If there were doubts that Kim Zmeskal is the best female gymnast in the country, and maybe the world, she put them to rest quickly Saturday.
In the first event of the Olympic trials optionals competition Saturday, Zmeskal scored a 10 on her first vault. Because the higher score of two vaults is counted, Zmeskal didn't need another.
She did one anyway.
Cutting through the icy air of the Baltimore Arena with an unofficial 1.28 seconds of hang time, Zmeskal scored another 10.
Take that, Shannon Miller.
But then, something happened.
The stolid Zmeskal began to miss. Her hand slipped on the uneven bars: 9.812. She had two bobbles on the balance beam: 9.737. The hugs from her coach, Bela Karolyi, began to miss, too.
Miller, who had faltered on both of her vaults and scored 9.787, began to perform brilliantly. Her uneven bar routine, replete with a new difficult move, scored a 9.937. Her beam routine, a 9.9. The hugs from her coach, Steve Nunno, who trained in hugs under Karolyi, were plentiful.
Then came the floor exercise. Miller had a step-out penalty and scored a 9.762. Zmeskal unleashed a new tumbling routine and scored a 9.95. The Karolyi hugs were back, and so was applause from the the sold-out crowd of 11,832.
So who won?
"It's like comparing apples to oranges," said Mike Jacki, executive director of the U.S. Gymnastics Federation. "The scores today are figured in with scores from the U.S. Championships, and Shannon didn't compete there. Her scores count 100% from the trials, and Kim's carry over from the championships. If you want to get hung up on the issue of who won today, these six kids won today. This is about picking the Olympic team."
So, who won?
In order of finish: Miller, 15, of Edmond, Okla. (79.056); Zmeskal, 16 of Houston (78.916); Kerri Strug, 14, of Houston (78.175); Dominique Dawes, 15, of Silver Spring, Md. (77.908); Michelle Campi, 15, of Carmichael, Calif. (77.860); Kim Kelly, 18, of King of Prussia, Pa. (77.801); and Wendy Bruce, 19, of Altamonte Springs, Fla. (77.381).
Those seven, plus Betty Okino, will head to Tampa, Fla., July 9 for a training camp. Okino, 17, of Houston, is recovering from a broken vertebra, but based on her world championship ranking (No. 4), she qualifies for the camp. Campi dislocated her elbow in practice Tuesday and did not compete, but her score from the U.S. Championships carried over.
But if this meet was about picking the U.S. women's Olympic team, the objective got lost along the way. Before the competition started, the USGF announced that the top seven finishers here would only be candidates for the team, which will be picked by a panel--the coaches of the gymnasts and two USGF officials--sometime in the future. The USGF wants to take the six gymnasts and one alternate who are the most prepared at the time of the Olympics, not now.
That notwithstanding, when Miller took the lead in the trials after Thursday's compulsory competition, you would have thought Zmeskal lost her world title. Karolyi spent an hour pouring over scoresheets with Jacki.
Karolyi was still upset Friday night, so he spent about two hours in the company of former protege Nadia Comaneci and former Olympian Bart Conner to try to lift his spirits. Comaneci did that easily, bringing out a box of her gold, silver and, yes, a couple of bronze medals and reminiscing.
But Karolyi's peace was fleeting. He was still hot on Saturday, and the politics to pick the team has only begun.
Meanwhile, Zmeskal, this finally behind her, says she looks forward to being the favorite to win the gold medal this summer.
"The real fight will be in Barcelona," she said.