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SPORTS EXTRA: SYDNEY 2000 / SUMMER OLYMPIC GAMES

Gymnastics

With Russians, Romanians and Chinese Favored, U.S. Men and Women Will Flip for Joy if They Can Pull Off Upsets

September 10, 2000|DIANE PUCIN

WOMEN

* OVERVIEW--It will be a huge upset if the U.S. women defend their first team gold medal in Sydney. The U.S. is coming off consecutive sixth-place finishes at the World Championships and took the desperate measure of coaxing retired guru Bela Karolyi back to fix things.

But the women did not distinguish themselves at the Olympic trials last month. There were too many falls and too many competitors going backward instead of forward to expect much improvement.

Elise Ray, the 18-year-old Olympic trials and national championships all-around winner, has an outside chance of winning an all-around medal but will have to substantially improve on her eighth-place world championship finish of last year.

Kristen Maloney could battle for individual medals on the floor, while elegant 1996 veteran Amy Chow should be in the fight for individual hardware on the uneven bars and balance beam.

But the Russians and Romanians figure to be the stars of 2000. Those teams are expected to finish first and second, not necessarily in that order.

Romania's Maria Olaru, 18, is the defending world all-around champion. Her great strength is her consistency. She has no outstanding skill and no great weakness. Vyctoria Karpenko, 19, of the Ukraine; Elena Zamolodchikova, 17, of Russia, and 20-year-old Yelena Produnova of Russia should also fight for all-around medals.

Svetlana Khorkina, yet another Russian, was the 1997 world all-around champion when she was 18. She may not win an all-around medal, but it will be a huge upset if she doesn't win the gold medal on the uneven bars.

* OTHERS TO WATCH--Dark horse Australia, with the kind of hometown support that so helped the U.S. four years ago, could sneak in for a team medal. The Australians are coached by Peggy Liddick, who in 1992 and 1996 helped Steve Nunno coach seven-time U.S. medalist Shannon Miller. The Australians were a surprise fifth at last year's worlds and are rapidly improving.

* BEST STORY--It was supposed to be Shannon Miller, who would make her third U.S. Olympic team in a row and become the first American to win a gymnastics medal in three consecutive Olympics. Instead, quietly and with increasingly steady performances, it was Dominique Dawes who made the team for the third time.

Dawes, who became the first African American to win a gymnastics medal in 1996 when she won bronze on the floor exercise to go with that team gold, had retired after Atlanta. She attended the University of Maryland and began a Broadway career.

In March, she decided to join former 1996 teammates Chow, Miller, Dominique Moceanu and Jaycie Phelps in making comebacks. Miller, Moceanu and Phelps all succumbed to injuries. Dawes' steadiness and experience impressed Karolyi and when Dawes nailed her beam routine as her final apparatus at the Olympic trials, Karolyi chose her instead of Vanessa Atler.

* SOUTHLAND CONNECTION--Jamie Dantzscher, 18, San Dimas, UCLA; Kristen Maloney, 19, UCLA.

* KEY DATES--Sept. 19, team final. Sept. 21, individual all-around final, 11 p.m. Pacific. Sept. 23, vault and uneven bars final. Sept. 24, beam and floor finals.

Fast Fact

* In 1996, the best of two vaults counted. This time, the scores from the two vaults will be averaged. That will hurt the U.S. because of the relatively low start values of their vaults.

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