Gymnast gets rude awakening

Published July 12, 1992|Updated Oct. 11, 2005

When her head hit the pillow in an Orlando hotel room Thursday evening, Betty Okino had no idea how the voting had gone for the U.S. Olympic gymnastics team. Down the hall, in another hotel bed, Kim Kelly did know.

And she wished to heaven she didn't.

Kelly, 18, and Okino, 17, were two of the central participants in a soap-opera-like tale of big-time gymnastics and small-town dreams this week.

Eight gymnasts went to Orlando last week knowing that only seven of them would leave on a charter flight from Tampa this morning, bound for the Olympics.

Okino, one of coach Bela Karolyi's wunderkinds, was the reason there was a one-person overflow. Okino had missed the Olympic Trials with a back injury and was given the chance in Orlando to convince coaches she was healthy enough _ and talented enough _ to make the U.S. team.

She did.

And Kelly, who finished sixth after the Trials, was the person bumped.

She found out about it late Thursday evening after a daylong competition that was followed by a vote of coaches of the eight gymnasts.

Immediately following the competition, Kelly was so confident she raced to a telephone to call her mom in Pennsylvania.

"I did it," she told her. "I made the team."

Hours later, Kelly's coaches, Donna and Bill Strauss, went to her hotel room and told her she had not made it.

"I thought they were joking," Kelly said Saturday by telephone from her family's home near Allentown, Pa. "They had to tell me three or four times before I finally realized they were serious."

The decision caused a mini-furor in Orlando with the Strausses calling it a "terrible injustice."

Their complaint was twofold:

No. 1, Okino did not participate in the U.S. Championships or the Trials _ both of which are used to determine the U.S. team's makeup _ while Kelly had done everything expected of her in both.

No. 2, if there was going to be an exception made for Okino, Orlando gymnast Wendy Bruce should have been the person bumped, they said. Bruce had finished behind Kelly in combined scoring at the national championships and Trials.

From the discussion among coaches before the secret vote Thursday, Donna Strauss said she got the impression Kelly was left out because she did not have a strong international reputation and, at 5 feet, 100 pounds, she was one of the bigger gymnasts.

"She was taken off the team because she looked like a young woman instead of a perky, little girl," Donna Strauss said. "If somebody works for years and passes every test you set up for them, you just can't tell them they're not qualified at the last minute."

Karolyi, who will coach the U.S. team, and U.S. Gymnastics Federation executive director Mike Jacki said the voting process for choosing the team was decided months ago and all of the athletes were aware of it.

"The present readiness was the only criteria," Karolyi said Saturday in Tampa. "We did not look back at past performances. We did not look at the international prestige of the athletes.

"The only thing we were looking at was the present time _ the momentum. How ready they are now. Not in the past, not in the future. To face in 10 days the most important competitive performance ever in their lives."

Mitch Goldman, an attorney for the Kelly family, said Saturday evening he was considering legal avenues to get Kelly on the squad.

The most likely alternative, he said, was to persuade a judge to order a competition in France _ where the team is training this week _ where the eight gymnasts could be chosen by competitive scores and not a vote of coaches.

Kelly, however, said she may not be up for another round of competition. She said she is already preparing for her collegiate career at Alabama.

"The only thing we can do legally is to force another competition. It's like a never-ending battle," she said. "I don't think I would want to do that. I mean, how many times do I have to prove myself?"