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GYMNASTICS: WOMEN

PEEKING DOWN UNDER

Everyone agrees the U.S. team is leaps and vaults ahead of where it was a year ago when it finished an embarrassing sixth in the World Championships and failed to have a gymnast place in the top six in an individual event.

Few, however, are predicting a repeat of the glory of 1996 when the United States won its first team gold.

"Gold is going to be a stretch, but I think this team can win a medal," said Mary Lee Tracy, the assistant coach in both 1996 and 2000. "The talent level is very competitive so, yeah, I think we do have a shot."

This is precisely what USA Gymnastics had in mind when it put out a distress call to Bela Karolyi late last year. There was a sense that the U.S. national team had lost its sense of direction since Karolyi's retirement after the '96 Games.

Although he might not be as technically proficient as some coaches, Karolyi has a gift for motivating and an understanding of what it takes to excel at the international level.

It was Karolyi who decided that the team would not be chosen strictly by an accumulation of scores leading up to the trials. Karolyi wanted the flexibility to choose a performer he felt would better compliment the rest of the team. So, when the time came, he added 1992 and '96 Olympian Dominique Dawes to give the team a better blend of youth and experience.

U.S. OLYMPIC ROSTER

Name Age Residence Career highlights

Amy Chow 22 San Jose, Calif. 1996 Olympic team gold

Jamie Dantzscher 18 San Dimas, Calif. 2000 U.S. all-around

bronze

Dominique Dawes 23 Silver Spring, Md. 1996 Olympic team gold

Kristen Maloney 19 Pen Argyl, Pa. 1998-99 U.S. all-around

gold

Elise Ray 18 Columbia, Md. 2000 U.S. all-around gold

Morgan White 17 Fairfield, Ohio 1999 Pan Am all-around

gold

THE HEAT IS ON

It was suggested to Bela Karolyi that, while the team has a nice balance, none of the athletes had the charisma to be a breakout star.

Karolyi did not bite.

"This team has a leader, and it is Elise Ray," Karolyi said.

The man who guided the careers of Nadia Comaneci and Mary Lou Retton could be foreshadowing the breakthrough of the next great gymnast. Or he could be practicing wishful thinking.

Ray is no doubt the top gymnast in the United States this summer, but whether she is ready to lead the team is debateable. The recent high school graduate is not overly talkative and she has less experience than several teammates.

On the other hand, Ray was the only U.S. gymnast to finish in the top eight in any event at the '99 world championships, placing eighth in the all-around and seventh in the uneven bars.

"I'm not afraid of taking the leadership role," Ray said. "I'm really excited that Bela believes in me that much."

DID YOU KNOW?

The biggest critic of the selection process was Kelli Hill. From the time it was announced that a top-six finish in the trials and U.S. Championships would not guarantee an Olympic berth, Hill complained it was unfair.

When it came time to choose the team, Vanessa Atler was the only gymnast in the top six who was left out. Instead the committee selected Dominique Dawes.

And who coaches Dawes? Hill, of course.

"It's very ironic that it's my athlete who ended up replacing another athlete," Hill said. "And I pray to God it's the best thing for the team."

To complete this picture, USA Gymnastics shocked Hill and others by naming her as the Olympic team coach despite her outspoken nature.

The big unknown is what role Bela Karolyi will play in Sydney. Technically he is the team coordinator, but he has been acting like a coach for the past nine months. Do not be surprised if Karolyi is more visible than Hill during the Games.

THE WORLD VIEW

The good news is that not all of the medals are spoken for. The bronze is still available in team competition.

As for the gold and silver, the prevailing opinion is that Romania and Russia will wage that battle on a somewhat higher level than every other country. Romania is the two-time defending world champion and Russia finished second both times. China, the United States, Australia and the Ukraine are considered the second tier.

Russia's Svetlana Khorkina will be a favorite in individual competition, despite a disastrous performance at the 1999 world championships. Russia's Yelena Zamolodchikova burst on the scene at the same meet, winning gold in the vault and bronze in all-around competition.

Romania's Simona Amanar won four medals at the 1996 Olympics but has been upstaged recently by teammate Maria Olaru.

ATLANTA RECAP

It did not matter that the gold medal already had been won. It did not matter that the ankle was merely sprained and not broken. What the world remembers is the courage and determination of Kerri Strug running through an Atlanta night and flipping herself in the air to land painfully on an aching ankle because she thought it was necessary to nail the vault for a U.S. win.

U.S. gymnastics will never surpass that moment in 1996. It was the first time America won gold as a team in women's gymnastics and it happened in spectacular fashion.

Although they realized later that Strug's vault was not necessary, at the time they thought it was the difference between gold and silver. Strug nailed the routine for a 9.712, took a few hops, lifted her ankle off the ground, acknowledged the judges and then collapsed to her knees.

She was diagnosed later at a hospital with a third-degree lateral sprain. When it came time for the awards ceremony, coach Bela Karolyi lifted Strug in his arms and carried her around the arena.

That was the story of the Magnificent Seven.

Shannon Miller, won won five medals in 1992, won the gold on the balance beam and the silver in all-around. Amy Chow won silver on the uneven bars and Dominique Dawes won bronze on the floor exercise.

_ Compiled by John Romano.

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