eighth—the second-alternate spot—one place behind Rhonda Faehn.
Mills was clearly the best, smoothly reeling off seven near-perfect routines. On Thursday she scored 39.438 in the compulsories—her best total ever. Then on Saturday she improved upon that with a 39.651 in the optionals. "She is solid, like a rock," says Karolyi of his star pupil, though at 5 feet and 90 pounds she is shaped more like a hickory bough.
The men's half of the trials was full of surprises, some pleasant, some not so. The 24-year-old Lakes, who is poised to become the first black U.S. gymnast to compete in the Olympics (Ron Galimore of Tallahassee, Fla., made the team in 1980, but did not compete because of the boycott), definitely qualifies as a pleasant surprise. Asked after Friday night's optionals how it felt to be the top qualifier, Lakes, borrowing a line from Dudley Moore in the movie Arthur, responded, "It doesn't suck."
Neither did his routines. After finishing third in the nationals a month ago in Houston (the nationals counted for 40% of the scoring for the Olympic team, the trials 60%), Lakes pulled into the lead during Wednesday night's compulsories with 58.10 points then outscored the field again with 58.00 in the optionals. Long recognized as a top talent within the gymnastics community, Lakes has been criticized for his somewhat leisurely style of training. While others put in many grueling hours at the gym, he spends only about an hour and a half a day. "I'm one of the last ones in and one of the first out," says Lakes. "I don't really think it's necessary to spend long, long hours in the gym. I haven't burned my body out or anything else out, and I've made nice, steady progress. I was in no hurry to be Number 1."
Scott Johnson, 27, a veteran of the gold-medal-winning '84 team, qualified behind Lakes and was in top form after recovering from the bone fracture in his right hand 10 weeks ago that forced him to miss the nationals. Tim Daggett, 26, the other member of that '84 team attempting a comeback, was not as successful, although even being able to compete after the artery-severing leg break he suffered at the world championships last year in Rotterdam was a triumph. Going into the optionals Friday night in eighth place, Daggett withdrew after three events, an Olympic berth effectively out of range.
But the most poignant moment of the night came last, during Dan Hayden's high bar routine. Hayden, 23, who had won the men's all-around championship in Houston, stood second to Lakes and needed just an 8.7 to make the Olympic team. Even though he had separated his right shoulder a few minutes earlier, warming up on the parallel bars, Hayden decided to try his trademark release on the high bar—a flyaway 1½ backflip over the bar to a regrasp—but missed it and fell, for an automatic deduction of .5. If he had resumed his routine from that point, he could have scored an 8.7 and finished sixth overall. Instead, Hayden jumped up and tried the same move again. Citius, altius, fortius. He missed again and scored an 8.3 to drop from second place to eighth, behind Lakes, Johnson, Kevin Davis, 22, Wes Suter, 24, Lance Ringnald, 18, Dominick Minicucci, 19, and first-alternate Tom Schlesinger, 22.
"I was training for this for 17 years," said Hayden afterward. Then, referring to his identical twin, who finished 11th in the trials, he added, "I didn't want to go without Dennis, I guess."