Karolyi Seeks Golden Touch at Trials

Monday, August 21st 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

BOSTON (AP) — It was a night of mystery and intrigue, one in which a gray-haired man behind a table drew as much attention as the spinning, tumbling girls on the floor.

When the Olympic trials were over Sunday night, Bela Karolyi had chosen his team, his coach and, as expected, stirred up some good water-cooler conversation for gymnastics fans across the country.

During 12 of the most awkward minutes in sports, Karolyi locked himself into a small room with the other three members of the selection committee. Thirteen gymnasts sat in a room, television cameras fixed on their faces as they awaited their fate.

Then, the answer: 1996 holdovers Dominique Dawes and Amy Chow would go to Sydney, along with national champion Elise Ray, Kristen Maloney, Morgan White and surprising Jamie Dantzscher. Alyssa Beckerman was an alternate.

Shannon Miller and Vanessa Atler would stay home.

``Now that it's over, I believe I was right,'' Karolyi said. ``This was the most disputed, dramatic and beautiful trials we've ever had.''

The weighted scores from trials (60 percent) and last month's U.S. Gymnastics Championships (40 percent) were combined to rank the women.

The selection committee, however, wasn't bound by the scores. That allowed Dawes to go, even though she finished seventh and Atler sixth.

That was Karolyi's decision, the true results of which won't be known for four weeks, when the team competes at the Olympics.

But the coach who helped Nadia Comaneci, Mary Lou Retton and Kerri Strug win gold — the man lured back to the spotlight after the United States finished last at World Championships in 1999 — feels good about his decisions.

So, of course, did everyone who was selected.

``I don't think the whole thing has sunk in yet,'' said White, nicknamed ``The Creeper'' for the slow, steady progress she has shown the last two years.

``I don't know what to feel. I just can't wait to go see my parents.''

Chow and Dawes, the first and the last of the Magnificent Seven to return to competition, are clearly the headliners of the team. Both were there in 1996 when the United States won its first team gold medal, and both took home individual medals. Chow won a silver on the uneven bars, and Dawes won a bronze on the floor exercise.

Dawes was also present in 1992, when the Americans won a team bronze.

``Definitely, the first time had to be the sweetest,'' Dawes said. ``In 1996, there was a lot of hype and expectations, so that added pressure. This time, I just want to do the best I can for the country.''

Dawes showed glimpses of what she can offer at trials, where she looked like she'd been training for three straight years instead of just three short months.

``I started back in May and that's not that bad,'' she said. ``All the experience really helps. The muscles have memory.''

On her final event, the balance beam, Dawes did back flips and tumbled with ease. The fans were on their feet as she landed perfectly, and even though she waved to them when she finished, they stayed standing until she came back up for a curtain call.

The routine even brought Karolyi to his feet for one of the rare times of the night. He rushed across the floor to hug Dawes and her coach, newly named Olympic head coach Kelli Hill.

``That didn't tell me anything,'' Dawes said. ``Bela has been supportive of all the girls. The only time I'll know anything is when I step on the podium in Australia.''

Karolyi's most gut-wrenching decision was to leave Atler off, even though she finished in sixth place, one spot ahead of Dawes.

Atler has long been Karolyi's favorite, and seemed to draw the most attention from him when she performed both here and at nationals.

But the bubbly California girl who seemed the best hope to bring glitz and glamour to the new generation didn't hit a routine all weekend.

Karolyi knew it, and so did Atler.

``I wasn't having fun,'' she said. ``When my name wasn't called, I almost had a sense of relief because deep down, I knew I shouldn't be going. I knew I wasn't ready. It's just not my day. Not my time.''

Likewise, Miller's time has passed. The ending was unceremonious.

It came on her first performance of the evening, a vault in which she landed awkwardly, jamming her legs into the mat and falling backwards, writhing on the ground in pain.

Her coach, Steve Nunno, pulled her out of the competition, hoping Karolyi would grant the two-time Olympian another trip based on history.

``I wish she had decided to start back earlier and pick up more physical fitness,'' Karolyi said of Miller, who returned in January. ``But considering her physical status, it's hard to consider her ready for the full speed and full pressure of the Olympics.''

Ray had no such problems. She was the best gymnast in three of four meets over the qualifying process. Other than a fall off the beam Sunday night, she was the most consistent gymnast heading to Sydney.

``I always imagined being on the team, but your imagination can only go so far,'' Ray said. ``Standing up on that floor with everyone is amazing. Being a part of it is 2,000 times better than imagining it.''