ATLANTA — After the falls, after the broken vaults and the off-the-floor exercise, Shannon Miller awakened Monday morning not liking the impression she was leaving on these Olympics.
Nationally televised breakdowns, anguish in Atlanta, '96 tears--this was no way to go about calling it an international gymnastics career.
She had failed to win the all-around gold medal that obsessed her after settling for silver in Barcelona--and didn't come close, finishing eighth.
She had failed to win the individual event gold medal that also eluded her in 1992--sitting down on the job during the vault competition and finishing eighth again.
By Monday night, she had nothing left except one more spin on a four-inch-wide strip of padded aluminum commonly referred to among gymnasts as "hell"--or, "purgatory," to quote Bela Karolyi, an optimist.
Miller, however, took the balance beam to a higher realm Monday night, or maybe it took her. On the 30th and final routine of her Olympic career, Miller hit an all-time performance--"one of the best routines I've ever done"--to score a 9.862 on the beam to win the gold medal, her first individual gold after two silvers and two bronzes in Barcelona.
"If I didn't win [an individual] gold medal, it wasn't going impact the rest of my life," Miller claimed. "I'm still living. I'm still going to go on with my life. But this is a great note to end things on. It was my chance to redeem myself for yesterday's vault."
Monday was a big night for American redemption inside the Georgia Dome. Dominique Dawes, who also faltered on the floor during all-around competition and on the vault in Sunday finals, won the bronze medal in the individual floor exercise with a mark of 9.837--placing third behind the Ukraine's Lilia Podkopayeva (9.887) and Romania's Simona Amanar (9.837). Dawes is the first African American woman to win an individual gymnastics medal for the United States.
"I needed to show the world and myself I could do it," said Dawes, who had finished 17th in the all-around competition and sixth in the vault finals. "I was disappointed I couldn't do it for myself in the all-around."
Miller's gold was historic as well. Along with the team gold medal she shared with Dawes and five other American teammates last Tuesday, Miller now has seven Olympic medals. Among American women, only swimmer Shirley Babashoff, with eight, has more.
The evening, however, opened on a downer for the Americans, beginning with Kerri Strug's official withdrawal from what would have been her last chance at an individual medal, the floor exercise, her best event. Strug's injured left ankle, which also kept her out of the all-around and vault finals, simply wasn't strong enough to support the pounding the floor exercise demands.
Strug's only appearance before the crowd of 32,573 was before the meet, when Nadia Comaneci introduced her and handed her a microphone. Strug broke the bad news to the audience--"I won't be able to compete tonight"--which elicited a sad groan before Strug brightened, thanking the fans "for all your support" and asking them to "urge the gymnasts on to a great competition tonight."
Then, Dominique Moceanu placed her tiny feet on the balance beam.
And, shortly after, her tiny forehead.
Moceanu left the crowd gasping as she stumbled during a backflip sequence and cracked her head against the beam. Remarkably, Moceanu didn't fall to the mat--she recovered in time to grab the beam with both arms, then straddle it side-saddle, left arm graciously raised in the air as if the move was merely the special-effects portion of her routine.
Judges, however, were unforgiving, grading her down to a sixth-place 9.125. Moceanu walked away dazed, but unhurt. She later competed in the floor exercise, finishing just behind Dawes with a fourth-place mark of 9.825.
Miller, fourth in the balance beam rotation, set the score to beat with a routine flawed by just slight wobble on her landing. Four more gymnasts would have a chance to beat her 9.862--including the all-around gold and silver medalists, Podkopayeva and Gina Gogean of Romania.
But Podkopayeva nearly fell while landing her first front flip and Gogean's routine was sluggish. One by one, the scores were posted:
Silver and bronze.
And that smile that finally crossed the face of Miller? Unbridled relief has never been better captured.
"I was disappointed [Sunday] night after falling on the vault," Miller said, "but there wasn't anything I could do about it. But, I could do something about the beam."
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Gold: Shannon Miller, United States
Bronze: Gina Gogean, Romania
Gold: Lilia Podkopayeva, Ukraine
Silver: Simona Amanar, Romania
Bronze: Dominque Dawes, United States