Four years ago Kerri Strug made her heroic vault and the U.S. won
its first team gold medal in gymnastics. Soon thereafter the
storybook tale ended. The American women tumbled to sixth place
at the 1997 and '99 world championships and won no individual
medals either year. So bleak were U.S. prospects for Sydney that
Bela Karolyi, who coached three members of the '96 team (his
wife, Martha, was the U.S. head coach), was talked out of
retirement last November and given the title of national team
coordinator. His mission: get the team back on the beam.
He held training camps at his Texas gym for top Olympic
candidates, including five members of the Magnificent Seven of
1996. Two of the returnees, 23-year-old Dominique Dawes and
22-year-old Amy Chow, are headed to Sydney, adding international
stature to an otherwise anonymous lineup. Three-time Olympian
Dawes is a proven clutch performer; Chow has never looked better
and will be a threat to win medals on the beam and the bars.
The rest of the team is an interesting mixture of experience and
youth. Elise Ray, 18, won her first national all-around title in
July and will anchor the lineup. Former U.S. all-around champ
Kristen Maloney, 19, has seven years of international experience,
and Jamie Dantzscher, 18, has five. The team's sixth member,
pixieish Morgan White, 17, contrasts well with the comparatively
Rubenesque Ray. A new rule bars gymnasts who won't be at least 16
by year's end, but White looks about 12. She could steal judges'
Weaknesses? None of the Americans is an all-around star who can
raise her teammates' scores simply by osmosis. The U.S. is
especially weak on the beam; during the finals at the Olympic
trials, three of the six women bound for Sydney fell off the beam
(Dantzscher tumbled twice), a repeat of which would shatter the
team's medal hopes.
But don't underestimate the 57-year-old Karolyi's motivational
skills. He hasn't produced nine Olympic and 15 world champions in
his 30 years of coaching for Romania and the U.S. by accident.
He's not the team's coach--that title belongs to Kelli Hill--so he
won't be allowed to roam the floor, but he'll be in close
proximity, pumping up his diminutive charges.
"The first time I went to his ranch he had me absolutely
convinced we could win the gold," says Alyssa Beckerman, 19, the
Forget gold. That will go to the Russians or the Romanians. But
if they stay on their feet, the Americans could end up with the
bronze. "That Bela believes in us so much that he came out of
retirement," says Ray, "is a really big deal to us."