US Gymnasts Ready for Run at Medals

Monday, July 31st 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

ST. LOUIS (AP) — Nine months ago, American gymnasts were reeling, embarrassed by losing to even the once-lowly Australians at the world championships.

Well, well, well. Look who's pulling it together.

Elise Ray, Kristen Maloney, Jamie Dantzscher, Vanessa Atler and Alyssa Beckerman showed at the U.S. Gymnastics Championships that they're ready to make a run at the medals podium. And along with some rust, the remaining members of the Magnificent Seven displayed glimpses of the talent and pizzazz that won them a gold medal four years ago in Atlanta.

``I was at the '99 world championships and it doesn't even look like the same group of athletes,'' said Mary Lee Tracy, who coaches three of the athletes in the top 10. ``The talent level was there for the last two years, but it just wasn't coming together.

``Tonight, you saw it coming together.''

The top 12 women advanced to next month's Olympic trials in Boston. Shannon Miller and Jaycie Phelps are petitioning for spots after withdrawing from Saturday night's all-around finals with injuries. So are Jeanette Antolin and Amanda Stroud.

The combined, weighted scores from nationals (40 percent) and trials (60 percent) will be used to rank the women gymnasts. But they won't be binding. Instead, the selection of the six-person team will be left to a committee headed by Bela Karolyi, who came out of retirement after the worlds disaster to be the national team coordinator.

``I believe it's shaping up to be a very powerful team,'' Karolyi said. ``I believe it's very, very competitive. It's incredible.''

Especially considering how far the Americans have come. The United States finished last in the medals round at worlds — an astonishing drop from the Atlanta Olympics.

With the ``youngsters'' in disarray and lacking leadership, Karolyi set up monthly training camps to raise the difficulty levels of their routines and harden their psyches. Miller, Phelps and Dominique Dawes came out of retirement to join fellow Magnificent Seven members Amy Chow and Dominique Moceanu in comeback attempts.

``We learned a lot at worlds,'' said Ray, who won her first national championship. ``Yes, we had a hard time. At the same time, we definitely did learn a lot of important lessons.''

It shows. Ray displayed that moxie Karolyi loves so much by deciding at the last minute to do a vault she'd never tried in competition.

She had a slim lead over Maloney going into her final event, and needed only a 9.151 to secure the victory. But after scoring a 9.037 on vault in the preliminaries, she decided to crank things up a bit. She told coach Kelli Hill she wanted to do a Yurchenko double full, a one-and-a-half somersault in the layout position with two twists.

Ray nailed it, sending Karolyi and several other USA Gymnastics officials flying out of their seats in celebration. She earned a 9.425 for her two vaults, good enough for a slim, 0.275 point victory over Maloney, the two-time defending national champion.

``Elise loves competition. She likes the excitement and the thrill,'' Hill said. ``I said afterward, `That was not planned.' And she said, `I know. I loved it.' It makes it that much more exciting for her.''

Maloney, usually so reserved, showed she's got some of the swagger that gave Miller and Dawes such star power. On her floor exercise, she practically strutted through her dance sequences. She whipped across the floor with attitude, ending her tumbling passes with a look that said, ``Take that.''

She scored 9.825 and 9.850 on floor, the two highest scores on that event.

``A lot of the attention was on them,'' Maloney said of the former Olympians. ``I think me and Elise and Jamie and Vanessa came out and showed 'em we're still here.''

And what of the former Olympians? Dawes had Karolyi pumping his fists after a dazzling uneven bars routine, and she finished in ninth place despite only seriously training since April. Moceanu, competing with a sprained ankle, was in eighth place.

Chow dropped from third to sixth with a crash on the uneven bars and a big wobble on the balance beam. But in the event finals, she tied for a gold medal on the balance beam and a silver medal on bars.

Miller, whose seven Olympic medals make her the most-decorated American gymnast ever, competed in only one event because of a hairline crack in her right leg. But that one event, the uneven bars, was vintage Miller with big sweeps over the bars, tricky release moves and perfect body position.

Her score of 9.650 tied her with Chow and Alyssa Beckerman for the silver medal.

``I'm looking for Shannon to come back and claim her place like she should, she could and probably she will,'' Karolyi said. ``She's a strong performer. One I would definitely like to see earning her place on this strong, national team.

``But I have to tell you, it won't be easy.''

As for the men, they still have some work to do. Blaine Wilson won his fifth straight national title in impressive fashion, but most of his competition bobbled and blundered their way across the floor like it was a practice session.

When it was over, Wilson had a whopping 1.7-point victory.

``This meet is harder than the Olympics,'' men's head coach Peter Kormann said. ``You're more nervous. You know if you make a mistake, you might not make it. When you get to the Olympics, it's all team, everyone's there and going all out. That makes it a lot easier.''