COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Kim Zmeskal wobbled the tiniest bit and hesitated for no more than a breath on the balance beam. But it was enough to cost her first place after the compulsory round at the U.S. National Gymnastics Championships last night.
The overwhelming favorite to claim this title for a third straight time then fled St. John Arena on the Ohio State University campus shaken and near tears. The face of her coach, Bela Karolyi, was like stone.
She left behind tiny, brittle Shannon Miller, whose skin is nearly translucent, whose voice is barely a squeak -- and whose elbow injury supposedly was going to prevent her from doing any more in this meet than some elaborate training.
Heck. She wasn't even going to stay long enough to do the optionals today. Too dangerous. Hadn't trained for it. Was going to the Olympic trials in Baltimore anyway on an injury petition. Why risk it?
All that changed with Zmeskal's tiny wobble and that breath of hesitation. Miller finished with a raw score of 39.50 to 39.175 for Zmeskal. They had been 1-2 through three of four rotations, until Miller scored a 9.875 on the vault while Zmeskal scored a 9.65 on the balance beam.
"No problem at all," Miller said when asked about the elbow. She had bone chip removed and was recovering from a dislocation.
"Yes," she said when asked if she wanted to stay and compete for the all-around title Zmeskal supposedly had sewn up.
Coach Steve Nunno of Dynamo Gymnastics of Edmond, Okla., says, no. "We had no intention of doing optionals when we came here," Nunno said. "But we will let the dust clear. We will work out tomorrow morning and see."
Despite Miller's certitude that she will compete, Nunno hesitated for her. "She knows she's not as prepared as she should be."
"If he thinks my routines are ready, I'll do it," Miller said.
Meanwhile, Dominique Dawes of Silver Spring, Md., finished eighth and well within range to be one of the 12 women to make the Olympic trials in Baltimore next month.
"I'd like to have higher scores," said Dawes, who finished with a 38.55 in the compulsories, which count 60 percent of the total.
"And maybe be a bit cleaner."
Dawes finished ninth in the all-around here last year and tied Zmeskal for first place on floor exercises.
But she had only been 13th coming out of compulsories last year.
Today's optional routines, where everyone unloads their bitricks, will decide the 12 women and the 18 men who will travel to Baltimore June 6-13 for the Olympic trials.
The men's field is tightly bunched behind two-time NCAA all-around champion John Roethlisberger of Minnesota and Scott Keswick of UCLA, who has been second to Roethlisberger at both NCAA championships. They are just five-hundredths of a point apart (57.50 to 57.45) after Thursday night's compulsories, which count 60 percent of the total score. Indeed, the top seven men are separated by just seven-tenths of a point.
"It's the best feeling to be in the fight," said Roethlisberger, whose father, Fred, coaches him and was himself an Olympian.
"And I'm really glad it is Scott. You would never feel bad losing to him. He's a terrific athlete and a great guy. He's a good guy to be in that position with."
Keswick was playing with a tough group Thursday night. His rotation included UCLA teammate Chris Waller, defending all-around champion, and Jarrod Hanks of Oklahoma, who is coming off first-place finishes in the Winter Nationals and the McDonald's Cup. Waller is tied for fourth after the compulsories, and Hanks is in seventh place.
Thursday night's results held a few surprises. Lance Ringnald, a member of the 1988 Olympic team, has not competed since the World Championships in Indianapolis in September when a shoulder muscle was ripped apart during his routine on the rings. Yet Ringnald was in sixth place and took first place in the vault in the compulsories.
And Kurt Thomas, 35, attempting a comeback, is in 19th place, just one spot shy of making the Baltimore trials.
Miller vs. Zmeskal
.. .. .. .. .. Vault ..Bars ..Beam ..Floor ..All-around
Shannon Miller 9.875 . 9.800 .9.800 .9.875 ..39.350
Kim Zmeskal .. 9.850 ..9.825 .9.650 .9.850 ..39.175