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She knows all about trials and tribulations

July 19, 2008|Diane Pucin | Times Staff Writer

NEW WAVERLY, Texas -- Kim Warren is a happily married mother of two, a kindergarten teacher in Cullman, Ala., and a keen observer of U.S. women's gymnastics.

Her heart will break tonight for whichever of the hopeful girls who have gathered here at the Bela and Martha Karolyi ranch near Houston are left off the six-member U.S. gymnastics Olympic team.

And her heart won't feel all that great for the girls who have made it.

"The process is so hard and so fickle," Warren said. "I watched the Olympic trials and I didn't think anyone looked happy.'

In 1992 Warren -- then Kim Kelly -- participated at the U.S. Olympic trials in Baltimore. As the sixth-place all-around finisher, the 18-year-old Warren was introduced to the in-house crowd, and live on NBC, as an Olympian.

She received her Team USA gear and a few days later went to Florida where she thought she would participate in a camp that would help her fine-tune her routines and bond with her other five teammates.

The camp, Warren believed, also was supposed to help evaluate the health of two top-ranked gymnasts, Betty Okino and Michelle Campi, and to determine who would be the team alternate.

Instead, at nearly midnight in a hotel room near Orlando, Warren's coach Donna Strauss came to her room.

"I had just finished my shower," Warren said, "and Donna came in. I asked her who got cut and she looked at me and said, 'You.'

"It took me five or 10 minutes to have the news sink in. Then I started screaming and went to find Bela. I was screaming and yelling. I just didn't understand. I still don't."

Warren was a victim of an Olympic selection process that wasn't so different from what has happened this year. But now the coaches, athletes, national team directors and fans are aware that the team isn't chosen strictly by the numbers.

Only two gymnasts -- all-around champion Shawn Johnson and runner up Nastia Liukin -- were named Olympians at the trials in Philadelphia last month. The other four members plus up to three alternates will be named by team coordinator Martha Karolyi tonight.

It is never easy. More proof of that came Friday, when Shayla Worley, runner-up a year ago at the national championships in the all-around, left the ranch on crutches with a broken leg. And Chellsie Memmel, a former world champion and a strong third-place finisher at the trials, injured her neck during her floor routine during Friday's mini-meet. Yet she refused to give in to the pain and came back to do the balance beam and scored a good 15.900.

Twelve gymnasts have been participating in a final training camp since Wednesday. They are undergoing daily testing and competitions, trying to prove both their physical well-being and mental toughness. And now the selection process is clear. Only two guaranteed spots were up for grabs. The rest are discretionary.

It seemed different in 1992.

Warren believed she was a bona fide, certified Olympian after the trials. She was from suburban Philadelphia and at 5 feet 3 had a sturdy build and steely nerves. It also was still a time when gymnasts had to perform a compulsory routine on each apparatus as well as an optional routine.

"When we went for those trials, I was so prepared and I did them really well," Kelly said. "Compulsories were my strength."

Two internationally tested athletes, Okino, who was coached by Bela Karolyi, and Campi missed the trials because of injuries. They participated in the Florida training camp and eventually made the team along with Kim Zmeskal, Shannon Miller, Kerri Strug, Dominique Dawes and Wendy Bruce. Campi ended up as the alternate. Warren had finished ahead of Bruce at the trials.

Bela Karolyi said at the time that the decision to leave Warren off the team was made by a selection committee and for only one reason. "To present the best team possible for the USA," Karolyi said. "But it was a painful decision."

The U.S. team did win a bronze medal, behind the Unified Team (what had been the Soviet Union) and Romania.

But to this day, Warren believes it was always Karolyi's intention to ignore all the statistics and concrete results.

"Bela didn't like my body type, that was it," Warren said. "When we went to the final camp in Orlando, I think Bela was hoping I would perform badly because he already had his mind made up. But I didn't."

She went on to compete as a college gymnast at Alabama, married fellow Alabama graduate Wes Warren and they have two children, 6-year-old daughter Kelly and 2-year-old son Noah.

Yet after all this time, she finds the current system of evaluating athletes -- through a grueling series of monthly camps, U.S. nationals and then Olympic trials followed by yet another camp -- as disturbing as the secretive system that caused her such pain 16 years ago.

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