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SPORT: TUMBLING’S NEW TITANS

4 minute read
Jill Smolowe New Orleans

One could breathe easier this time, without the uncomfortable sense that if a gymnast fell, she might shatter physically or crumble emotionally. Most of the top competitors at last week’s National Gymnastics Championships in New Orleans’ Superdome were sturdy, poised high-school graduates. Three were veterans of Olympic competition, Shannon Miller, 18, who placed second in the all-around competition; Dominique Dawes, 18, who came in fourth; and Kerri Strug, 17, who finished fifth. The intervening years have added height and weight to their frames and a maturity to their faces that lent new elegance and expressiveness to their performances. The only Lilliputian in the 38-woman field was 4 ft.-5 in., 70-lb. Dominique Moceanu, who finished first by .200 of a point. And even she, at 13, was something of a ’92 veteran, having been a standout back then in the junior pack. All this bodes well for Atlanta. “We’ll have a more mature Olympic team than ever before,” says Jackie Fie, international technical director for USA Gymnastics. “We want to show we have healthy, well-adjusted young women who have a life.”

Which, perhaps, is a polite way of saying USA Gymnastics wants to avoid a repetition of the ’92 Games, when spectators, sports columnists and even some coaches were appalled by the joyless intensity that pervaded the competition. It is also an indirect response to a book by San Francisco journalist Joan Ryan, Little Girls in Pretty Boxes, that dwells on the least savory aspects of elite gymnastics. Ryan decries the sport’s preference in recent years forprepubescent bodies and the subsequent eating disorders among many world-class gymnasts. She describes ruthless coaches who virtually starve their charges, athletes who are forced to compete with injuries, and dangerous tricks that have caused fatalities.

This year, in a departure from past practice, the competitors’ height and weight are not listed in press releases, and several coaches took pains to note to reporters that they have no scales in their gyms. “We didn’t like the stigma that we were driving people out of the sport,” admits Kathy Kelly, women’s program director for USA Gymnastics. “We’re making an effort to respect the athletes.” That put out of bounds questions about the effects of widening hips and budding breasts, though the more womanly shapes were evident in the scanty leotards worn by the competitors, who in ’92 averaged just 4 ft. 9 in. and 83 lbs. This year Miller, at 5 ft. and 94 lbs., hardly stood out in the beefier pack.

The question now is whether Olympic judges–and other teams–will make the same adjustment, favoring artistry over perkiness. The teams from Romania and the former Soviet republics, which have posed America’s stiffest challenges, are also expected to field older competitors in ’96. Come 1997, they will have little choice: in that year international rules will raise the minimum age of competitors from 15 to 16, a direct result of the ’92 spectacle.

Meanwhile, the New Orleans competition still offered the sort of carping and subjective judging that break gymnasts’ spirits and infuriate fans. After eighth-finishing Amy Chow, 17, received a modest 9.425 out of a possible 10 for a lukewarm compulsory floor exercise, Moceanu earned a 9.8 for a routine that ignited the crowd. Sniffed one judge: “If Chow got a 9.425, Moceanu deserved an 11.” But in the interest of creating a cohesive U.S. team, even flamboyant rival coaches Steve Nunno and Bela Karolyi kept their egos somewhat in check. Nunno, who in ’92 boasted, “Bela is an ’80s coach; I’m a ’90s coach,” last week publicly welcomed Karolyi back to the sport after a two-year retirement with the words “Bela will always be the leader.”

U.S. coaches and athletes alike say the prospect of competing in ’96 as the home team has been a huge incentive to stay in the sport. The old-timers, says Peggy Liddick, one of Miller’s Oklahoma City coaches, “have a special bond. They’re like sisters. They were very young in ’92. They really do appreciate each other.” Given the coach hopping that is endemic in gymnastics, many of these young women have trained together, and all, of course, have competed countless times against one another. “I think it’s great we’ve all stayed in this long,” says Miller, who three years after delivering monotone interviews with eyes cast down at the floor, now looks reporters in the eye and even ventures an occasional smile. Says Liddick: “Our motto for ’96 is ‘There’s no me in team.'” And if the coaches and athletes can live by it,that too will mark a new level of maturity for the sport.

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