U.S. men do level best in team gymnastics Fifth in compulsories looks good compared with trials tribulations

Atlanta Olympics

July 21, 1996|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

ATLANTA -- The morning after finishing the Olympic trials last month in Boston, the U.S. men's gymnastics team flew here on its way to a training camp in Spartanburg, S.C. But before the team took a bus up the interstate, coach Peter Kormann had his team visit the Georgia Dome.

"I wanted to see what it was like, how big it was," Kormann recalled yesterday. "This is a very big place. Most places we compete in, the ceiling is about four feet over our heads when we're doing some of our routines. . . . I wanted them to go up on the podium and see for themselves."

The side trip appeared to have paid off in the opening round of compulsories in the 1996 Olympic Games. After a discomforting performance in the trials led to a rash of not-ready-for-prime-time stories in the past few weeks, the Americans were clearly at home in the Dome.

With a steady effort reminiscent of their compulsories at last year's world championships in Japan, the U.S. men finished second to Belarus among their group and fifth overall, moving comfortably into tomorrow night's optional finals. Russia finished with 287.258 points, just .975 ahead of China for first place after compulsories. The Americans finished with 284.634.

Although the U.S. team still has a great deal of ground to make up in order to medal, yesterday was a major hurdle.

"We kicked butt," said four-time U.S. champion John Roethlisberger. "We got in a groove and we hit our sets."

After flailing all over the place at the FleetCenter, the U.S. team was as close to perfect as a back-in-the-pack team could be. Despite a couple of early stumbles on the high bar, the Americans were far from ugly. They had the highest score collectively on the still rings, and of the Americans' scores that counted, none were under 9.2.

But their highest individual score of 9.7 will not lead anyone to speculate that a medal in any of the event finals is likely. Kormann isn't going to get carried away either, sticking to his belief that any kind of medal would rank among the great upsets in Olympic history.

"That was as good as they can do," said Kormann, the former Naval Academy coach who earlier this year coached Ohio State to an NCAA championship. "This team finished ninth in the world the last two years. What we did today was outstanding. But this is a better team than the one in Sabae."

That team collapsed in the optionals after finishing third in the compulsories, which Kormann attributed to most of the gymnasts not being ready to compete with more difficult routines against world powers such as Russia, Belarus and China.

When many of those competing at the trials literally and figuratively fell on their face -- former Stanford star Jair Lynch, who made the Olympic team, did it twice from the high bar -- several on the team got a little testy at the suggestion that they weren't ready for Atlanta.

"We knew we could do well as a team," said Lynch, one of the team's captains. "When we have to compete against each other, we kind of slice each other up."

Said Kormann, "For the most part, the guys who fell in Boston aren't the ones who are here. I think a lot of the guys got upset about what was being said about them. But I don't think we have to prove anything to anybody. We just have to go out and do what we did today."

They will have to do it against teams much stronger and deeper than the U.S. team. The Americans would like to see the crowd at the Georgia Dome get a little more excited than it did yesterday, when John McCready had to pump up the fans after the final routine of the session.

It was only then that the American flags came out and the "U-S-A, U-S-A" chants could be heard.

"I guess they're a little new at this, too," said McCready. "Maybe we both can make a little noise Monday."

The Americans didn't make much noise. But they did make a statement. Maybe some of those not-ready-for-prime-time stories were a bit premature.

Pub Date: 7/21/96

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