With a microscrew in her left elbow, a bow in her hair and ice in her heart, Shannon Miller took a grip on first place at the U.S. Olympic Gymnastics Trials last night.
Three months after tumbling off the uneven bars and dislocating her elbow, the fragile-looking-yet-ferocious-performing 15-year-old from Edmond, Okla., led the compulsories at the Baltimore Arena, piling up a score of 57.057.
Miller was all grace and guts, a 4-foot-7, 71-pound dancer who performed with a glint of steel. She stared down the toughest little tumbler of them all, 1991 all-around world champion Kim Zmeskal. The latest prodigy to burst from Bela Karolyi's tumbling stable in Houston, Zmeskal, 16, was second with 56.797.
"Beating the world champion is the best place to set your sights," said Miller's coach, Steve Nunno. "If you beat the world champion, what does that make you, intergalactic champion?"
Not just yet.
This show is only 60 percent complete. They'll get around to handing out medals and places on the Olympic team after tomorrow's optional finals, worth 40 percent of the trials score.
Injuries and a convoluted scoring system have clouded the once pristine selection process. Two gymnasts who aren't even here -- Betty Okino and Michelle Campi -- are injured, yet likely to be waived into the final eight-woman training team. Another pack, which includes fifth-place Dominique Dawes of Silver Spring, is scrambling to finish in the top six.
"It doesn't take a mathematics whiz to figure this out -- it takes a genius," said Hilary Grivich, who was eighth.
But here's all you need to know:
Miller and Zmeskal have established themselves as the solid 1-2 favorites to go to the Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain.
And one may even come away with the gold.
Don't be surprised if it's Miller, the high school freshman from Edmond, Okla. She is the sport's acknowledged rising star, a cog on the U.S. team that won the silver at the 1991 world championships.
"I'm a perfectionist," she said. "I guess that's good."
But Miller took a tumble in early March, falling during a practice on a dismount from the uneven bars. She was rushed to a hospital with a dislocated left elbow. A surgeon reattached a chip to a bone with a microscrew, and Miller missed only one day of practice.
What did she do on her day off?
"I sewed some leotards," Miller said.
She left a calling card for Zmeskal at last month's U.S. championships in Columbus, Ohio, beating her in the compulsories. But Miller skipped the optionals, a gamble since scores from the nationals (30 percent) and trials (70 percent) are added to produce the Olympic team.
For Miller, Baltimore is a test worth 100 percent.
"It's not just between me and Kim," Miller said. "I have to perform all of my routines well. I felt really good about what I did."
How good was she? She beat Zmeskal on the vault and balance beam, and tied her on the floor exercise. Zmeskal's only apparatus triumph came on the uneven bars.
The outcome wasn't decided by mistakes. It was a matter of style, the panel of six judges preferring elegant lines over powerful strides.
In Barcelona, crowds prefer the dancers to the athletes. Miller more than Zmeskal represents the European vision of the perfect gymnast.
"I did pretty much my best routines," Zmeskal said. "I'm happy with that. It's up to the judges. Compulsories are hard. It's not that there are difficult skills involved, but you don't want to mess up on simple things."
While Miller and Zmeskal were clearly the top performers, another cluster of tiny tumblers battled for the remaining Olympic spots.
Kerri Strug, who trains at Karolyi's, was third at 56.385. Dawes, despite tendinitis in her right ankle, was fifth at 55.950. Kim Kelly, who at 18 is the second oldest performer in the meet, was sixth at 55.906.
And hanging in the shadows are Campi and Okino. Campi, out with a fracture dislocation of her right elbow, is fourth with 56.202, based on her U.S. championship performance. And Okino, a world championship medalist, is penciled in on the Olympic training squad, despite stress fractures in her back.
Tomorrow will be one last showdown at the Arena. Miller and Zmeskal going for gold, the others trying to earn their spots to Barcelona.