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 Ave 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 the past.
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 Barcelona.
"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.