U.S. gymnasts bear mixed hopes Men's chances are slim, but deep women's team hungrily eyes medals

July 20, 1996|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

ATLANTA -- When the U.S. men's and women's gymnastics teams left the FleetCenter in Boston late last month, they were headed to Atlanta with different agendas. The men wanted to show their shaky performance in the Olympic trials was strictly a case of jangled nerves, while the women wanted to prove the impressive show they put on was a positive sign of things to come.

After practicing before large crowds earlier this week at the Georgia Dome, the men get under way today and the women tomorrow in the opening compulsories of the 1996 Games. Those practices might have been indicative of their respective attitudes. The men wanted to show that the emotions of their fiery coach and former Olympic medalist, Peter Kormann, had rubbed off; the women were more businesslike, and utterly confident.

Both teams come into the competition with question marks. The men have one individual Olympic medal since winning the 1984 Games in Los Angeles, and only four-time U.S. champion John Roethlisberger is considered to have any shot at a medal here.

The women have to see if the team's two biggest stars, Dominique Moceanu and Shannon Miller, have sufficiently recovered from injuries that forced them to miss the trials.

"All of us have been on a team like this before at world championships," said Chainey Umphrey, whose best event is the parallel bars. "I think the key for us is to get off to a good start [in the compulsories]."

At last year's world championships in Sabae, Japan, the men surprised the competition -- and perhaps themselves -- by placing third in the compulsories. They then slipped to ninth overall after the optionals, and their recent showing in Boston did not exactly raise the expectations that Kormann's team was ready to challenge the world powers.

Even Kormann, a former Naval Academy coach now at Ohio State, said during the spring that the chance of a team medal seemed remote.

"It would be one of the biggest miracles in the history of the Olympics," said Kormann. "It would be right up there with the 1980 hockey team beating the Russians in Lake Placid."

If the women fail to win a medal here, it would be one of the biggest disappointments in the recent history of the sport. This team has been lauded as the greatest ever assembled by the U.S. for Olympic competition by no less an expert than Bela Karolyi, who will take a back seat and allow his wife, Martha, to coach the team along with Mary Lee Tracy while he tries to cajole a medal out of Moceanu and 1992 Olympian Kerri Strug.

The performances of Strug and Gaitherburg's Dominique Dawes the trials gives the women's team the depth it lacked in Barcelona, where it won a bronze medal.

If Moceanu's stress fracture in her right leg has healed sufficiently and Miller's sore wrist is as pain-free as she claimed after podium training earlier this week, the U.S. could make a serious challenge to the Romanian and Chinese teams. Miller, a former world champion, and Moceanu, who at 13 won last year's national championship, are considered legitimate contenders for individual medals.

"There's going to be a lot of pressure in Atlanta for us to do well, but that's going to be motivation for us to do well," said Dawes. "People are expecting us to do better than we did in Barcelona."

Said Tracy, the coach of Olympians Amanda Borden and Jaycie Phelps: "I think it helps to have these kind of expectations. And I think we're going to reach those expectations."

Pub Date: 7/20/96

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