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Dominant U.S. Teams Are Wary

Women: Favorites in basketball, soccer and softball brace for onslaught. Gymnasts hope to overachieve.


MELBOURNE, Australia — April Heinrichs was on stage, with the glare of television lights in front of her and a blue backdrop emblazoned with the colorful Sydney 2000 Olympic logo behind her.

The microphone was hers.

"We're focused solely on China now and getting three more points and controlling as much of this crazy game as we can," she said.

Barely 20 minutes earlier, the defending Olympic champion U.S. women's soccer team had defeated archrival Norway, 2-0, but Heinrichs already was looking ahead to the next challenge, against China on Sunday.

"I expect it to be a nail-biting experience," she said of the threat posed by the 1996 silver medalist.

"They're difficult to play against because they're so wonderfully gifted on an individual basis and they have this collective resolve that says, 'We're a great team too, America, and we're coming after you.'

"So we're aware of that and we're going to find ways to dig deeper. Tonight wasn't our best performance but rather just a start for some wonderful things ahead."

Heinrichs is the U.S. women's soccer coach, but her words might just as easily have been voiced by U.S. women's softball Manager Ralph Raymond or by U.S. women's basketball Coach Nell Fortner. Their teams also were gold medalists at the Atlanta Games and could be ready to repeat.

For Coach Bela Karolyi of the U.S. women's gymnastics team, it's a different story.

"Yes, we are medal contenders," Karolyi told U.S. Gymnast magazine not long ago. Realistically, however, American hopes of winning the gold this time around are slimmer than the most diminutive balance beam artist.

Still, if three of the four U.S. women's teams repeat as Olympic champions, that will be no modest feat in a year in which the Games are celebrating a century of female achievement--as evidenced so well in Friday's opening ceremony.

All the same, three gold medals won't be easily accomplished.

"We were under such different circumstances in '96," basketball standout Lisa Leslie said. "No. 1, we were playing [at home] and trying to get our own country to recognize who we were and really create the awareness of women's basketball and our existence.

"And here we are, very much well known now, I would say, by the American public. Probably better than we expected, having the WNBA. But we're coming off the season and had only about 20 days to prepare to win a gold.

"We're in game shape, but the hardest part will be chemistry. In '95 and '96, it was easy to build chemistry, having a year together. . . . That's not really the case on this team. We have to do it in such a short period of time. All we can say is, we'll see."

The strongest opposition is likely to come from Brazil, Russia and, not surprisingly, Australia.

"I don't think people realize what a challenge this is for us," said veteran guard Teresa Edwards, who will be seeking a fifth Olympic medal. "Yet there are really high expectations [that] we're going to come home with the gold.

"Can we step up and meet that challenge? That's a lot of pressure. Australia [is] a team that can do something with that home-court advantage. If they ride the wave, if all the elements line up perfectly for them, they could win this thing."

Fortner, meanwhile, is pleased with the U.S. players' preparation coming off the WNBA season, before which the core of the team trained together for six months.

"They're all in great shape," she said. "The other thing is, this is the Olympics. They're very focused and highly motivated right now. They've worked very hard. This is what we've been working for the last two years. It's here."

It's here too soon for the women gymnasts, in all likelihood. Unless some star unexpectedly emerges, there is no Kerri Strug to work the magic this time around.

Karolyi's team lacks depth and will be lucky to make it to the six-team finals.

Only two competitors remain from the "Magnificent Seven" of 1996: Amy Chow and Dominique Dawes. The rest are unproven at this level. The U.S. finished sixth in the two most recent world championships, and performances at the Olympic trials were mediocre at best.

In short, the favored Russians and Romanians will not be overly concerned about the American challenge.

Even a bronze medal by the U.S. women would be a huge upset, and it's quite possible that when the team final comes along the Americans won't be there.

The exact opposite is true in softball, where the other teams are likely to be chasing Lisa Fernandez, Dot Richardson and the rest of the talented Americans in vain.

Richardson is playing second base these days, having returned to the team after being ignored by the selection committee for 2 1/2 years. The former shortstop is again the sparkplug, but cautions that the gold medal hasn't been won yet.

"As usual, every country guns for us," she said. "That's the way we've always had it, and the way we want it. We actually welcome the challenge. It's easy to get to the top. The true challenge is staying there."

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