BARCELONA — How's this for opening-night jitters?
Kim Zmeskal, the reigning all-around world champion, fell on the balance beam and might have fallen out of the gold rush in gymnastics.
Zmeskal, whose steely nerves and power launched her to the top of the gymnastics ladder, took a tumble from the top during Sunday night's women's team compulsories at the Summer Olympics.
After a flurry of magazine cover stories, television features and pre-Olympic predictions, Zmeskal finally had the chance to stand alone. Instead, 10 seconds into her first event, she fell off the balance beam, absorbed a score of 9.350 and was left as the fifth-best American and 32nd best gymnast overall.
"I just rushed a bit into the meet," said Zmeskal, 16, of Houston. "I was excited to get things started, and the beam isn't the best event for that. I had too much energy."
And not enough balance.
Despite Zmeskal's fall, the United States (197.007) remained second in the team competition behind the Unified Team (197.507) after the compulsories, worth 50% of the overall score.
Shannon Miller, 15, of Edmond, Okla., the most consistent compulsory performer in the world, had the top individual score of 39.636. And Betty Okino of Elmhurst, Ill., returning to competition eight weeks after being sidelined because of stress fractures in her back, was seventh.
The team medal--and Zmeskal's Olympic fate--will be decided in Tuesday night's final. The top 36 gymnasts enter the all-around competition, but each country is allotted only three slots.
To even gain a chance for the all-around gold, Zmeskal will have to vault over Kerri Strug of Tucson and Dominique Dawes of Silver Spring, Md.
It was a strange conclusion to a weird opening session.
Dawes had trouble in her warm-up for the uneven bars. After the Romanians wiped the chalk from the bars with water, a tactic used to aid their gymnasts, not thwart their rivals, Dawes fell twice and cried.
Dawes recovered, made the catch, and finished with her highest compulsory score ever.
Strug also had to hurry up and wait. Standing around the vault runway, Strug stretched and fidgeted 10 minutes while the judges stared at scoring monitors gone haywire. As mysteriously as the problem appeared, it disappeared, and Strug streaked to a 9.775.
"I didn't know what was going on," Strug said. "It was nerve-racking. I thought, 'What are these judges doing?' "
For once, Bela Karolyi, Zmeskal's coach, didn't blame the judges for Zmeskal's performance. Instead, he dredged up the past, saying Zmeskal was undone not by a fall in Barcelona but by a decision in Baltimore, where Miller was awarded the overall Olympic trials title on a technicality.
"I have such heartache to see Kim fall down," Karolyi said. "Her confidence was destroyed in this ugly, ugly selection process. I can't find enough words to describe the ugliness of this process. Of course, it's still possible she could make the all-around final. She is a fighter. But it's a remote possibility."
With Zmeskal's stumble, the focus now shifts to Miller, a shy, 4-foot-6, 69-pound wisp.
Miller used her consistency to outpoint the world's greatest gymnasts, taking a lead over 1989 world champion Svetlana Boguinskaia of the Unified Team and Henrietta Onodi, the tough, fearless veteran from Hungary.
"I'm excited," Miller said, "but I wish the team was in first."
After Tuesday night's optional final, the individual scores will be wiped away, but not the first impressions.
Miller is rising.
Zmeskal is falling.
"Let's not fail to realize that Shannon Miller didn't just beat Kim Zmeskal here," said Miller's coach, Steve Nunno. "She beat the whole world. Everyone has to finally realize the greatness of Shannon Miller."
And with one fall, Zmeskal's brief era is in danger of ending.
"I'm going to sleep," Zmeskal said, leaving the arena near midnight. "It all happened so fast. I don't even remember the fall."