For dramatic purposes, it's difficult to fall in love with an
Olympic trials without surprises: unknowns who rocket to the
fore, favorites who tumble into oblivion, coaches who curse at
the decisions of officials. And unless you count the face plant
that Amy Chow administered to the balance beam in the
next-to-last routine on Sunday night--a horrendous whack that
failed to deter Chow from finishing a performance of
breathtaking complexity and making the Olympic team--none of
those things was evident last weekend at Boston's unstoried
FleetCenter, where the U.S. men's and women's gymnastics teams
were selected pretty much according to form. The young, and not
so young, guns who were expected to make it to Atlanta made it.
The hopefuls who needed a fall from the leaders or a
breakthrough meet of their own to see their Olympic dreams
fulfilled will have to carry their hopes forward until the year
2000 or give them up.
But for the purposes of selecting a team with the potential to
harvest medals, the gymnastics trials could hardly have gone
better. The tough got going, the dogged hung in, and the
injured, well, if they were good enough, they made the team
without lifting so much as a pinkie. By the time Sunday night
rolled around and the seven members of the women's team were
introduced, the top coaches and officials could hardly contain
their glee. "This is our strongest team ever," Bela Karolyi
announced, exhausted from all the bear hugs he had doled out,
one or two of which may actually have been out of the range of
the television cameras. Two of Karolyi's charges had been named
to the team, 14-year-old Dominique Moceanu, the recuperating
wunderkind and author, and 18-year-old Kerri Strug, one of three
returning members of the 1992 team that won a bronze medal in
Barcelona. Said Karolyi, "These girls are contenders for medals,
and plenty of them."
Steve Nunno, coach of the astonishing Shannon Miller, 19, whose
five Olympic and nine world-championship medals make her the
most decorated gymnast in American history, went so far as to
name the color of the booty he expected. "We finally have a team
that has the opportunity to win the gold medal," Nunno gushed.
"If we hit all our routines, like the '92 team did in Barcelona,
with the home court advantage there's nobody that can beat us."
The Romanian, Russian and Chinese women might have something to
say about that, but Nunno's point was well taken. The women's
team that emerged from the trials is both experienced and deep
in talent. The team is led by three former or current national
all-around champions--Miller (1993 and '96), Moceanu ('95) and
Dominique Dawes ('94)--and all seven members have won at least
one world-championship team medal. Most surprising, given the
fleeting nature of the sport, their average age is 18. That's
nearly two years older than the '92 team's average age, and a
welcome sign of the changing times in gymnastics.
July 7, 1996
"Before, you peaked at 15 or 16 and went downhill from there,"
says Dawes, 19, who was the top individual scorer at the trials.
"It reflects on the coaching. The mats and pits we're using now
have cut down on injuries, and we're able to stay in it longer.
Hopefully our success will give the younger girls the motivation
to keep going. It's good for the sport."
U.S. women's gymnastics is so rich in talent that of the 14
competitors who took the floor at the trials, nine had
world-championship experience. That doesn't count Miller and
Moceanu, who didn't have to compete in Boston to qualify. Both
were nursing injuries. Miller, who in early June won the
nationals in Knoxville, has tendinitis in her left wrist.
Moceanu, who last year, at 13, became the youngest national
champion ever, and this year, at 14, became the youngest to
write an autobiography, has a stress fracture in her right
tibia. Neither injury is expected to hamper the two gymnasts'
performances in Atlanta, and if Moceanu and Miller had been
required to perform last weekend to make the Olympic team, they
would have. But USA Gymnastics' selection procedure for women
allows injured competitors to bypass the Olympic trials and
petition to have their scores from the nationals counted
instead. With the opening ceremonies of the Atlanta Games less
than three weeks away, and with their injuries needing time to
heal, Moceanu and Miller opted to petition their way onto the
While it was technically possible that one or both of their
scores from the nationals would not hold up, the reality was
that as soon as their petitions were accepted, Moceanu and
Miller were a lock to make the team. Despite grim pronouncements
from officials about how, typically, scores have tended to rise
at the Olympic trials, it was apparent early on that the judges
in Boston were lowballing their marks. Of the 56 routines during
Friday night's compulsories, only seven were scored higher than
Moceanu's four-routine average at the nationals, in which she
had finished a disappointing third, behind both Miller and
Jaycie Phelps. By the end of the first three rotations (out of
eight), Miller hadalready been mathematically guaranteed a spot
on the team. Moceanu, watching from the stands with her father,
Dimitry, clinched her position one rotation later.
The other competitors accepted this arrangement with remarkable
equanimity, especially considering that Mary Beth Arnold, who
finished seventh at the trials, was competing with a stress
fracture similar to Moceanu's. The feeling was that Miller and
Moceanu merited special treatment because of past performances.
