The U.S. women's gymnastics team, calm, composed and
uncharacteristically chummy, took a large step toward capturing
its first team gold medal yesterday by finishing ahead of the
defending world champion Romanians in the compulsory portion of
the competition, which accounts for 50% of the scoring. However,
the Yanks were knocked down to second place in the overall
standings by the always powerful Russians, who appeared in the
last session of the day, making tomorrow night's optionals a
three-way race between three of the top four countries at the
last world championships.
The U.S. women were, quite simply, astonishingly cool while
nailing 23 out of 24 routines before 32,620 highly partisan fans
at the Georgia Dome. The only misstep came on the balance beam,
the Americans' second rotation, when 16-year-old Jaycie Phelps
fell off. But Shannon Miller, who at 19 is the heart of this
team, picked up the team by following that miscue with the best
beam routine of the day, scoring 9.737. Fourteen-year-old
Dominique Moceanu then responded with a solid 9.687, rendering
Phelps's mistake meaningless, since the low score in each
rotation is dropped.
After that it was like watching a videotape of gymnastics made
easy. The U.S. women were virtually flawless in the floor
exercises, outscoring the 12 other countries and sticking their
landings like featherweight darts. "We've always been consistent
in compulsories, so I'm not that surprised we did well," said
Moceanu's coach, Bela Karolyi, who was restricted to the
sidelines during the competition because it is his wife, Marta,
who is the team's head coach. "What did surprise me was that we
passed the Romanians by over half a point." The Russian women,
led by Dina Kochetkova, were still to come, but no one, least of
all the U.S. women, figured that this competition would go down
to anything but the last rotation on Tuesday night.
In team competition the nature of the judging is such that the
later in a rotation a gymnast performs, the higher the scores
the judges are likely to give her. Rather than place U.S. stars
Moceanu and Miller in the last two spots at every apparatus,
guaranteeing them the team's highest marks, the American
coaching staff decided to use results from the trials and the
nationals, both held in June, to determine its starting order.
That meant that Kerri Strug twice anchored a rotation and twice
led off. Moceanu found herself fifth, sixth, fourth and second.
"It was just good strategy," says Steve Nunno, Miller's coach.
"The kids understood it, and everyone scored well as a result.
The Romanians were excellent in compulsories, and we beat them."
Not that a .531-of-a-point lead is exactly a comfortable margin
over the defending world champions; similarly, the .127 of a
point by which the U.S. trails Russia is no more than a bobble
on the beam in terms of scoring. In Barcelona the U.S. women had
a small lead over Romania after the compulsories--with the
Unified Team in first--only to be smoked in the optionals by
both teams and eventually finish third. And at the 1995 world
championships in Sabae, Japan, the U.S., second to the Romanians
after the compulsories, was thrashed in the optionals. Says the
noncoaching Karolyi, "Optionals is a totally different
The Romanians have an uphill battle because they are
shorthanded. At least three gymnasts who would have made the
team were left at home suffering from injuries, according to
coach Octavian Belu, and one of those who did come to Atlanta,
Anamaria Bican, suffered torn knee ligaments while training on
the vault and is unable to compete--leaving the Romanians with
only six competitors out of the allowable seven.
The U.S., by contrast, will rely on its depth--Miller, Moceanu
and Strug are all in the top 10 of the individual all-around
competition after yesterday--and the home court advantage. The
team is staying in a private home, far removed from the hassles
and noise of the Olympic Village, bonding, training and
generally focusing on the job at hand. The women exude a quiet
confidence in themselves and in each other, a confidence that
must stem from the knowledge that, win or lose, they are the
best women's gymnastics team America has ever had.
But it may take 24 more mistake-free rotations if they hope to
have the gold to help prove it.
COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER Alexandra Marinescu of Romania went parallel to the floor, but Dominique Moceanu of the U.S. (opposite) held her own. [Alexandra Marinescu]
COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN [See caption above--Dominique Moceanu]