SEATTLE — We have seen that look before, the pursed lips, the clenched hands, the cameraman looming in the face of the veteran gymnast who was supposed to be winning, but was losing.
Only this time, that gymnast was Shannon Miller.
Thursday night at the Seattle Arena, Miller, leading a field of unknowns at the McDonald's American Cup preliminaries, fell off the balance beam on a tricky skill and missed making the finals. Instead, Kristy Powell, competing in only her second competition as a senior, won the event, considered the United States' most prestigious international competition.
Powell, 15, of Colorado Springs, Colo., will be joined by Amanda Borden, 17, of Cincinnati in Saturday's finals. Miller, who will be 18 next week, finished fourth overall, a half-point out of first place, a considerable gap.
John Roethlisberger of Afton, Minn., won the men's preliminaries and Bill Ross of Mohegan Lake, N.Y., finished third to reach the finals.
The competition allows only the top eight male and female gymnasts into the finals. A maximum of two are allowed from each country, but only the Americans had more than one gymnast competing.
Miller's demise was unexpected, what with her winning the Pan American trials two weeks ago with routines that included more difficult skills than in the past. Thursday night, she started out strong, leading off on the uneven bars with a new routine that she performed solidly, scoring a 9.8.
But standing at the runway to the vault, she looked nervous, as if this were the World Championship--which she has won twice--instead of just another international event. She did two vaults with low difficulty, landed them cleanly and averaged a score of 9.675.
She was in third place going into the beam, an event in which she traditionally scores high. But shortly after the start of the routine she did a back handspring, twisted into a handstand and lost it. She fell from the beam, quickly remounted and finished cleanly. But the damage was done.
Miller stood stoically near the back of the gym waiting for her score, and when it came she didn't flinch. How long has it been since Miller scored a 9.325 on the beam?
Nobody could remember.
Miller, who has won more Olympic medals and world championship medals than any other American gymnast in history, is no longer quiet and shy. Older and more mature, she answers questions in paragraphs, even with voice inflection. At 5 feet and 94 pounds, she is four inches taller and 22 pounds heavier than she was at the 1992 Olympics.
"Shannon has gone through a maturity period since 1992, when she was a young pipsqueak of a gymnast," said Steve Nunno, her other coach, in a news conference before the start of the competition. "She is now a young lady, not only a seasoned competitor, with a lot more grace and a lot more experience in performing to the crowd, which she can do better than when she was shy and reserved."
But not even a new, showy floor routine could save her. She scored a 9.825 to finish third among Americans, fourth for the day.
Scott Keswick, a UCLA alumnus and the top-ranked U.S. male gymnast, suffered a herniated disk in his upper lumbar Saturday when he fell from the high bar, and his status is uncertain.
Brad Smith, trainer for the U.S. Gymnastics Federation, said Thursday that not much is known about about injuries to the lumbar 2-3 disk, and it will take Keswick about two or three months before he can get back to the gym and determine what is entailed in a comeback.
"We speculate that he will probably return by the end of the summer," Smith said.
Meanwhile, Keswick hopes to be able to travel home to Los Angeles on Sunday.