For dramatic purposes, it's difficult to fall in love with an Olympic trials without surprises: unknowns who rocket to the fore, favorites who tumble into oblivion, coaches who curse at the decisions of officials. And unless you count the face plant that Amy Chow administered to the balance beam in the next-to-last routine on Sunday night—a horrendous whack that failed to deter Chow from finishing a performance of breathtaking complexity and making the Olympic team—none of those things was evident last weekend at Boston's unstoried FleetCenter, where the U.S. men's and women's gymnastics teams were selected pretty much according to form. The young, and not so young, guns who were expected to make it to Atlanta made it. The hopefuls who needed a fall from the leaders or a breakthrough meet of their own to see their Olympic dreams fulfilled will have to carry their hopes forward until the year 2000 or give them up.
But for the purposes of selecting a team with the potential to harvest medals, the gymnastics trials could hardly have gone better. The tough got going, the dogged hung in, and the injured, well, if they were good enough, they made the team without lifting so much as a pinkie. By the time Sunday night rolled around and the seven members of the women's team were introduced, the top coaches and officials could hardly contain their glee. "This is our strongest team ever," Bela Karolyi announced, exhausted from all the bear hugs he had doled out, one or two of which may actually have been out of the range of the television cameras. Two of Karolyi's charges had been named to the team, 14-year-old Dominique Moceanu, the recuperating wunderkind and author, and 18-year-old Kerri Strug, one of three returning members of the 1992 team that won a bronze medal in Barcelona. Said Karolyi, "These girls are contenders for medals, and plenty of them."
Steve Nunno, coach of the astonishing Shannon Miller, 19, whose five Olympic and nine world-championship medals make her the most decorated gymnast in American history, went so far as to name the color of the booty he expected. "We finally have a team that has the opportunity to win the gold medal," Nunno gushed. "If we hit all our routines, like the '92 team did in Barcelona, with the home court advantage there's nobody that can beat us."
The Romanian, Russian and Chinese women might have something to say about that, but Nunno's point was well taken. The women's team that emerged from the trials is both experienced and deep in talent. The team is led by three former or current national all-around champions—Miller (1993 and '96), Moceanu ('95) and Dominique Dawes ('94)—and all seven members have won at least one world championship team medal. Most surprising, given the fleeting nature of the sport, their average age is 18. That's nearly two years older than the '92 team's average age, and a welcome sign of the changing times in gymnastics.
"Before, you peaked at 15 or 16 and went downhill from there," says Dawes, 19, who was the top individual scorer at the trials. "It reflects on the coaching. The mats and pits we're using now have cut down on injuries, and we're able to stay in it longer. Hopefully our success will give the younger girls the motivation to keep going. It's good for the sport."
U.S. women's gymnastics is so rich in talent that of the 14 competitors who took the floor at the trials, nine had world-championship experience. That doesn't count Miller and Moceanu, who didn't have to compete in Boston to qualify. Both were nursing injuries. Miller, who in early June won the nationals in Knoxville, has tendinitis in her left wrist. Moceanu, who last year, at 13, became the youngest national champion ever, and this year, at 14, became the youngest to write an autobiography, has a stress fracture in her right tibia. Neither injury is expected to hamper the two gymnasts' performances in Atlanta, and if Moceanu and Miller had been required to perform last weekend to make the Olympic team, they would have. But USA Gymnastics' selection procedure for women allows injured competitors to bypass the Olympic trials and petition to have their scores from the nationals counted instead. With the opening ceremonies of the Atlanta Games less than three weeks away, and with their injuries needing time to heal, Moceanu and Miller opted to petition their way onto the team.
While it was technically possible that one or both of their scores from the nationals would not hold up, the reality was that as soon as their petitions were accepted, Moceanu and Miller were a lock to make the team. Despite grim pronouncements from officials about how, typically, scores have tended to rise at the Olympic trials, it was apparent early on that the judges in Boston were lowballing their marks. Of the 56 routines during Friday night's compulsories, only seven were scored higher than Moceanu's four-routine average at the nationals, in which she had finished a disappointing third, behind both Miller and Jaycie Phelps. By the end of the first three rotations (out of eight), Miller had already been mathematically guaranteed a spot on the team. Moceanu, watching from the stands with her father, Dimitry, clinched her position one rotation later.
The other competitors accepted this arrangement with remarkable equanimity, especially considering that Mary Beth Arnold, who finished seventh at the trials, was competing with a stress fracture similar to Moceanu's. The feeling was that Miller and Moceanu merited special treatment because of past performances. "I knew only five places were open," said Theresa Kulikowski, who finished sixth, missing the team by one spot (though as first alternate she will replace any Olympian sidelined by injury). "If those two were in the meet, they'd have finished on top anyway."
The 16-year-old Kulikowski can take some consolation in the knowledge that the two gymnasts, one female and one male, who finished just out of the running at the trials in '92 became Olympians last weekend. Nineteen-year-old Amanda Borden, who this fall will be a freshman at Georgia and whose high-voltage smile and Dorothy Hamill hairstyle are guaranteed to make her a favorite in Atlanta, almost gave up the sport after being bumped from the Barcelona team after the trials. But the Cincinnati native stuck it out for four more years, and Sunday night she hung on to the fifth and final qualifying spot. Borden coolly nailed all four of her routines to keep Kulikowski at bay and was particularly impressive on the beam, where one slip would have cost her the Olympic berth. Prancing and preening as if taking a stroll on a sidewalk, Borden scored a 9.862, the highest balance-beam mark given at the trials.
"I can't really explain what making the team means to me after just missing in '92," Borden said tearfully in one of the few genuinely emotional moments of the weekend. Then, with eloquent simplicity, she corrected herself. "Dreams come true," she said. "That's what it means."