Magnificent dreams

Dan Wetzel

PHILADELPHIA – Alicia Sacramone was eight years old, sprawled out on the floor of her parent's home in Winchester, Mass., as she marveled at the magic flickering from the television.

She was into dance then, not gymnastics, but as she watched 1996 Atlanta Olympics, watched America's "Magnificent Seven" gymnasts become the first non-Eastern bloc team to win the gold medal since 1950, the dream was planted.

"I was like, 'I want to do that,'" Sacramone said.

Her parents soon relented to her badgering and said they'd sign her up for gymnastics in the morning. She was so excited she couldn't wait.

"I started flipping around the house," she said. "I just remember being in awe and so amazed. That is definitely what inspired me to get into elite gymnastics, the 1996 team."

The enduring image of that championship was Kerri Strug landing a genius vault despite a badly sprained ankle and then being carried away by her coach, Bela Karolyi.

The enduring legacy could be found here Sunday at the U.S. Gymnastics Olympic Team Trials, where a next-generation squad continued in the lengthy competition for the six spots on the U.S. team that will head to Beijing in August.

Once inspired as little girls by a legendary group, they will now enter these Olympics with the highest of praise and the biggest of expectations – not just a shot at team gold, but the belief by many that this squad may be even better than the 1996 one.

"They just have so much talent," said Dominique Dawes, a member of the 1996 and 2000 U.S. teams. "If they won, I would say their feat would be more impressive because it is off of American soil. Not that my team couldn't have done it, but (the Olympics) were in Atlanta."

Sunday two spots were secured, the no-surprise selections of superstars Shawn Johnson of Iowa and Nastia Liukin of Texas. Both are threats to following the path of 2004's Carly Patterson, the first American to win individual all-around gold in a non-boycott year.

The four other spots will be picked next month after a final, high-pressure session at the secluded training camp of Bela and Martha Karolyi outside of New Waverly, Tex. Martha is the national team coach, taking over for her now-retired husband who led the team in 1996.

"I don't like to compare because it is always different situations," Martha Karolyi said, "But this will be a guaranteed extremely strong team."

Romania's Nadia Comaneci series of perfect 10s inspired American girls in 1976, which helped lead to Mary Lou Retton winning the first all-around gold for the U.S. in 1984, which was part of the motivation for the Magnificent Seven in 1996, who, like ripples across a pond, now find a team full of talented gymnasts eager to duplicate their accomplishment.

The U.S. has become a year in, year out powerhouse, but perhaps never before have they enjoyed this depth of quality. The Americans finished fourth in 2000 and won silver in 2004. After narrowly defeating the Chinese for the world championships last year, however, the goal is clear.

"We all have the same dream in mind," Liukin said. "We hope to bring that title back that we had in '96. It was an amazing moment."

While some of the gymnasts were too young to remember – Johnson was just four – even the youngest of them have watched the replays and heard the legend. Earlier this year all seven from that team – Dawes, Strug, Shannon Miller, Dominique Moceanu, Amanda Borden, Amy Chow and Jaycie Phelps – were inducted into the USOC Hall of Fame.

It's not just their physical talents that resonate, but the mental and emotional toughness that allowed them to persevere. Strug's one-legged vault is spoken of in revered tones.

"You just have to take their drive and determination," Sacramone said. "Nothing was stopping them. They had injuries, they had all these things go against them and they pushed through and came out on top. More than anything that is what we have to do."

It's one reason Martha Karolyi has turned this selection process into a marathon of challenges. There are no shortage of American girls with the skill and physical ability to compete at the Olympic level. The question is whether they can deliver in the lonely moments of the Games, in this case, competing in China against China.

"A person who can't handle pressure has no place on this team," Karolyi said. "That is why in this selection process we set so many tests and tests. To find out who is the strongest mentally. Physically you can be fantastic, but if you are shaky when the pressure is on then you don't help the team.

"There will be a lot of pressure in China," Karolyi continued. "If they can not stand up to the pressure then they should not be there."

The athletes agree. The process has been long, the competition fierce and nothing has been promised. The two stars are in, but everyone else is still trying, no room for error next month in Texas.

They'd have it no other way. They know the history, understand the challenge.

"I think it would be pretty much epic if we won in China when they are our toughest competitors," Sacramone said. "It would be huge (to) bring home the gold a second time."

And inspire another wave of little girls watching on TV, begging their parents for lessons, crashing around living rooms with round offs and somersaults as they began dreaming their own biggest of dreams.