Dawes wins duel with Strug Turns in best score behind Miller, Moceanu

July 01, 1996|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

BOSTON -- There were not many questions left to be answered in the women's optionals of the U.S. Olympic gymnastics trials last night.

The fate of injured stars Shannon Miller and Dominique Moceanu had been decided after compulsories Friday, their places on the team of seven going to Atlanta later this month guaranteed. Four of the other five spots probably were locked up, too.

But Dominique Dawes and Kerri Strug had an entirely different agenda. Despite being members of the 1992 team that won a bronze medal in Barcelona, Spain, Dawes and Strug had been in the shadows of Miller and Moceanu.

But when the chalk dust had cleared last night and the FleetCenter crowd of 17,112 had stopped screeching, these two elderly teens had passed compulsory leader Jaycie Phelps to finish behind the scores Miller and Moceanu had first posted at the recent nationals in Knoxville, Tenn., then petitioned to have held here.

In performances that USA Gymnastics can only hope are a sign of things to come at the Olympic Games, Dawes and Strug showed the depth of the U.S. women's team behind Miller, a former world champion, and Moceanu, who at 13 last year became the youngest gymnast to win the national championship.

"I just wanted to finish in the top three [overall]," Dawes said after narrowly edging Strug and finishing .063 of a point behind Moceanu's total of 78.220 and .223 behind Miller's score of 78.380. "But I think this will help my confidence a little bit going into Atlanta. I just wanted to show everyone that Dominique Dawes still loves to compete."

Dawes and Strug competed to the final routine -- the balance beam -- to determine first place among the 14 gymnasts at the trials and third in the overall standings. After overtaking a struggling Phelps during the first of four rotations, Dawes was still hanging onto a .049 lead over Strug going into the last rotation. This despite stepping off the mat on the floor exercise. Going second on the beam, Strug was nearly flawless and

scored a 9.825. A few minutes later, it was Dawes' turn.

In a routine she had problems with at the nationals and in the compulsories at the trials -- nearly falling off the beam in Knoxville and having a wobbly start Friday night -- Dawes slipped twice. The first time came as she did a balletic spin in the middle of the routine, the second time as she under-rotated on dismount. That she held on both times might have helped the judges give her the same score as Strug and helped Dawes maintain her slim lead.

It was certainly a moral victory, and possibly more, for the 19-year-old from Gaithersburg who missed last year's world championships because of injuries and was believed to be slipping. But her performance in the event finals in Knoxville, where she swept the competition for the second time in three years, as well as what she did here, shows that Dawes has something left for the final competition of her long career -- the Olympic Games.

"I was pretty relieved when it was over," said Dawes, one of three (Miller is the other) to return from the 1992 team. "It's a dream come true to make a second Olympic team. I don't think it's really set in, so I'm not showing it. But I've been very nervous the last three or four weeks. It's a weight off my shoulders."

Like Dawes, Strug has endured a long road back. After being the youngest member of the 1992 team, Strug was forced to change gyms because of Bela Karolyi's temporary retirement. She wound up going to four gyms in less than four years before winding up with Karolyi and his wife, Martha, earlier this year. Martha Karolyi was named head coach of the team after last night's competition.

jTC Like Dawes, Strug came back from a serious injury -- a torn muscle in her stomach -- as well as a lack of confidence. It barely showed throughout the trials. The 18-year-old from Tucson, Ariz., won the vault and floor exercise during both the compulsories and optionals. Previously known to fade when the competition got tight, she flourished. When she finished her balance beam routine, Karolyi was there to swallow up the 4-foot-10, 90-pound Strug in one of his patented bear hugs.

Said Strug, who will attend UCLA in the fall, "I don't know if I'd be here [without going back to Karolyi], but he's got a pretty good track record for getting his athletes to the Olympics. You have some good days and bad days, and today was a pretty good day."

It turned out to be a pretty good night for Phelps, 16, who, despite falling off the beam, still managed to finish fifth overall. It turned out well for Amy Chow, 18, who finished sixth overall despite smashing the side of her face while falling off the beam on her final routine. And for Amanda Borden, who at 15 finished just out of the running at the trials in Baltimore four years ago but hung onto the final spot last night.

"That kept me going for four years," Borden said. "Dreams do come true."

Final totals

(Top five make U.S. Olympic team, joining Shannon Miller and Dominique Moceanu)

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