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SYDNEY 2000 / SUMMER OLYMPIC GAMES | GYMNASTICS

Disastrous Is the Word for Women

Gymnastics: U.S. earns last spot in finals, but only because Australia is worse.

September 18, 2000|DIANE PUCIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SYDNEY, Australia — The U.S. women gymnasts have lost their way at the Olympics.

They did qualify for Tuesday's team finals, coming in sixth, which is last. But, after Sunday, another gold medal is a dream. Even a bronze seems an impossibility.

Dominique Dawes, the three-time Olympian, fell off the balance beam and performed a floor exercise with a start value of 9.5. The Russians all start from a score of 10.00 on the floor, which means Dawes is giving away crucial tenths of points. And she's not good enough any more.

Elise Ray, who swept through the U.S. national championships and Olympic trials with hardly a stumble, popped her shoulder in and out and back in again during the floor exercise and qualified only 13th for the all-around final.

Kristen Maloney, a two-time national champion, was in tears as she landed on her knees on a vault and has been on a downward scoring spiral since nationals in July.

Amy Chow, a veteran of the gold-medal 1996 team, had hit three good routines and then, on the uneven bars, her best event, came to a stop in mid-swing. Stopping on the uneven bars is as bad as running a red light. Chow didn't fall, but the judges deducted lots of points.

And the best team motivator, the most inspirational cheerleader and a darn good coach, Bela Karolyi, sits in the stands alternately discouraged and disgusted.

Russia dominated Sunday with the help of the stately Svetlana Khorkina. The 21-year-old, who is 5 feet 5 and has posed topless for the Russian version of Playboy, proved that elegant, electrifying gymnastics is performed not only by tiny tots in finishing first in the individual all-around scoring. Qualifying behind the Russians were Romania, China, Ukraine, Spain and the United States.

It is only because the Australians, who finished fifth and ahead of the sixth-place U.S. team at the 1999 world championships, had two girls combine for four landings on either their faces or their rear ends on the vault that the U.S. sneaked away with that sixth spot in the finals.

"It would be a disaster if we don't make the finals," Karolyi had said.

It is a disaster anyway.

Limited to a spot on press row because Karolyi was named as team coordinator instead of coach, the man who so exuberantly pushed Nadia Comaneci, Mary Lou Retton, Kim Zmeskal, Dominique Moceanu and Kerri Strug to fame, some fortune and many Olympic and world championship medals, hung his head and shrugged his shoulders after the team preliminaries.

"Fire is needed," Karolyi said. "We need more intensity. Someone has to generate fire. Quick, quick, quick. Some of the girls must have a cramp in their neck from watching that thing," Karolyi said, pointing to the big TV screen on the monitor over the floor.

Karolyi said he had watched U.S. girls watching replays on TV. And the replays were mostly unpleasant.

After Dawes fell off the balance beam, which was the first U.S. event, Jamie Dantzscher of San Dimas drifted instead of twisted and stepped off the mat during the floor exercise, as did Maloney, as did Ray. Ray had an excuse. She felt her left shoulder pop out of its socket and then back in. "It felt weird," Ray said.

Kelli Hill, the personal coach of Ray and Dawes, seemed detached from the struggles of any girls except Ray and Dawes.

"A lot of oddball things happened," Hill said. "We can do a lot more in the team finals. We can add four- to six-tenths of a point on each event. I saw mistakes today I didn't see during our whole team training camp in Houston or even in warmups."

It's hard to see where Hill plans to get those points.

Dawes, 23, has been training for only six months since deciding to take a break from school and her fledgling acting career to prepare for a third Olympics. Dawes said she was stunned by her fall off the beam.

"It's usually a solid event for me," Dawes said. "Every single mock meet I've hit that set so I'm quite disappointed. I want to do it again in the finals so I can prove to myself that I can do it."

There seemed a lot of proving to themselves but not so much team spirit. There is no cheerleading spirit on this 2000 team.

In 1996 Amanda Borden, who competed in only two of four events, was the first girl out every time to congratulate or console. And Shannon Miller, who wasn't vocal, was a leader by steady example, a seven-time Olympic medalist who always hit a routine at just the right time.

Karolyi was on the floor too in Atlanta, offering hugs or loud words or a push in the tush at just the right time.

He accepted his role as coordinator but not coach when USA Gymnastics President Bob Colarossi coaxed Karolyi out of retirement last fall. Now Karolyi is not sure he did the right thing.

The U.S. women had just finished sixth for the second time in a row at world championships and Colarossi hoped that Karolyi could inspire better training for a year and then sit. It may have seemed impolitic to force personal coaches around the country to give all the power to Karolyi, but now Karolyi can't do the thing he does best. Run the floor.

"I'll never do this again," Karolyi said as he sat above the action. "This is too frustrating. I want to shake the girls by the shoulders after the first routine."

All that is left for Karolyi now is to try an off-day pep talk. The only good news is that scores from the preliminary round are erased. The six finalists start with clean slates Tuesday.

"We'll do better," Dawes said. But the words sounded hollow. The words need to come from Karolyi. But he sits too far away to be heard.

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