INDIANAPOLIS -- One comes right out of the Romper Room that is women's gymnastics. The other is an elegant ballerina who can flip over the vault.
Last night, 15-year-old Kim Zmeskal of the United States and 18-year-old Svetlana Boguinskaia of the Soviet Union staged a tumbling contest filled with style and substance. Zmeskal used her speed and power. Boguinskaia countered with grit and grace. When it ended, women's gymnastics had a new all-around champion.
Zmeskal, a 4-foot-7, 80-pound dynamo from Houston, scored 39.848 out of 40 points to claim the gold medal in the all-around at the World Championships. It was the first time a U.S. women's gymnast received an all-around World Championship medal, and the triumph marked Zmeskal as a gold-medal favorite for the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain.
Boguinskaia, the defending champion from Minsk, finished second with 39.736 points. Cristina Bontas of Romania was third with 39.711 points.
"It's like a dream," Zmeskal said. "When the award ceremony was going on, I was at first scared to walk up there because I wasn't sure I heard right."
The U.S. success didn't stop with Zmeskal. After winning the team silver Wednesday, the United States continued to display its depth last night under the direction of coach Bela Karolyi, who was celebrating his 49th birthday. Betty Okino, 16, of Elmhurst, Ill., finished fourth with 39.661 points and Shannon Miller, 14, of Edmond, Okla., finished sixth with 39.586.
"The biggest thing for our confidence was winning the team medal," Okino said. "After that, the pressure was off. When Bela prepares us in the gym, we know if he says it is good, it is almost perfect, because he is such a perfectionist."
In Zmeskal, Karolyi has a near-perfect gymnast. She began competing as a 6-year-old in Karolyi's tiny tots program, and moved to the head of the class in the past two years, winning back-to-back U.S. titles.
"I thought Kim could win this title," Karolyi said. "She has the best track record to this point."
From start to finish last night, Zmeskal was sensational. She opened with a mark of 9.962 on the vault and closed with a floor routine that brought the crowd to its feet and earned a 9.987 from the judges. Performing to "In the Mood," Zmeskal landed three mesmerizing back handsprings and a triple back flip.
"I just knew I had to do one of the best performances of my life," Zmeskal said.
Boguinskaia, who didn't receive a mark under 9.912, didn't relinquish her title without a fight. She kept the pressure on Zmeskal throughout the two-hour competition.
"We were concentrated, not nervous, before that floor exercise," Karolyi said. "It was like the horses in the corral before the big race. This little Kim is just like all the greatest athletes I have ever coached. She is ready to go, ready to go. Only one in several million do you have an athlete like that."
But Boguinskaia said hometown judging helped Zmeskal to the title.
"If I had competed [in Europe] the same as here, 100 percent, I would win," Boguinskaia said. "America is America. When you're competing at home, you get higher scores. American gymnasts at home received higher scores. The judges were not especially fair to the foreign athletes."
Karolyi disputed Boguinskaia's claim. He said Zmeskal earned the title and created a standard for gymnastics.
"We had a beautiful world champion in Svetlana Boguinskaia," he said. "Her time is over. Now is a new era. It is an era of a young, powerful athlete."
The Zmeskal era in gymnastics has begun.