American gymnasts off to flying start Women trail Russia after compulsories

Atlanta Olympics

July 22, 1996|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

ATLANTA -- Kerri Strug batted leadoff for the U.S. women's gymnastics team during the first two rotations of yesterday's compulsories at the 1996 Olympic Games. Then she batted cleanup for the last two rotations. It was not only her versatility, but also her willingness to sacrifice personal gain for collective glory that summed up what turned into a wonderful afternoon for the Americans at the Georgia Dome.

Strug, who at 14 was the youngest member of the 1992 team that won a bronze medal in Barcelona, Spain, set the tone with her first routine on the uneven bars and finished a nearly flawless performance by the Americans with her team's two highest scores.

By the time Strug and her confident teammates were done, the United States had pushed aside the defending world champions from Romania with one of its most impressive compulsory performances in recent memory. Maybe ever.

Though the United States ultimately would be passed, too -- by Russia in the last of four sessions for the day -- a team considered the strongest this country has ever sent to an Olympic gymnastics competition had made a strong statement: It would be in the hunt for its first-ever gold medal when the optional finals are held tomorrow night.

And its depth could put no fewer than five Americans into the all-around competition later in the week.

"We did very well, but there's always room for improvement," U.S. head coach Martha Karolyi said.

If there was, it was difficult to discern. With the exception of Jaycie Phelps, who fell off the balance beam, the Americans appeared to stick one set after another. They finished with 193.669 points, just behind Russia's 193.796. The marks are worth 60 percent of the total score in team competition. Optionals are tomorrow night.

The U.S. team's collective score of 48.769 in the floor exercise -- and average of 9.72 -- was second only to the 49.411 the Americans rang up in the same routine while finishing second in the Olympic compulsories four years ago. Except for Phelps, none of the gymnasts scored below a 9.312 on any of the four routines.

Four members of the U.S. team ranked in the top 11 individually and five were among the top 29 in the hunt for the 36 invitations to the all-around competition. Former world champion and 1992 Olympian Shannon Miller (39.061) was second, .088 points behind the leader, defending world champion Lilia Podkopayeva of Ukraine.

Miller obviously has recovered from the wrist injury that kept her out of last month's Olympic trials in Boston, and Dominique Moceanu showed only the slightest residue of rust after sitting out the trials with a stress fracture in her leg. Though Moceanu, 14, wasn't happy with her scores, she still managed to finish fifth individually. Strug was ninth and Dominique Dawes of Gaithersburg, the other returning member from 1992, was 11th. Despite the fall, Phelps also was in contention for the all-around.

"Bela [Karolyi] told me they wanted to take some of the pressure off me," said Moceanu, whose cleanup spot in vault and floor was taken by Strug. "Maybe I'll get better scores in the optionals."

Though on the surface it appeared to be a nerveless performance by the U.S. team, several of the gymnasts admitted later to be suffering Olympic-sized jitters. Even the team's oldest member, Dawes, said, "I didn't think I was going to be as nervous as I got when we walked out into the stadium. I started to feel a lot of pressure. I thought I did a really good job and I want to take some of that confidence into the optionals."

So will Strug, whose performance in the optionals at the trials foreshadowed the show she put on yesterday. She now seems to be the favorite of the American fans, who gave the U.S. team a couple of standing ovations.

"It's a little nerve-racking to be standing out there being the first American to go," said Strug. "But everything worked out for the best."

Hitting leadoff or cleanup, it didn't seem to matter to Strug.

NOTES: Romanian coach Octavian Bela complained about his team's early start. "They performed well for having to do it at 9: 30 in the morning." . . . Another of the pre-Olympic favorites couldn't use the same excuse. Competing in the last group of the day, China finished a distant fifth, one spot behind Ukraine . . . Leonid Arkaev, who is coaching the men's and women's Russian teams, said that he isn't surprised that both got into the optionals in first place. "It's a result of our training," Arkaev said through an interpreter. "We're doing what we're supposed to."

Pub Date: 7/22/96

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