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Off-the-Floor Action as Tense as Competition

Gymnastics: Sidelined Moceanu and Miller clinch spots in Olympics, but not before sweating out jittery compulsories.

June 29, 1996|MIKE PENNER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BOSTON — The tension was palpable Friday night as Dominique Moceanu concluded final preparations for the compulsory phase of the U.S. Olympic women's gymnastics trials.

With one sweaty palm, she grabbed a score sheet from the 1996 national championships, which were held three weeks ago in Knoxville, Tenn.

With another, her mother, Camelia, clutched a pocket calculator.

Then, they both took deep breaths, settled into their seats at the FleetCenter and braced themselves for a long night.

This is how America's top female gymnasts now qualify for berths on the Olympic team. The bars, the beam, the vault and the floor exercise have been replaced by the petition, the injury waiver, the standing score and the speedy on-site mathematical computation.

Moceanu and Shannon Miller technically clinched spots on the Olympic team Friday without taking off their sweatsuits. Because of injuries, both gymnasts had successfully petitioned their way out of the trials, agreeing to throw their national championship scores into the mix and see how well they might hold up against the field in Boston. All told, seven gymnasts will make the Olympic team.

The scores to beat were Miller's 78.38 and Moceanu's 78.22, and after completion of a jittery compulsory competition, those scores are now out of reach. According to USA Gymnastics spokesperson Luan Peszek, none of the 14 gymnasts actually competing here will surpass 78.22 "even if anyone scores four perfect 10s" during Sunday's optional phase.

Team Moceanu knew by the end of Friday's second rotation, with Camelia punching in numbers and Dominique tending to the paperwork.

"We had it all figured out," Moceanu said. "My mom had the calculator and I was doing it mentally too. After the first couple of rotations, we knew. Then, I started looking forward to Atlanta."

A race for seven Olympic spots just got downsized to five. For the non-petitioners at the FleetCenter, that took some adjustment. Amanda Borden, on the bubble after compulsories, said she planned to "do the best I can Sunday and hopefully hold on in seventh . . . um, I mean, fifth."

The top five heading into optionals are Jaycie Phelps (46.887 after compulsories), Dominique Dawes (46.768), Kerri Strug (46.588), Amy Chow (46.377) and Borden (45.913).

None of those scores matched Moceanu's compulsory result from the national championships--47.1--which was the cause for the out-of-balance beaming by Moceanu and her coach, Bela Karolyi.

"The score is gonna hold," Karolyi happily said.

Had he ever doubted it?

"Absolutely," he said. "You never know. I was sure the scores were gonna escalate at the trials. You look at the past. Scores at the trials are always higher than the nationals."

Except at these trials, which had some conspiracy theorists among the media corps wondering: Could the judges be deliberately low-balling scores to make sure the United States sent its best team to Atlanta?

Patriotic duty and all that?

"I have a lot of respect for our judges," Kathy Kelly, women's program director for USA Gymnastics.

Karolyi absolved the judges too.

"A lot of mistakes on the floor tonight," Karolyi said, referring to the gymnasts. "A lot of nerves. The scores were down because the girls were so nervous. When you have mistakes, scores are down."

So Moceanu and Miller are in and the Olympic trials are only half finished. Yogi Berra had it wrong: In women's gymnastics, it is over before it's over. But, then, Yogi never landed a double salto in a red, white and blue leotard.

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