It is a big picture that will forever be colored by Barcelona.
Kim Zmeskal has a standard answer when asked if she's going to be in Atlanta in '96. "I'll be there," she says. "In the stands."
Her situation in '92 was the American version of Ito's. The reigning women's all-around world champion, Zmeskal was touted as America's best hope for gymnastics gold—a Mary Lou Retton clone. Her coach, Bela Karolyi, former mentor of both Retton and Nadia Comaneci, told anyone who would listen that little Kimbo was, mentally, the athlete who was the strongest under pressure he had ever coached. And Kimbo herself? She was convinced that the Olympics would be the best competition of her life.
It wasn't. Far from it. "At the Olympics, for the first time, I could feel people watching me," she says.
Like Ito, she fell on a move she could never recall even missing in practice, a cartwheel back handspring off the balance beam. Zmeskal was so surprised when she tumbled to the mat, she thought she might be dreaming. "I came off the podium thinking, That wasn't the Olympics," she says. "Because I'd always imagined the Olympics would be the best meet of my whole life. And it wasn't. I thought, The Olympics must be starting tomorrow." Dazed as she was, Zmeskal knew better. Her mother, Clarice, who was sitting in the stands, wouldn't have been covering her eyes if the Olympics were starting tomorrow.
"I was worried I'd let everybody down," says Zmeskal. "Bela. The team. The American people. How could I not? The television camera was right in my face." It was a face that showed shock, and that pained, frightened expression seldom left Zmeskal's countenance for the rest of the competition. It was the look we had seen before, on Ito. One side effect: Without "the new Mary Lou" to write about, many American sportswriters took women's gymnastics to task. The competitors, some argued, were too young; they trained too hard; they ate too little; and they put their bodies through too much. Karolyi in particular came under fire. "It made me so mad," says Zmeskal. "They don't understand what we get out of it. They obviously have never worked really hard for something. Then when you get it, it's the best feeling in the world. The best. We're all in this sport because we love it."
Despite her defeat, Zmeskal's memories of the Olympics are mostly good ones. She remembers walking into the therapy room and seeing Jennifer Capriati, a gold medal winner in tennis. Being waved onto the Dream Team bus by Larry Bird. Winning the team bronze medal. "The bronze medal was so cool," she says. "That was the best night of the whole year. It was my best performance."
Great athletes don't dwell on their mistakes. The media do. That's why so many athletes shun talking to reporters after a loss. Which is not to say the mistakes are stricken from memory. "I'm still having a hard time concentrating at school," Zmeskal, an 11th-grader, says. "Every so often I think about what happened, how things could have been different. I wonder what I'm going to do now. But it's weird. So many people have said I did great at the Olympics, I almost think I did do great. It's like they don't know I didn't accomplish everything I wanted to this summer. I thought everyone would be more disappointed."
So life goes on. Zmeskal cut her training, from eight hours a day to two, so she could enjoy a relatively normal junior year at Westfield High School in Houston. All these years people had been telling her how much she was missing of life by training hour after hour in the gym. So this fall Zmeskal decided to find out. She took a driver's education course and got her license. She went to some high school football games, jogged to stay in shape and braced herself for the overflow of thrilling, everyday activities that she had supposedly sacrificed for gymnastics. "After two weeks it was already boring," she says. "I used to dream of the day when I could just flop on the living room couch after school and watch television from 5 to 9 p.m. But now that I can do it, I'm not interested."
Zmeskal is debating whether to stay in the sport another year so she can defend her world championship next April in Birmingham, England. "I'm staying in shape so I can choose either way," she says. "But a part of me says that maybe it's time for me to do something else. I'm an athletic person. I've got to do something."