Kim Zmeskal needed to score a 9.875 on the floor exercise, an event in which she has earned perfect 10s in less prestigious meets. But this was the World Gymnastics Championships, and clearly, Zmeskal was in the mood.
Performing to Glenn Miller's famous tune, with a crowd of 15,013 at the Hoosier Dome clapping throughout, Zmeskal landed every move to score a 9.987 and win the all-round gold medal.
It is the first time an American has won that title at the World Championships since the United States began competing in the meet in 1934.
Moreover, Zmeskal, 15, beat the defending champion, Svetlana Boguinskaia of the Soviet Union, by 0.112. Zmeskal beat or tied the 18-year-old Soviet on every event for a total of 39.848 points to Boguinskaia's 39.736. It is only the second time since 1966 that the Soviets have not won the all-around title at this meet.
"I am 100% sure I would have won this competition if it were held in Europe," Boguinskaia said at the post-meet news conference. "America is America . . . and the judges are not especially fair to foreign athletes."
As you might imagine, her remarks did not sit well with Bela Karolyi, Zmeskal's coach and the U.S. women's head coach, who shook his head as he listened from the other end of the dais.
First, Karolyi pointed out that there was only one American judge at the competition. Then he declared, in part: "Boguinskaia has been a great world champion, but her time is over and there is a new era of a young, powerful and aggressive gymnast. The gymnast you saw here tonight. In 1984 (at the Olympics in Los Angeles), there was a sour feeling in my heart that is over tonight because everybody said Mary Lou (Retton) would not have won the all-around (if not for the boycott). Well, that is over tonight."
Replied Boguinskaia: "Well, that's his personal opinion. But I don't think that Kim Zmeskal is that good of a gymnast to make my era come to an end."
So on to the winner. Zmeskal, who started training in Houston with Karolyi from age 6, said she thought she would win a medal, but not the gold. "When they called my name to go up on the podium (for the gold medal), I was almost scared to walk up there because I wasn't sure I heard it right," she said.
But Zmeskal also looked beyond her own success: "I'm pleased that all the three Americans finished tonight in the top six. . . . I'm excited and look forward to next year and the Olympic Games."
American Betty Okino, 16, who stayed in the race for the gold medal until the third rotation, needed to score a 10 on her final event in order to win the bronze. She scored a 9.912 and finished fourth, 0.05 behind Romania's Cristina Bontas, who took the bronze. Shannon Miller, 14, made some early mistakes but pulled ahead in her final event with a score of 9.95 on the uneven bars to finish sixth.
It is the most successful the United States has been in this world competition. The highest finish previously was seventh, both in 1981 and 1989. Only the top 36 gymnasts from the team competition advance to the all-around meet, with a limit of three per country. All six gymnasts finished in the top 36.
And still, there is more.
Zmeskal's gold medal was presented by none other than Ellen Berger, the chief of competition and a rival of Karolyi. It was Berger who reported an obscure rule the United States had broken at the 1988 Olympics, causing the U.S. team a deduction of 0.50. If not for the deduction, the United States would have finished 0.20 ahead of East Germany, which won the bronze. Berger is from the former East Germany.
So was it sweet for Karolyi?
"I want to see Ellen Berger as a hamburger," Karolyi said. "I will never forgive her for what she did to the girls in 1988, when she took the medal from them. She will never make my life sweeter."
Zmeskal maintained a slight lead over Boguinskaia from the beginning of the competition. She scored a 9.962 on vault and a 9.927 on bars. Before she mounted the beam, Boguinskaia had scored a 9.962 on the vault and threatened to take the lead. Zmeskal responded, scoring a 9.962 to stay slightly ahead.
"I just knew I had to do the best floor routine of my life," Zmeskal said. "I was excited, the floor is my favorite event."
And now, Zmeskal is America's favorite gymnast.
Bela Karolyi turned 49 Saturday and said Kim Zmeskal gave him the best birthday present he has ever had. . . . The World Championships is the qualifying meet for the Olympics, with the top 12 finishers advancing. The women's team from France qualified for the Olympics for the first time in 19 years. France had finished 13th in the 1987 and 1989 World Championships. Australia, which finished fifth, will also send a team for the first time since 1964.