Dawes' day in sun ends in gloom

July 26, 1996|By Ken Rosenthal

ATLANTA -- Bela Karolyi liked the way President Clinton put it -- "That was like winning an election, and the next day, having to go win another election." But two hours after the fact, Dominique Dawes was still inconsolable.

This wasn't an election.

This was her career, her calling, her moment.

The team gold medal was a glorious achievement, a first for the U.S. women in the Olympics, but gymnastics is an individual sport. Dawes had something to prove yesterday in the women's all-around, and one last chance to prove it.

That's why tying for 17th place hurt so much.

She led midway through the competition, just as she led at the world championships after three of four rotations in 1993 and '94. This time was going to be different. This time, she was going to maintain her lead, rewrite her own tortured history, leave a permanent legacy on her sport.

The crowd of 32,200 at the Georgia Dome roared in anticipation as Dawes stepped onto the mat for the floor exercise. Shannon Miller already had stumbled in her routine. Dawes, the graceful 19-year-old from Gaithersburg, Md., represented the last, best U.S. hope for gold.

And then, as if on cue, she, too, stumbled.

Just like that, it was over. Just like Miller, Dawes left the mat in tears. She slumped in a chair, hands clenched, shoulders hunched, staring at the floor. Four years of training, ruined by one misstep. Two hours was not nearly enough time to recover.

The first question at the news conference was no problem -- Dawes gave a perfunctory answer on what happened in the floor exercise. The second question was the crusher. The second question was about the past, about all the opportunities she had missed before.

Dawes started off fine.

"It was a little hard because the same thing happened at two worlds," she said.

There it was, the reminder.

"I guess I was able to deal with it then . . ."

Her voice started to crack.

"So I can now."

And again, she dissolved into tears.

Miller's coach, Steve Nunno, put his arm around her and patted her on the back. Dawes' coach, Kelli Hill, didn't attend the news conference. She answered reporters' questions outside the Georgia Dome before the competition was even over.

"She's very talented, very sensitive and a very emotional person, as well as being a gymnast," Hill said. "It happens."

But this time was going to be different. Dawes had overcome her fear of failure by seeing a sports psychologist. She arrived at the Olympics healthier than she had been since 1990. And she earned the highest optional score for the United States in the team competition two days before.

Hill shook her head sadly.

"Dom's always has a little more trouble when it comes down to doing it for herself," she said. "When it's been a team situation, she's always pulled through. When she's been sitting in first by herself, this has happened before."

In Birmingham, England, in '93.

In Brisbane, Australia, in '94.

And yesterday, in Atlanta.

The order of the rotations -- uneven bars, balance beam, floor exercise, vault -- was the same as it had been at the two world championships. Perhaps that was a bad omen, but Dawes was first after two rotations, and Miller tied for second.

"The best position was for Dominique Dawes," Romanian coach Octavian Belu said afterward. "If she did not fall on the floor, for sure, she would have been on the podium."

But that one fall dropped her from first place to 20th, and out of medal contention. In the two world championships, she had waited until the vault before making her big mistake. This time, she got it out of the way earlier.

Reviewing Dawes' failures in big meets is like reviewing the Orioles' failures in big games, but comparing the two is absurd. Dawes is not a choker. She's 19, for heaven's sake. She's 19, and competing in one of the most pressure-packed sports of all.

If anything, watching Dawes and Miller unravel yesterday should provide a greater appreciation of past Olympic champions Olga Korbut, Nadia Comaneci and Mary Lou Retton. Miller is considered a tough competitor. But those three were tougher.

"It's OK," Hill said. "Our main goal coming in here was team gold. We put all of our focus into that goal. In that light, Dominique pulled it out for the team, led the team in optionals. Today, she just made a mistake, that's all."

One mistake, and now it's on to the individual event competitions Sunday and Monday. Another bout of nerves cost Dawes medals in the floor exercise and uneven bars at the most recent world championships in April, but she recovered to win a bronze on the balance beam.

Will she recover this time? This is her last hurrah. Dawes plans to retire from international competition. She'll accompany the other Olympic gymnasts on a 30-city tour, then attend Stanford. Beyond that, she has no idea what the future holds.

"She usually puts herself in a hole, then digs herself out," Hill said. "If this is a precursor to individuals, she'll come out strong."

Hill looked away, puffing on a cigarette as she spoke with three reporters, darkness descending over Atlanta, a cool breeze in the air. Dawes had gone to meet the president. The day had held such promise, before it resulted in bitter tears.

"It builds character," Hill said. "I keep telling her that."

Pub Date: 7/26/96

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