BARCELONA, Spain -- Kim Zmeskal is in trouble. Big trouble.
It took the tiny, 16-year-old tumbler 10 seconds to fall off a pedestal. It will take her an entire night just to fight her way back into the competition.
When the U.S. women's gymnastics team aims to solidify its silver-medal position in tonight's optional finals at the 1992 Summer Olympics, more will be at stake than a place behind the Unified Team.
Zmeskal, the reigning all-around world champion from Houston whose opening-night fall off the balance beam sent her sliding closer to retirement, must vault over two teammates to secure a berth in Thursday's 36-woman all-around final.
Although she is 32nd overall, Zmeskal is fifth among the Americans. Since only three gymnasts can represent one country in the all-around final, Zmeskal must somehow move ahead of Kerri Strug and Dominique Dawes of Silver Spring, Md., her closest rivals.
The assignment is improbable, but not impossible.
After a lengthy, and often argumentative meeting yesterday, the U.S. lineup was set by the coaching staff. Zmeskal and Shannon Miller, the overall leader, will share gymnastics' version of the cleanup role, trading off the final spots during the four apparatus rotations.
The move should boost Zmeskal's scores since the judges usually elevate the marks with each succeeding competitor.
Still, Zmeskal remains a long-shot.
"It's not over," she said.
At least, not yet.
Zmeskal's coach, Bela Karolyi, all but conceded she would be unable to make the all-around final after her fall left her with a 9.35 on the beam.
"I am sad on one side, but happy on the other," Karolyi said. "The good point is the team is in second place and is having great success against the [Unified Team] and Romanians. It's a heartache because the kid I was training, her confidence is deteriorated."
The Unified Team, led by 1989 world champion Svetlana Boguinskaya, led the United States by five-tenths of a point. Romania, China and Spain were aiming for the bronze.
Zmeskal's balance-beam tumble overshadowed some terrific performances in the compulsories.
Miller, 4 feet 6, 69 pounds, leads with 39.636 points. Boguinskaya is second with 39.625 and Hungarian Henrietta Ondodi is third with 39.624.
American Betty Okino also is in the midst of a terrific comeback. Eight weeks after stress fractures in her back left her hobbling, she is seventh overall.
"I was really nervous," Okino said. "I hope it didn't show. But I feel fine. And I'm ready to perform."
Zmeskal said she is ready to come back from her fall on a handspring.
"I can catch up," she said. "Besides, after the team competition, we start from scratch."
But it will take a long night -- and some top scores -- to get Zmeskal back on her pedestal.
"Sometimes you have sunny days, sometimes you have cloudy days, sometimes you have rainy days," Karolyi said. "[Sunday] was a rainy day. It was her first major mistake in a major competition."
And maybe her last.