Shannon Miller won a silver and a bronze in the individual events while Kim Zmeskal was shut out.
They wake up in the dark, while most everyone else is still sleeping. When other people's alarm clocks start ringing, they are already working at the gym. Their concentration is total, even at this early hour. Over and over, they twist and turn their bodies, making sure that each muscle knows exactly what to do. After practicing hundreds of moves, they might head off for a few hours of school; then it's back to the gym for an afternoon-into-evening session.
And that's in the off season.
To prepare for an important competition, such world-class gymnasts as Kim Zmeskal and Shannon Miller spend even more hours each day perfecting every detail of their performance. For teenage girls, the sacrifices are obvious. Zmeskal had to leave her Houston school in 1989; now she keeps up with class work through the mail. She has a strict low-fat, no-sweet diet and can't even remember the last time she tasted ice cream. Frozen yogurt is permitted on special occasions. She is a prisoner of her regimen. "Sometimes," she says, "family get-togethers happen without me."
Her teammates have made similar sacrifices. Kerri Strug, a 14-year-old from Tucson, Ariz., moved to Houston to be near Bela Karolyi, who coaches her and Zmeskal. Strug boards with a local family. The parents of Hilary Grivich, 15, commute 125 miles round trip each day so Grivich can train with Karolyi. The grandmother of another Karolyi protegee, Betty Okino, moved with her 17-year-old granddaughter from Illinois to Houston and even learned to drive--at the age of 70--so she could take Betty back and forth to the gym. Okino and Strug both attend a private school near the gym; Grivich, like Zmeskal, takes correspondence courses. Karolyi has been criticized by some former students for his aggressive methods and demanding training. Kristie Phillips, a retired two-time national champ, told The Baltimore Sun that she still gets nightmares from her days working with Karolyi. And Chelle Stack, who made it to the Seoul Olympics, said later, "I didn't realize how much hatred I had toward him." But Mary Lou Retton, another ex-Karolyite who won a gold medal in 1984, defends her old coach's formula for victory: "You don't hear too many complaints from the winners."
In Oklahoma City, Shannon Miller's training has been equally rigorous. Like most of the approximately 130 serious competitors who work with her coach, Steve Nunno, she gets up at 6 a.m. and puts in 90 minutes to two hours of hard conditioning as well as some dance or floor-exercise work. Then it's off to school. Nunno has arranged for many of his charges to be excused from phys-ed class so they can use that hour as a study period. The girls rendezvous back at the gym in mid-afternoon. Two afternoons a week they take a 45-minute dance class, finishing at 4 p.m. Every day except Sunday they put in five hard hours until 9 p.m. They run and do conditioning exercises for about a half hour, then some stretching and basic-skills-work. Finally, they work on their various apparatus rotations, three a day for about 70 minutes each. They're home by 9:45 at the latest, in time for a snack and some studying. Then, it's bedtime. The next day it starts all over again.
Diet is every bit as rigorous as the physical workout. The girls have to stay lean, or their performances suffer. In Oklahoma City, Nunno's principal assistant, Peggy Liddick, educates all the girls about healthy eating. There are few absolute rules, Nunno says, except cutting down on fat. "No ice cream," says Nunno. "No junk food. You're an athlete and that's basic." Many of Nunno's kids take a food supplement to ensure that they get a basic supply of vitamins. He says most of his girls eat breakfast at home, lunch at school, a snack before their gym program and another snack afterward. They always have small meals, spreading out the calories--"the way you should eat." If Nunno sees a gymnast gaining too much weight, he'll intervene and work out an eating program. Shannon, Nunno says, is a picky eater and often gets by with just a baked potato. She occasionally craves fast food, and Nunno says that's OK as long as it's not fried--which basically eliminates most of the regular menu. But Nunno says he doesn't get too upset when she goes for a roast-beef sandwich at Arby's, for example.
Nunno believes fervently in gymnastics. His parents were divorced when he was 9, and he got through college on a gymnastics scholarship. He has a master's degree in sports administration and encourages his girls to do well in school. He says most of his charges get good grades; Shannon is a straight-A student and a member of the National Honor Society. "If you have a bad day at the gym, but a great day at school, you can come in feeling good because there are other things in your life," Nunno says. "If the gym is the only thing in your life, it's hard to break out of the slump."
The gymnasts learn their devotion to their sport by example. Neither Nunno nor Karolyi (whom Nunno once worked for) can remember the last time they had a real vacation. Karolyi concedes that he did take a few days off in 1981--when he defected from Romania. He has vowed to retire after Barcelona, although none who know him well are holding their breath. The day after the Olympic trials this spring, Nunno says he was so excited that he went home and started working on his 10-year-olds: the future stars in Atlanta in 1996.