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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS

Americans Led by Strug, the Girl Who Doesn't

Gymnastics: Moceanu returns from injury to reduced role on U.S. team. But it's scoring that she speaks out against.

July 22, 1996|RANDY HARVEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ATLANTA — Even though this is her first Olympics, even though she is only 14, even though she is still rehabilitating from a four-inch stress fracture in her right shin, Dominique Moceanu did not want to hear Sunday that she would not be the one to carry the U.S. women's gymnastics team on her slender shoulders.

So her coach, Bela Karolyi, did not tell her until minutes before she went onto the floor in the Georgia Dome for the compulsories in the team competition.

She was angry.

Then disappointed.

And finally resigned.

"He told me the situation, and I didn't like it," she said afterward. "But I thought, 'OK, that's the deal. I can't do anything about it. Just go out there and do the best you can.' "

All things considered, she did exactly that. She was not exceptional on any of the four apparatuses, but her consistency was rewarded with scores from 9.662 in the vault to 9.75 in the floor exercise. That gave her the fifth-best total of the day. The only teammate ahead of her is Shannon Miller, who is second.

But Moceanu was not doing backflips over her scores afterward. She is completing only her second year as a senior, but she has learned enough about the realities of judging to know that she would have scored higher if she had been farther down in the order on each of the apparatuses. Unless serious mistakes are committed, such as falls, scores traditionally improve in the compulsories as the competition progresses. That is one reason compulsories will become extinct after the Olympics.

"I could see that the scoring was starting low and then going higher and higher," Moceanu said. "I was upset about it, but what can you do?"

The coaches chose to place Moceanu last of the six U.S. women only on the balance beam. She was fifth on the uneven bars, fourth in the floor exercise and second in the vault. Miller, who won five medals in 1992 and is a two-time world champion, was obviously designated as the team leader, starting either last or next-to-last on every apparatus. Another veteran, Kerri Strug, was last on two apparatuses.

"I think the coaches were trying to compromise with Shannon and Kerri going late as much as possible," said Moceanu, who trains with Strug in Houston. "I wanted to be down there too."

Karolyi laughed when he heard Moceanu's complaint. He sometimes is frustrated because she is almost as emotional as he is, but he also realizes that her temperament is an important element in her competitiveness.

Last year, he tried to hold her back because he did not want her to have too much success too early in her career. He feared that the media would place too much pressure on her with comparisons to his former champions, Nadia Comaneci and Mary Lou Retton.

Moceanu acknowledged his concern, then told him that she planned to win the national championship. She did, becoming the youngest all-around winner ever at 13.

On Sunday, Karolyi's will, for a change, was stronger. Perhaps that is because she had no time to argue. He said that he and other U.S. coaches agreed that they should not demand too much of Moceanu. For one thing, they have Miller, Strug and another returning Olympian, Dominique Dawes. For another, they did not want her to put too much stress on her right leg.

"We didn't place her in a more strategic position on the team because we want very, very much to protect her," Karolyi said. "We didn't want her in a situation where she thought the whole team depended on her. Then she might have tried to do more than she should be doing."

The time for that, he said, will be Tuesday night, when the team champion will be determined. Until then, Karolyi wants her to take her takeoffs and landings easy. She has improved dramatically since the stress fracture prevented her from competing in the U.S. trials. She was waived onto the team because of her third-place finish in the nationals a month earlier. But why risk a more serious injury in the compulsories?

"You don't ever want to think about anything hurting, but, with the adrenaline and excitement and everything, I really didn't feel any pain," Moceanu said. "I thought when I had to sit out the trials that I wouldn't be here. So it's thrilling to be in the Olympics. I did as much as I expected. I just wish the scores had been a little better."

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