INDIANAPOLIS -- Their top performer was out. Their margin of error was erased. Their hope of securing a berth at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona was flickering.
But the men of the United States gymnastics team survived a challenge at the World Championships last night at the Hoosier Dome, finishing fifth in the team competition to gain a spot at next summer's Olympics.
"It's like flying without a net," said Lance Ringnald, the 1988 Olympian who was injured in Sunday's compulsory competition. "The circumstances are much more dramatic."
There were a lot of terrific plots last night. The Soviet Union soared to its seventh team title in eight championships. Led by the effortless grace of Vataly Scherbo, the Soviets overwhelmed the competition with 584.425 points. China was second with 577.050 points and Germany was third with 576.125.
But it was the fifth-place finish by the United States that thrilled the crowd. The U.S. men, wearing T-shirts that read "It Only Takes Five," scored 569.725 points to finish behind Japan (574.925). Considering the circumstances, it was a terrific accomplishment.
Normally, six gymnasts compete for each team, with the top five scores counting. Without Ringnald, every bobble and stumble was ticked off against the United States.
"We just couldn't drop any score," said Scott Keswick, a senior at UCLA. "We had to save every tenth of a point that we could. If we fell, we had to get right back up and go on. It was a gutsy performance."
The United States had trouble from the start of this competition. In Sunday night's compulsories, Ringnald felt the pectoral muscle rip in his upper right chest. But he wouldn't stop. He was on the rings, his arms stretched to the sides, his body forming a cross.
"You could hear the rip," Ringnald said. "It was just a little bit. And then, all of a sudden, it was lot. And that was it."
Although the U.S. five of Keswick, Patrick Kirksey, Jarrod Hanks, Albert Chainey Umphrey and Chris Waller tumbled on and claimed one of the 12 Olympic spots, Ringnald faces his own uphill fight. He is beginning to come to grips with trying to recover in time for the Olympic trials next June in Baltimore.
The 21-year-old Albuquerque, N.M., native has competed in the 1988 Summer Olympics, the 1989 World Championships and the 1990 Goodwill Games. He came into these World Championships expecting to win a medal in his specialty, the high bar, while leading the United States to a bronze in the team competition.
"What happens is that you rise to the occasion," he said. "You train hard and you train long and sometimes you hurt your body. I rose up for this competition, and maybe I pushed my body too hard."
Ringnald said the pain of the injury was easy to absorb. But the consequences of the injury were more difficult to accept. He placed a burden on his teammates, particularly Keswick, the UCLA senior who finished 20th in last night's competition.
"It hurts my heart and soul that my teammates don't have that extra man, that cushion," he said. "Everything was team. I'll hurt and I'll heal. I have no problem with that. I wasn't allowed to do the job that I trained to do, and I put pressure on the team."
But Ringnald also faces pressure. Once a leading contender to make the 1992 U.S. Olympic team, he is a long shot to qualify for the Barcelona Games. Doctors have told him he will not be able to train for six months, leaving him only a three-month window of preparation before the trials.
"I can either get an operation to repair the muscle, or I can rehabilitate the muscle and see what happens," he said. "Right now, I'm leaning toward the operation."
For someone who had sustained the first major injury of his career, Ringnald was remarkably composed last night. He talked of working hard in the coming months and resuming his career. A torn muscle, he said, was only a temporary setback.
"I've been to the Olympics and other events because I've thought about the gymnastics, not the medals," he said. "I can't go to point D without passing through A, B and C. Point A is rehabilitation. Point B is training. Point C is improvement. And Point D, that's the Olympics. I either will or I will not make the team."
Thanks to his teammates, Ringnald can begin making plans for Barcelona.
"We didn't panic," Umphrey said. "If anything, we came together."