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SYDNEY 2000 / SUMMER OLYMPIC GAMES

It's a Surreal Beginning for Longshot Americans

Gymnastics: With Karolyi in an unusual role, unemotional women's team is fifth after three sessions.

September 17, 2000|DIANE PUCIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SYDNEY, Australia — Bela Karolyi sat in the stands. His knees shook. His fingers twirled. His Adam's apple bobbed as Karolyi gulped--in anger, in disappointment, in fear, in happiness.

The best motivator in the world, the best gymnastics coach the U.S. has ever had, had accepted a position of team coordinator. Karolyi could train the U.S. women Olympic gymnasts but he couldn't coach them at the Olympics.

Karolyi couldn't be on the floor yelling, "You can do it," to Elise Ray when Ray's shoulder popped out on the floor exercise. He couldn't give Tasha Schwikert a big bear hug when the 15-year-old last-minute sub stuck her landing on the uneven bars.

"It was most frustrating thing in the world," Karolyi said after the U.S. women had finished the team preliminary competition today. "My hands were tied behind my back. But that was the rules."

The U.S. women, defending Olympic team gold medalists, stood fifth after three of the four sessions. Six of the 12 teams will make Tuesday's final. The Russians and Romanians are heavy favorites to win gold and silver and the Ukraine is expected to make the final.

Karolyi said he thought the U.S. would be fighting for the final two spots with Belarus and Spain.

"If we do not make the final, that would be a disaster," Karolyi said.

When Karolyi agreed in January to be team coordinator, he also agreed not to coach any of the girls individually and not to act as floor coach at the Olympics.

Kelli Hill, the personal coach of Ray and Dominique Dawes, was named head coach, and Mary Lee Tracy was the original assistant. But when Tracy's pupil, Morgan White, pulled out last Monday because of a foot injury, Steve Rybacki was substituted for Tracy.

Rybacki is the personal coach of Jamie Dantzscher of San Dimas. Dantzscher had a disastrous day. After earning a sparkling score of 9.812 on the floor exercise at the Olympic trials, a nervous, fidgety Dantzscher staggered off the mat with an 8.987. On her only other apparatus, the vault, Dantzscher, an 18-year-old UCLA freshman-to-be, had a big step on one landing and a small step on the other for a 9.325.

"Jamie was Jamie," Karolyi said. "She is brilliant sometimes and sometimes the opposite."

It was a curiously flat performance by all the Americans. There was little emotion. While the third-place Aussies were cheering each other, while the Chinese were offering high fives, it seemed as if each American girl was in a glass bubble. There was no interaction.

Besides drawing into the first group, the U.S. also was first up on the devilish balance beam.

Three-time Olympian Dawes fell off but Schwikert, who learned only last Monday that she would compete, 1996 Olympian Amy Chow, Kristen Maloney and national champion Elise Ray all scored over 9.3.

There was a frightening moment for the U.S. on floor exercise. Ray, the 18-year-old from Columbia, Md., who was thought to have an outside chance at an all-around medal, skittered off the mat. She scored an unusually low 9.225 and the U.S. coaching staff surrounded her afterward.

Her left shoulder had popped out, then back in, during a tumbling pass. But Ray was able to finish and scored a 9.617 on the uneven bars, the event most strenuous on a shoulder.

*

Despite dislocating a finger, John Roethlisberger delivered a 9.60 score in the horse to help the U.S. finish fourth in the team trial preliminaries and advance to Monday's six-team final.

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