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GYMNASTICS // Getting better with age

A line of leotard-clad girls, beaming with excitement, snaked through an exhibition hall in the Tampa Convention Center hoping to get a glimpse of Shannon Miller, America's most-decorated gymnast.

It's been this way ever since Miller won five gold medals at the 1992 Olympics. Miller's appearances, like the one she made at the Tuflex Gasparilla Invitational in March, have drawn crowds of autograph-seekers. But the Miller they saw in Tampa isn't the same Miller America fell in love with in Barcelona.

Not only is Miller older at age 19, she is 3 inches taller and 22 pounds heavier at 5 feet, 94 pounds. Not long ago she would have been considered too old and too big to compete on the sport's international level.

"Girls were thinking that "if I am not 13, a pixie, I cannot be in the sport,'

" said Bela Karolyi, coach of 14-year-old Dominique Moceanu.

The sport is changing, however. No longer is gymnastics being limited to spritely 14-year-olds hoping to become the next Nadia Comaneci. Not only is Miller still competing, she's considered a shoo-in to make the U.S. Olympic team.

"I still love the sport and I want to keep doing it," Miller said. "I may be old by numbers, but it's how you feel."

And she's not alone. Fellow Barcelona teammates Dominique Dawes, 19, and Kerri Strug, 18, also are prime contenders for the U.S. team.

The trend toward older gymnasts has been spurred in part by the harsh criticism leveled at the sport in recent years. Complaints of brutal training regimens, injuries and eating disorders prompted critics to ask if these girls were too young.

The result has been a rule change that after Atlanta will require Olympic gymnasts to be 16 or older to compete at the world level.

The move also comes from the fact that half of the United States' 1991 World Championship team was 14 or younger. And for a change, these girls weren't ready to be put out to pasture after the Barcelona Games.

"Once they got there (to the Olympics), it did go very well," said Steve Nunno, Miller's coach. "But they were young and hungry and the majority wanted to keep going. The kids were just coming up then.

"Now those kids are coming into their prime. I still don't believe they've peaked yet."

The older is better theory is echoed by many in the sport. NBC analyst Elfi Schlegel said there's an artistry that can only come from years in the sport.

"When you talk about an athlete like Shannon Miller, Dominique Dawes or Kerri Strug, they were not the same athletes they were in '92," Schlegel said. "Kerri Strug, for example, is able to handle competition better than she did four years ago. Shannon Miller is a beautiful athlete to watch today. Her choreography has changed, it's so much more mature."

An experienced team also has an edge with judges. What's in a name? A lot when judges know a gymnast's capabilities.

"It's like a prize fight, the tie goes to the one with the reputation," Nunno said. "Reputation means a lot more than any international event. These girls have paid their dues and earned their names."

Not only are American gymnasts older and wiser, but the trend is also being seen internationally. Svetlana Boginskaya of Belarus, who trains in Karolyi's Houston gym, is 23. She won a medal at the American Cup earlier this year.

Miller for one couldn't be happier about the trend, and she says the experience of Barcelona may even give her an edge.

"It gives me kind of an advantage," Miller said. "I know what to expect outside the arena, the Olympic Village, so I can focus more on the competition."

Times researcher Barbara Hijek contributed to this story.

U.S. Olympic Gymnastics Trials

WHEN: June 27-June 30

WHERE: Fleet Center, Boston

AT STAKE: The top six men and women at the conclusion of the trials make the U.S. team. An athlete who qualified for the trials but couldn't compete because of injury, illness or other unforseen circumstances may petition to make the team.

TV: NBC _ June 29: 4-6 p.m. (same-day tape); June 30: 2-3 p.m. (same-day tape), 7-9 p.m. (live).

SCHEDULE: June 27 _ Men's compulsories, 7 p.m.-9 p.m.; June 28 _ Women's compulsories, 7 p.m.-10 p.m.; June 29 _ Men's optional, 4 p.m.-6:30 p.m.; June 30 _ Women's optional, 5:30 p.m.-9 p.m.

FLORIDA CONNECTIONS: Dominique Moceanu, 14. Moceanu once lived in Tampa. She trained at LaFleur's Gymnastics from 1988 to 1990.

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