BARCELONA, Spain -- Forget the sweetheart stuff. She's 4 feet 8 and weighs 80 pounds and has these big blue eyes and a bouncing blond pony tail. But don't be deceived.
Kim Zmeskal has a heart as big as Barcelona, as big as the Summer Olympics.
Last night, she wore a lucky bobby pin in her hair and had steel in her step, earning a reprieve while leading the United States to a team bronze medal in gymnastics.
Zmeskal, the reigning world champion who nearly knocked herself out of contention for the all-around title by falling off the balance beam in the compulsories, picked herself up. She had the highest score of last night's optionals, leapfrogged two teammates and earned one of 36 spots for tomorrow night's all-around final.
The kid showed she could take a punch -- and come back swinging.
"In basketball, you miss a shot, and the game isn't over," she said. "In weightlifting, you get three chances. But we only get one. It's kind of nerve-wracking. But that is what makes gymnastics different."
This was a four-ring circus. You had the last remnants of the old Soviet sports machine, the Unified Team, picking up the team gold with 395.666 points. And the Romanians (395.079) slipping past the Americans (394.704) for the silver.
But mostly, you had a night filled with personal stories. There was Zmeskal, looking a lot like Joe Montana in the fourth quarter, coming back from the gymnastics' equivalent of fourth-and-long to barge her way into the all-around. There was her American teammate, Shannon Miller, actually leading all individual performers with 79.311 total points.
And there was Bela Karolyi, the U.S. coach, announcing that this would be the last time he would direct a team in international competition.
"I've never been under this kind of pressure," said Zmeskal, 16, of Houston. "I needed a pretty strong effort."
It was closer to a miracle.
Because each country can send only three competitors to the all-around final, Zmeskal had to take out her teammates. Nothing personal. She vaulted over Dominique Dawes of Silver Spring, Md. And then Zmeskal took out her training partner, Kerri Strug of Tucson, Ariz.
For Zmeskal, beating Strug was the tough part, since she started the round .274 behind her training parter. But Zmeskal gave the world a show and joined Miller of Edmond, Okla., and Betty Okino of Elmhurst, Ill., in the all-around final.
What you had was a best of Zmeskal. The flawless landing on the vault. Those outrageous whipbacks during the floor exercise. And the Gumby-like elasticity on the uneven bar.
And then you saw her courage on the balance beam. Sunday night, 10 seconds into her Olympics, she took a tumble off the four-inch ledge and landed just short of Palookaville.
She was in trouble. Big trouble.
And then, in last night's warm-up, she hit the mat again. But she climbed back on and steadied her nerves, looking like some sort of refrigerator magnet, sticking to the beam and then sticking her landing for a 9.912.
"You feel like everyone is watching you," she said. "You have been training 10 1/2 years for this. This is the Olympics. You have only one chance. You want it to be the best one you can do."
Zmeskal said it was a lucky bobby pin, given to her by a Houston friend, Lori White, that got her through the routine. White had handed Zmeskal one the night before, but after she fell, Zmeskal threw it away.
"The old one lost all of its luck," Zmeskal said.
The new one suited her fine. While Zmeskal talked of trying to win the all-around, her coach, Karolyi, stood by, with tears welling in his eyes. The man who guided the careers of Olympic all-around champions Mary Lou Retton and Nadia Comaneci said he was going to retire from team coaching.
"I just can't cope with it anymore," said Karolyi, who has endured months of criticism during a rancorous team selection process. "I'm tired of being the bad guy. I'm tired of being followed and chased and hunted all over."
Despite this, the latest of his retirement speeches, Karolyi could not contain his enthusiasm for Zmeskal.
"Kimbo has a gift for coming back," he said. "I was sure her performance would be sturdy. But I believe getting the team medal was No. 1 in her mind."
But now, the scores are wiped out and the top 36 will go for individual golds. Zmeskal, Miller, Svetlana Boguinskaya of the Unified Team and Christina Bontas of Romania are the four favorites for the top three medals.
"It's going to be a great faceoff," said Miller's coach, Steve Nunno. "But as far as I'm concerned, Shannon is No. 1."
Kim Zmeskal earned a spot in the Olympic women's gymnastics all-around finals along with U.S. teammates Shannon Miller and Betty Okino with a spectacular performance in the team optional finals yesterday:
Event .... .... Score
Uneven bars.... 9.900
Floor exercise. 9.925
Balance beam... 9.912
Vault..... .... 9.950