At the worlds, U.S. gymnasts came up short

It was a long, lame week for U.S. gymnasts at the world
championships in Tianjin, China, a meet that cast an ominous
shadow over U.S. prospects for the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. The
Americans did not take home a single medal from among the 42
awarded, as the traditionally weak men's team and the usually
powerful women's team were overmatched, with each finishing
sixth in the competition that ended last Saturday. "We're all
really inexperienced," said 17-year-old Vanessa Atler from
Canyon Country, Calif., who came to her first worlds hoping for
an all-around medal but injured her ankle in the floor exercise
and placed 31st out of 36 competitors. "We were all really
nervous. It's fine when a crowd's shouting, 'USA!' It pumps you
up. But here it's, 'China! China!'"

The rowdy atmosphere inside Tianjin Gymnasium clearly rattled
the U.S. women, an untested group that has no holdovers from the
1996 Olympic gold-medal-winning team. As fans romped noisily
around the arena, waved flags and chanted, "Fall off, fall off!"
in Chinese whenever a U.S. woman wobbled on the beam, the
Americans committed so many errors that they nearly missed
qualifying for the championship round of six. The uneven bars
were particularly troublesome, with reigning U.S. women's
champion Kristen Maloney of Pen Argyl, Pa., falling the wrong
way on a handstand, and Jamie Dantzscher of Palmdale, Calif.,
losing her grip and dropping to the mat. Atler, who admitted she
was scared by the pressure and the din, twice tumbled off the
balance beam, scoring a dismal 8.025.

"We should have done a better job, but there's no way we were
the sixth team," said women's coach Kelli Hill, who blamed the
judging for some of the low marks. "A lot of our performances
were not rewarded."

None of the American performances were in the class of those of
17-year-old Maria Olaru, the women's all-around champion, who
led the Romanian women to the team gold. They edged the Russians
153.527 to 153.209, winning their fourth straight world title.
The next three places were taken by China, Ukraine and
Australia, all of whom finished ahead of a U.S. team that has
been unable to fill the leadership void left by the retirement
of Atlanta Games stars Shannon Miller, Dominique Dawes and Kerri
Strug. With the Olympics less than a year away, the prospects
for the U.S. women in Sydney appear grim.

Among the men, host China again was much the strongest team,
winning the gold for the fourth straight year. The Chinese
finished well ahead of runner-up Russia, with Belarus, Japan,
Korea and the U.S. rounding out the top six. No American man so
much as qualified for an apparatus final. The lone bright spot
for USA Gymnastics was provided by Blaine Wilson of Columbus,
Ohio, who came within .001, the smallest possible margin, of a
bronze in the all-around. Wilson's fourth-place finish was the
best at a world championships by an American male since Kurt
Thomas won silver in the all-around in 1979. The top three
places were taken by Russia's Nikolay Krukov, Japan's Naoya
Tsukahara and Bulgaria's Jordan Jovtchev, but the 25-year-old
Wilson, who's a four-time U.S. champion, proved to the judges
and himself that he is capable of competing with the elite. "The
judges call them as they see them," said Wilson. "These are
stepping stones for Sydney."

Stepping stones for Wilson, but stumbling blocks for the rest of
the Americans.

Figure Skater's Fall

The Olympic dreams of pairs skaters Paul Binnebose and Laura
Handy, who finished third in the U.S. Championships last
February, suffered a severe setback on Sept. 29 after a
horrifying fall during a routine training session left Binnebose
in a Delaware hospital with a fractured skull. The accident
occurred as Binnebose and Handy, who train at the University of
Delaware, were running through their technical program in
preparation for October's Skate America in Colorado Springs. The
21-year-old Binnebose had been having back spasms for several
weeks. When he lifted the 103-pound Handy, 19, overhead, his
back went into spasm again. "He lost his balance and hit his
head on the ice," says the pair's coach, Ron Ludington. "You
could hear it all over the rink."

Binnebose went into convulsions. "I knew right away it was a bad
accident," says Paul's mother, Judy, who was watching the
workout. Medics rushed Binnebose, who never lost consciousness,
to Christiana Hospital, where a CAT scan revealed that his skull
had fractured from its base to the top of his forehead.
Binnebose underwent surgery to relieve pressure on his brain,
and then doctors induced a coma to keep brain activity to a
minimum. He remained in the coma until Oct. 9.

Doctors have kept Binnebose on a ventilator and under heavy
sedation while battling complications brought on by pneumonia.
As of Sunday it wasn't known how long he would remain in
intensive care. "Emotionally, we've all had a hard time," says
Judy. "Laura spends a lot of time at the hospital with us. It's
a real waiting game now. It takes six to eight weeks for the
skull to heal, and we don't know if there will be any
neurological damage. But the doctors are hopeful of a full

No one is making any predictions about when Binnebose and Handy,
who are in just their third year together as partners, will be
able to resume training. "Their chances of making the 2002
Olympics in Salt Lake were excellent," says Ludington. "This is
a setback, but the main goal is to get Paul back and healthy.
Then we'll take things from there."

COLOR PHOTO: GREG BAKER/AP Atler, who had hoped to vault to an all-around medal in China, fell flat.

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