Gymnastics is a cruel sport, with little-league mothers, feuding coaches and calluses so big they need to be sandpapered. Yet of all the women’s events at the summer olympics, this one provides the straightest shot to stardom.
The timing has to be perfect. Gymnasts must have the artistry of a seasoned professional and the body of a preteen. That window of opportunity is fleeting: only Olga Korbut dragged herself back for a second, disappointing Olympics. Mary Lou Retton and Nadia Comaneci were smart enough to retire before they graduated from high school, having been fortunate to peak in a year that saw the olympics. For the american women competitors, this will be the olympics of the fifteen-year-olds – the average age of the top six gymnasts. (Pity those who were born in 1975 or 1979 —– it’s just tough luck.)
“When I first met Shannon, I thought she was a scraggly looking kid, like a lot of kids at eight,” says coach Steve Nunno of his protégé, Shannon Miller, from Edmond, Oklahoma. “It’s hard to tell at that age what will happen to them, but she was so petite, I knew she had good potential.”
Nunno was right; Miller never sprouted. A twiglike four feet six inches, weighing seventy pounds, Miller recently won the Swiss Cup and the Arthur Gander Memorial Games in Switzerland after placing sixth in the all-around at the 1991 World Championships. Miller’s tiny size gives her an advantage in the multiple-twisting and somersaulting skills she must have to compete with the Russians. For added artillery in Barcelona, she plans to unveil an astonishing series of release moves on the uneven bars that have never been done in competition. Like a trapeze artist, she will let go of the bar, turn and recatch, release again, recatch again, for a total of three times in a row. Says the mini-Flying Wallenda: “I’m kind of a daredevil.”
Yet away from the apparatus, Miller is painfully tongue-tied. She’d be happy if nobody asked her any more pesky questions about the Olympics –— not the press or her fellow ninth graders at Summit Middle School. “I’m not afraid – I’m not really thinking about it,” she says in her high-pitched, Oklahoma twang. “I’ve got to take each meet at a time.”
That kind of blinding concentration is what makes girl gymnasts so freakish to watch. The athletes look like perky cheerleaders with barrettes, but once their name goes over the PA system, they’re as focused as brain surgeons. Since four to six gymnasts perform simultaneously in the same circuslike arena –— on the balance beam, uneven parallel bars, vault and floor –— the background noise can be overwhelming. “You hear the other music and stuff and the crowd,” says Miller. “But it helps you. Even if they’re not cheering for you, it helps.”
Rising to that big, lonely moment is what her fellow Oklahoman, Jarrod Hanks, 22, is best known for. The son of a rice and soybean farmer from Lafayette, Louisiana, and the new U.S. all-around champion, Hanks not only endures the pressure, he needs it to do his best. “It’s easier to get up for an international meet than it is for something that means nothing,” he says. Until his national victory in February, Hanks was a perennial U.S. alternate and went to international competition only when someone else got sick or injured. But in those few, lucky instances, he raised eyebrows by outperforming many of the other Americans with higher rankings and a few Russians and Eastern Europeans as well.
Although his secret weapon is cool consistency, Hanks’s crowd pleaser is a floor move called the Lay-Out Thomas, a trick borrowed from divers. He does a one and a half twist with an open one and a half somersault, meaning —– yes —– he lands face down into the mat. “Not too many people do it, because it’s kind of dangerous,” he says. “Everytime I go into it I try to remind myself, ‘You can break your neck on this trick.’ When you get too confident, you can screw up and get hurt.”
After fifteen years in a sport dominated by pigtailed girls, Hanks knows what it means to be overshadowed, called a sissy or worse. “Face it,” he says, “the public likes the women.” Not only do they weep and mug in front of the cameras –— Retton and Korbut did both —– but on the American side, they are also more competitive than the men. Miller and fellow fifteen-year-olds Kim Zmeskal and Betty Okino together won a record ten American medals at the last World Championships, in Indianapolis, and are expected to do well again this summer, with continued help from the collapse of communism.
“It’s a combination of the U.S. women moving up to the standard of the rest of the world,” says Greg Marsden of the University of Utah, a former national coach. “And the rest of the world, particularly Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary and Germany, falling out. Their programs are in complete disarray. What used to be their advantage is now ours.”
No gymnastics superpower, however, falls without a struggle. “There was a lot of grousing about how well we did in Indianapolis,” Marsden continues. “People don’t like to lose to Americans. A lot of the Europeans and Eastern Europeans feel that Americans are spoiled and have everything.”
Well, maybe in gymnastics. There are corporate sponsorships, coaches from Romania and loads of young women with sore ankles just dying to become the next gymnastics icon from the West. Cross your fingers and hope that nobody grows.