We've seen it happen for years, because girl gymnasts are the
mayflies of the sports world. They arrive out of nowhere, tiny and
delicately lovely. They unfold their fragile wings and boldly
embark on their flight. We watch them, moved by their grace,
amazed at their compact strength. Then, seemingly 24 hours later,
they mature into young women and spin back to earth, their moment
in the sunlight over. Nature cycles remorselessly on, beckoning
the next generation.
Yet it is something we never get used to: the notion that one so
young should have passed from her prime. Shannon Miller turns 18
on March 10. That makes Miller about 104 in gymnastics years, but
she is doing her damnedest to keep her illustrious career aloft
through the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. However, last week at the
McDonald's American Cup in Seattle, an event whose past winners
constitute a Who's Who of gymnastics -- the list includes Nadia
Comaneci, Bart Conner, Kim Zmeskal, Mary Lou Retton and Miller
herself -- Miller got a taste of how formidable a next generation
can be. Less than 12 months after becoming the first U.S. woman to
win back-to-back all-around titles at the world championships,
Miller was beaten on Thursday night in the preliminary round of
the American Cup by two unheralded opponents, 15-year-old Kristy
Powell of Colorado Springs and 17-year-old Amanda Borden of
Cincinnati. To nearly everyone's shock, including her own, Miller
failed to advance to the finals of a meet in which hers was the
only marquee name.
But don't write off Miller's chances in Atlanta just yet. She is
still a strong competitor with surpassing style who, after going
through the physical changes of adolescence and competing for much
of last year with shinsplints and a bad back, is healthy and
focused. And, in any event, don't shed any tears for her. She is
the U.S.'s most decorated gymnast, with eight world championship
medals since 1991 and five Olympic medals (two silver, three
bronze) from Barcelona in 1992, and life will go on very nicely
for her after gymnastics. She will graduate this spring with a 4.0
GPA from Edmond (Okla.) North High School, where she is a member
of the National Honor Society. She intends to go to college after
the '96 Games.
Those Games, despite last week's disappointing performance, are
still very much part of her plans. ``I don't think this is it for
me,'' Miller said after her setback in Seattle. ``It shows we're
going to have a strong team in Atlanta.''
That appears to be true, if the rest of the American women can get
healthy. The wings of mayflies break easily. The two U.S. gymnasts
who are considered to be Miller's top rivals -- national champion
Dominique Dawes, 18, of Silver Spring, Md., and 13-year-old U.S.
junior champion Dominique Moceanu of Houston -- didn't even
compete in the American Cup; both had training injuries.
The engaging Powell, who on Saturday won the American Cup, didn't
qualify for last year's national team, which in November won the
silver medal at the team world championships in Dortmund, Germany.
Miller, curiously, competed in the compulsories of that
competition but raised eyebrows by returning home before the
finals. ``She'd had a heavy schedule and needed the time to
rest,'' explained her coach, Steve Nunno. ``And she didn't want to
miss any more school. So we figured, do the compulsories then
leave. That was always the plan, but it hadn't been communicated
very well. We wanted to show our support.'' That the team went
ahead and took second to the Romanians -- beating the Russians --
without Miller was further evidence that the U.S. women have more
depth, talent, skilled coaching and confidence than at any time in
But none of the other U.S. gymnasts have Miller's experience, or
her reputation for excelling under pressure. ``She's the best
American I think we've ever had,'' says Powell, who only two weeks
ago finished a lowly seventh in the American Classic in Oakland, a
competition that Miller, at the top of her form, easily won. For
those who hadn't seen her for a while, Miller was much changed
from the 4'8", 70-pound waif who so impressed the judges in
``In 1992 she was a young pip-squeak of a gymnast,'' says Nunno.
``She was a light-hearted, strong-willed athlete who was kind of
spiffy.'' Since then Miller has added four inches and 24 pounds to
her formerly slight frame. She has a chest, she has hips, and her
neck and shoulders, once reed thin, have thickened. She is a
powerful young woman. ``I think you'll find a whole different
Shannon Miller than you've seen in the past,'' Nunno predicted on
the eve of the American Cup.
He was correct, though not in the way he had hoped. After turning
in a solid routine on the parallel bars, Miller fell behind the
leaders with a pair of very ordinary Yurchenkos in the vault
event. ``She wasn't getting off the horse here,'' said Nunno,
pleading jet lag and overscheduling in her defense. ``The vault
was slow, and she was lethargic.''
The vault, though, has always been her weakest of the four
disciplines. Her strongest, ordinarily, is the balance beam.
Miller had scored a 9.9 on her optional routine at the American
Classic, and if she had done the same at the American Cup, she
would have won the preliminaries outright. Instead, seconds after
hopping onto the four-inch-wide wooden slab, Miller did what for
her was unthinkable: She slipped to the ground after doing a back
handspring into a one-quarter twist. It was far from her hardest
move, and the mishap called for a mandatory .5 deduction,
resulting in a mark of 9.325 that dropped her to fourth overall
after the preliminaries. It was the first time she had fallen off
the beam in competition in four years, according to Nunno.
Only the floor routine remained, too little room for her to
recover in the standings. But Miller showed her mettle by pulling
off a near-perfect routine, tumbling and dancing with elegance, a
polished, mature performance that would have been beyond her reach
three years ago. The judges scored it 9.825, second best of the
night behind Borden, but not high enough to put Miller in the
``There's a reason for everything,'' Nunno said. ``This will give
us a few more days rest before the Pan Am Games [which begin this
weekend in Mar del Plata, Argentina]. Then our focus will be for
Team USA to win the gold medal in Atlanta. Shannon's won about
every tournament there is, and her goal now is to be a member of
that team. They'll need her experience and leadership at the
Time, and perhaps the sands of time, will tell.
THREE COLOR PHOTOS:PHOTOGRAPHS BY RICHARD MACKSON While Powell (opposite) and Borden (above) were flying high in Seattle, an older, less pixieish Miller was caught flat-footed.[Kristy Powell; Amanda Borden; Shannon Miller]