U.S. gymnasts take off in Columbus, in hope of landing in Baltimore finals


COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Tiny, taut girls and miniature, muscular men will fly through the air here this weekend -- hoping to land in Baltimore.

The 1992 Phar-Mor U.S. Gymnastics Championships, first step in selecting the U.S. team for the Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain, begin tonight at Ohio State.

The top 12 women and the top 18 men after competition ends Sunday will compete June 6-13 at the Olympic trials in Baltimore for the 14 spots -- seven men and seven women -- on the U.S. Olympic squad.

"These kids are ready," said Francis Allen, head coach at Nebraska and of the U.S. men's team that went to the world championships.

"There are kids who are a shoo-in to make it to Baltimore, unless there is a major disaster.

"Baltimore. Now that is when things will get hairy."

Allen is right. Barring major missteps, a number of gymnasts already may have made hotel reservations around the Inner Harbor.

Kim Zmeskal, double gold medalist at the recent world championships in Paris and the latest product of Bela Karolyi's magic, may be unchallenged as she goes for her third straight U.S. all-around championship.

Betty Okino, her teammate at Karolyi's Houston gym, is nursing a back injury and will petition the U.S. Gymnastics Federation for an automatic spot in Baltimore. A silver medalist on the uneven bars in Paris and the 1991 McDonald's American Cup all-around champion, her petition will almost certainly be granted.

"It [bringing Okino here] would maybe aggravate the injury and jeopardize her chances in the trials," Karolyi said. "She is disappointed, but Olympic participation is a major goal."

Also, Shannon Miller will perform only a handful of compulsory routines this weekend while she nurses an arm injury. Miller, third in the all-around at the McDonald's Cup, likely will have her petition for a waiver to Baltimore granted, too.

Zmeskal may feel the quick, hot breath of Kerri Strug and Hilary Grivich, teammates at Karolyi's.

"Kerri Strug. No doubt about it," Karolyi said. "She's very compact, very consistent."

Wendy Bruce, an old-timer at 19, is injury-free and coming off an all-around victory in the U.S. Classic in Knoxville, Tenn., three weeks ago. She should do well here, too.

But no one can match Zmeskal's power-packed style.

"Her performance was no doubt the most superior of this past Paris world championships," Karolyi said of the 16-year-old given a chance to win the United States' first Olympic gymnastics gold medal since Mary Lou Retton in 1984.

"I believe it came just at the right time, when we are only a couple of months to go until we have to compete again in the heart of Europe in Barcelona," said Karolyi of a U.S. team that should contend for a medal in Barcelona.

Among the men, the battle between Jarrod Hanks of Oklahoma and Scott Keswick of UCLA should send the chalk dust in St. John Arena flying.

They are tops in a men's field of incredible depth.

"Jarrod is coming off a championship at the Winter Nationals and at the American Cup," said Keswick. "That should boost his confidence. But the media is all over him now, too. You never know how that will affect you."

Hanks is aware of that.

"The routines are set. It's 80 percent mental now. It's who can handle the pressure of the meet.

"I mean, there are six national champions, six guys who have been ranked No. 1 at one time, at this meet."

Keswick, known as "King of the Rings," has a chance to become a four-time national champion in that event, something that has never been done in any event.

NOTES: Dominique Dawes of Silver Spring, Md., is competing and is expected to make the trip to Baltimore. The degree of difficulty in her routines probably is not strong enough to earn her a place on the Olympic team. . . . Kurt Thomas, attempting a comeback at 35, and Charlie Lakes, a member of the 1988 Olympic team, are competing here, too. Neither is given much chance to make the Olympic trials.

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