NEW ORLEANS -- The world team trials are less than a month away. The world gymnastics championships in Japan are less than two months down the road. And the 1996 Olympic Games seem to be getting closer by the moment.
Which is why this year's U.S. national championships, which began today here at the Louisiana Superdome, are a crucial step for those who have been there before and those trying to get there for the first time.
"It's a chance to get more experience," said Kerri Strug, who at 14 was a member of the bronze-medal-winning Olympic team in Barcelona.
Strug, 17, is now one of three trying to make it to Atlanta next summer. Along with defending U.S. champion Dominique Dawes Gaithersburg and former world champion Shannon Miller, Strug is considered one of the favorites to win when the competition concludes Saturday.
But they also will be trying to hold off a large and improving group of Olympic wannabes. It is led by Dominique Moceanu, 13, last year's national junior champion who earlier this year won her first international competition, the Visa Challenge at George Mason University.
Others considered among the contenders in the women's competition this week are two other 17-year-olds, Amanda Borden and Amy Chow.
Strug, who sat out last year's championship with an injury, is coming off her gold-medal performance at the Olympic Festival in Denver two weeks ago.
"There's a lot of depth in women's gymnastics," said Strug's coach, Lori Forster, of Colorado Springs. "There are 12 girls who should be in the mix here."
Dawes certainly should be one of them. Completely recovered from the stress fracture of the left foot that kept her out of competition for nearly two months earlier this year and limited her until recently, Dawes is looking to become only the third woman to repeat national titles.
The last to do so was former Olympian Kim Zmeskal, who won three straight championships from 1990 to 1992 before retiring after the Barcelona Olympics. Zmeskal came out of retirement last year, but suffered a serious knee injury in June of 1994. Zmeskal had planned on competing here, but her coach, Bela Karolyi, announced Monday that she wasn't ready.
Asked if she can repeat last year's performance, when she became the first woman in 25 years to win five gold medals at the nationals, Dawes said, "I'm just planning to do the best job I can with the preparation I've had. . . . I'm thinking about working hard. I'm not thinking about winning."