"I knew only five places were open," said Theresa Kulikowski,
who finished sixth, missing the team by one spot (though as
first alternate she will replace any Olympian sidelined by
injury). "If those two were in the meet, they'd have finished on
The 16-year-old Kulikowski can take some consolation in the
knowledge that the two gymnasts, one female and one male, who
finished just out of the running at the trials in '92 became
Olympians last weekend. Nineteen-year-old Amanda Borden, who
this fall will be a freshman at Georgia and whose high-voltage
smile and Dorothy Hamill hairstyle are guaranteed to make her a
favorite in Atlanta, almost gave up the sport after being bumped
from the Barcelona team after the trials. But the Cincinnati
native stuck it out for four more years, and Sunday night she
hung on to the fifth and final qualifying spot. Borden coolly
nailed all four of her routines to keep Kulikowski at bay and
was particularly impressive on the beam, where one slip would
have cost her the Olympic berth. Prancing and preening as if
taking a stroll on a sidewalk, Borden scored a 9.862, the
highest balance-beam mark given at the trials.
"I can't really explain what making the team means to me after
just missing in '92," Borden said tearfully in one of the few
genuinely emotional moments of the weekend. Then, with eloquent
simplicity, she corrected herself. "Dreams come true," she said.
"That's what it means."
Chainey Umphrey's dreams came true, too. Umphrey was the last
man out of the '92 trials, missing the team by .08 of a point.
The margin was especially galling because a badly broken and
dislocated right foot had forced him to sit out most of the year
before those trials. Umphrey, who graduated from UCLA in '94 and
will turn 26 during the Atlanta Games, postponed medical school
so he could try to qualify for the Olympics this year. If he had
known how bumpy the ride would be, he might be two years closer
to his intended specialty, orthopedic surgery.
Last year Umphrey began suffering migraine headaches, which led
to a bout of vertigo so severe that he couldn't walk down a
hallway without running his hand along the wall to keep his
balance. That's a tough way to do a floor routine. He finally
cured his migraines and vertigo by changing his diet,
eliminating dairy products. But Umphrey still faced one more
trial. Warming up for the parallel bars, the third of his six
events on Saturday afternoon, he dislocated the middle finger of
his left hand. He looked down at the horribly disfigured digit
and thought, Oh, no, not again.
But he had come too far and gone through too much to let a
little pain stop him. Unlike the committee that establishes the
criteria for selection of the women's Olympic team, the
committee that makes the men's rules does not permit athletes to
petition their way onto the team. They have to finish every
event in the trials. So Umphrey, a crowd favorite in Boston, as
he generally is everywhere he competes, calmly yanked on his
finger to pop it back in place and went about his business,
hitting all six of his routines with steely precision. He moved
all the way from sixth up to fourth. "No way I was going to let
anything stop me this time," Umphrey said.
They're a likable group, these men. Unfortunately, no one is
predicting that they will win any medals. Nothing new about
that. The U.S. men's gymnastics program has been experiencing
hard times ever since the '84 team hauled in seven medals (three
of them gold) at the Los Angeles Olympics--a competition notably
weakened by the Soviet-bloc boycott--and the American men have
finished ninth at the last two world championships. "I call
1985-95 the Dark Decade," says U.S. men's coach Peter Kormann,
whose bronze medal in floor exercise at the 1976 Games was the
first gymnastics medal by an American man in 44 years. "Anything
we did right was almost by accident. We didn't tell our kids
what we wanted. Our judges overscored them. A 9.6 routine in the
U.S. was a 9.1 in international competition. For the first time
in 10 years, we're looking at the whole picture in men's
gymnastics, and not just one piece of the pie. Our goal is to
win a team medal, and it's not as far off as you might think."
Kormann and men's program director Ron Galimore have named the
project Operation Flip-Flop, which also would have been a good
label for the men's trials. Throughout the meet, competitors
were flipping onto their backs in this event, flopping onto
their bellies in that one. During the compulsories on Thursday,
the pommel horse seemed to be bucking, as 10 of the 14 gymnasts,
including recently crowned national champ Blaine Wilson, either
fell off or mangled their routines so badly that they scored
9.025 or less. "There were a lot of nervous errors out there
tonight," acknowledged Kormann.
The men's nerves continued to show during the optionals on
Saturday, with a total of 15 falls, including two tooth-rattlers
by eventual sixth-place finisher Jair Lynch, who managed to both
flop on his belly and flip onto his back in the same high bar
The good news--and we're reaching a little here--is that the men
have increased the degree of difficulty in their routines. If
they ever perform the routines cleanly, they might surprise a
lot of folks. The bad news is that other than Wilson and
26-year-old John Roethlisberger, who was the high scorer at the
trials and is a four-time national all-around champion, the
American men are notoriously inconsistent. Even dangerous. "No
one thinks we'll do anything in Atlanta, and I could care less,"
Kormann said testily. "We have a long way to go, but we're
climbing up that mountain. We could be great in 2000."
As Borden and Umphrey can attest, the Sydney Olympics are not
too far off to dream about. But it's not Atlanta, where they're