INDIANAPOLIS -- The wave of kids and parents followed Kim Zmeskal out of the arena and across the street to a hotel. There were thousands of them, screaming in the night, asking for autographs and handshakes and pictures, jostling for a spot next to the 4-foot-7, 80-pound, 15-year-old girl.
Zmeskal had taken this leap of faith in the Hoosier Dome on Friday night, becoming the first U.S. gymnast at the World Championships to win the women's all-around gold medal. Now, she was given this dose of superstar reality.
"That was strange, walking with all of these security people around me," she said. "The people followed us until we got up to a restaurant, and then they were told to go away. They were just little girls. They weren't going to kill me."
A year earlier than planned, Zmeskal is the next Mary Lou Retton, the new Nadia Comaneci. She is a blond-haired, blue-eyed pixie princess, the ruler of the sport of flying, flipping children.
By dethroning defending champion Svetlana Boguinskaia of the Soviet Union, Zmeskal became the instant, overnight favorite to win the gold medal at the 1992 Summer Olympics. But in a daredevil sport where injury is only a stumble away, a lot still can go wrong for Zmeskal between now and a coronation at the Barcelona Games.
She arrived for an interview at the Hoosier Dome yesterday trailed by a camera crew that was filming her life's story for a Home Box Office special to air next month. She talked of the award ceremony, of "hearing the American anthem instead of the Soviet one. That hasn't happened in a while." She had trouble sleeping, because "it was sort of like the night before Christmas where you're awake the whole night."
But unlike Christmas, Zmeskal already had unwrapped her present, the gold medal.
"Everyone keeps asking me how I feel, and I don't really know," Zmeskal said. "It's weird. I try not to be nervous. I try to hit all my routines. I try to enjoy it. I know it won't last forever."
In last night's apparatus finals, Zmeskal finished seventh in vault. Kim Gwang Suk of North Korea received a perfect mark of 10 to win the women's uneven bars. Shannon Miller, 14, of Edmond, Okla., finished tied for second in the uneven bars and received a silver.
Zmeskal has been competing since she was 6 years old. She is one of the Retton Kids, American gymnasts who are following in the footsteps of the 1984 Olympic champion. But, unlike most of the dreamers, Zmeskal was there every day in her hometown of Houston, training with Retton before the Los Angeles Games.
"My group was embarrassed to go up to Mary Lou," Zmeskal said. "It was nice to watch her in the gym. She was always so happy. Even when she got hurt, she had this positive attitude."
What Zmeskal shares with Retton and Comaneci is coaching. All three were developed by Bela Karolyi, whose tough, demanding style has produced three champions with different personalties and abilities.
Comaneci was the definition of perfection, a haughty performer who tried to please only herself. Retton was the bundle of nervous energy. "A little volcano who could explode," Karolyi said. "An open book who said, 'Here it is, read it.' "
"Kimbo is a little shy," Karolyi said. "Her mind is like a computer. She digests information. Amazing. She can be so mature. Nerves of steel. Short. Strong. Super. Explosive. My greatest fighter."
Zmeskal displayed the fight at these World Championships. She landed a perfect 10 on the vault to give the U.S. women the team silver medal. Against Boguinskaia, she was in a battle of the future against the past. In the end, Zmeskal won with 39.848 points to Boguinskaia's 39.736.
Zmeskal clinched the title with a breathtaking floor exercise routine, sprinting and flipping across the mat while Glenn Miller's "In the Mood" played. When she made a diagonal pass, stringing together three whip backs, a back handspring and a double back flip in a five-second blink of speed and power, the crowd shrieked. The judges gave her a 9.987.
"I was trying hard to hear the music," she said. "I knew after that pass that I had it won."
After the medal ceremony, Boguinskaia said she would have won had the competition been held in Europe. Karolyi countered that Boguinskaia's era had ended. And Boguinskaia answered, "I don't think Kim Zmeskal is that good of a gymnast to make my era come to an end."
In 11 months, the gymnastics world will know the ultimate outcome of this duel. But, now, there is much to do. Zmeskal will return to Houston with her parents, Clarice and David, 12-year-old sister, Melissa, and 9-year-old brother, Eric. She will resume her eight hours a day of training, with a break for lunch and a chance to view her favorite soap opera, "Days of Our Lives." A high school sophomore, she will take two correspondence courses this year. Any sense of a normal childhood can wait. The Olympics beckon.
PD "We get one week off," she said. "Then, it's back into the gym."