INDIANAPOLIS -- The youngest is 13 years old. The oldest is 16. They not only are the future of women's gymnastics in the United States, but they also are the present.
Last night, under the bright lights and the big top at the Hoosier Dome, the U.S. women put a silver stamp on the 1991 World Championships.
Using Kim Zmeskal's perfect 10 on the final vault, the U.S. women tumbled and leaped their way to a first-ever team medal, finishing with 394.116 points and the silver behind the Soviet Union (396.055). Romania, which entered the final round of the compulsory competition tied with the United States, finished third with 393.841 points.
"The medal was in our pocket," U.S. head coach Bela Karolyi said. "We counted on the bronze. But the silver? I can't believe it."
The U.S. performance ended with the perfection of Zmeskal's vault. The 15-year-old from Houston sprinted down the runway and completed a breathtaking Yurchenko layout with a full twist.
"Sometimes, people freeze in competition," Zmeskal said. "But I don't. I love to compete."
The terrific performance by the U.S. teen-agers was directed by Karolyi. It was Karolyi, the Romanian-born coach, who took the divergent styles of Nadia Comaneci and Mary Lou Retton, and molded them into Olympic all-around gold medalists.
And here, it was Karolyi who gambled and won in a Byzantine maneuver. During Sunday's team compulsories, he placed his two power-pack gymnasts, Betty Okino and Zmeskal, in the middle of the lineup. The strategic masterstroke forced the judges to bump up the U.S. scores, and led to the remarkable rise to the elite ranks of 14-year-old Shannon Miller.
Miller, a 4-foot-6, 69-pound fireball from Edmond, Okla., finished fourth overall.
The U.S. performance could not have come at a better time. These championships present a clear picture of the ranking order for the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain.
"We've sent a strong message," Karolyi said. "Now, the United States is head to head with the leading European countries. They never let anyone come into that circle before. We came in. This chain will be broken, forever."
The silver medal also marked a personal triumph for Karolyi, who defected from Romania in 1981.
"I'm behind my kids no matter where in the world I am," he said. "No politics. I'm happy that my kids beat a very, very good Romanian team."
Of course, the Soviets and their reigning world all-around champion, Svetlana Boguinskaia, remain a force. Boguinskaia, 18, was nearly flawless and led the individual standings.
But it was Zmeskal who captivated the crowd, earning a standing ovation for a vibrant floor exercise routine that earned her a 9.950. Then, on her second and final vault, she scored her 10 that clinched the silver.
"She is just like Mary Lou [Retton] in the vaulting," Karolyi said. "She is strong. Sure. You see when the pressure is on, on the very last attempt, to turn it on and get the silver medal, that was more than anyone could expect."
Throughout the competition, the U.S. team was led by its two stars, Zmeskal and Okino, 16, of Elmhurst, Ill. But for the first time since winning the team silver at the 1984 Olympics, the United States could surround its stars with talented performers.
Kerri Strug, 13, the Tucson, Ariz., native who trains with Karolyi in Houston, was third in the 1991 national all-around and won the vault title. Hilary Grivich, 14, of Huntsville, Texas, was the 1990 junior national champion, who finished sixth in this year's senior all-around. Michelle Campi, 15, of Carmichael, Calif., who was 14th in the all-around at the nationals, competed marvelously in the world team trials, and earned a spot at Indianapolis.
But the performer who made the greatest leap was Miller. At this year's national championships, she was seventh in the all-around, won the gold medal on the beam and the bronze medal on the vault.
"I've been training real hard," she said. "I just wanted to help the team win the medal."