Top U.S. Gymnasts Face World

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It is seldom known whether the Soviet Union and Romania send their top gymnasts to events where gold is not the reward. But tonight, as the American Cup competition begins in Orlando, Fla., spectators will see the best of what's to come from the European powers, and the best among U.S. men and women.

Betty Okino, 15, and Kim Zmeskal, 14, have already gained some seasoning both in national and international competition. They are among eight American women and four American men who will compete against gymnasts from 13 countries in this two-day meet.

This is the last major international competition before the World Championships in early September at Indianapolis. Most countries, each allowed under meet rules to enter one male and female gymnast, are sending their top junior gymnasts to see how they fare while gaining international experience. The U.S., as host, is allowed to enter eight women and four men. So besides entering a few juniors, the Americans sent a few of their best.

Okino, who didn't make the junior national team in 1989, moved up last year, finishing second to Zmeskal at the U.S. Nationals and compiling impressive results in European meets. Okino already has a movement on the beam event being named after her--a triple pirouette ballet move that will forever be known as the "Okino." At 5-feet-1, her moves are elegant, more in the sleek European style.

Zmeskal's style is often compared to that of Mary Lou Retton--athletic and bouncy. Zmeskal, 4-5 and 72 pounds, won four national competitions last year. Zmeskal beat three of the top Soviet women, including Goodwill Games champion Natalia Kalinina, to win the U.S.-U.S.S.R. meet.

In 1990, U.S. women had their best year of international competition. Chelle Stack is the only member of the 1988 Olympic team still competing. Others to watch are Shannon Miller, Elisabeth Crandall, Sandy Woolsey, Wendy Bruce and Dominique Dawes.

U.S. male entrants will be former Olympian Lance Ringnald, UCLA's Chris Waller, Nebraska's Patrick Kirksey and New Mexico's Trent Dimas. Their biggest competition will come from Andreas Wecker of Germany, one of the top-ranked gymnasts in the world.

Ringnald, also of New Mexico, is coming off his best season in international competition. At the Goodwill Games, he won a gold medal on the high bar and bronze medals in the all-around and parallel bars.

For the first time, the International Gymnastics Federation will award prize money--$38,000 to be divided among the top finishers of the individual events and all-around competitions. Gymnasts protecting NCAA eligibility will not receive prize money.

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