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' hearts.
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 team alternate.
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."
Will anyone get a hit off U.S. softball ace Lisa Fernandez?
She's Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez rolled into one, the most dominant pitcher in Softball's most formidable rotation. On the U.S.'s 57-game tour this summer Fernandez went 10-0, threw five straight perfect games and struck out 162 hitters in 67 innings.
The 29-year-old righthander knows how devastating even one hit can be. In '96 in Atlanta, she had thrown 9? perfect innings against Australia before Joanne Brown connected for her team's sole hit, a game-deciding, two-run homer. Though the Americans won the gold medal two games later, the mispitch prevented them from going unbeaten at those Olympics. "It was a valuable lesson," says Fernandez. "I learned that I need to be in the physical and mental condition to be just as fresh in the tenth inning as in the first."
In part by riding the stationary bike that sits at the foot of her bed in her Long Beach, Calif., home, the 5'6" Fernandez has trimmed 20 pounds, to 160. A weight-training program has strengthened her abdominal and lower back muscles, which are key in windmill pitching. As a result even her bat, which Fernandez wields as mightily as her right arm, has improved. During the summer tour she led the U.S. team with a .474 average. "I'm more explosive than ever," she says. "Getting rid of that excess baggage has made all the difference."
What Fernandez has not lost since Atlanta is unparalleled command of her changeup, drop, rise, curve and screwball. All but the changeup are clocked at around 65 mph—which from 40 feet is equivalent to a 101-mph baseball pitch. No wonder she held opposing hitters to an .029 batting average this summer.