The side somersault down the balance beam was a ways from perfect and Kristie Phillips was trying to catch herself. Her toes were gripping the edge of that hunk of wood as if there were no tomorrow, her freckled face was twisted and her eyes bugged out a bit as the crowd of 4,896 at George Mason's Patriot Center gasped, and she struggled to regain her balance.
Phillips was in first place and toward the end of her last event in the preliminary round of the McDonald's American Cup invitational gymnastics competition. A fall would cost her a half point and could have put her out of the competition, since only two Americans are allowed in the finals, and the two other U.S. entrants were near the top of the standings.
But she summoned a bit of strength and pulled herself up as the crowd cheered her recovery.
"I was real nervous," the 13-year-old said. "That was my last trick before my dismount and I knew I had to stick it. After I saved it, I could feel the crowd behind me."
If she didn't stick the side somersault, she did stick the dismount, which brought a bigger smile and more applause, if either was possible.
The 9.675 she got for the effort was good for second place in the beam, but was enough to leave her atop the eight qualifiers for today's finals, which start at 2:30.
Americans Sabrina Mar and Melissa Marlowe were third and fourth, respectively, in the qualifying. But Marlowe, who won the uneven parallel bars, and Brian Babcock, who finished seventh among the men, will have to watch. The United States, as the host, is the only country with more than one male and/or female athlete competing, so the two-American rule is designed to avoid having a final with too many Americans.
"It is a little disappointing," said Marlowe, who is from Salt Lake City. "But I felt good with my performance, other than the beam where she fell off . But the rule is fair."
Eight men and eight women qualified for today's finals, but no scores will carry over.
In the men's competition, American Brian Ginsberg finished the qualifying tied for third with Gyorgy Guczoghy of Hungary and American Tim Daggett was fifth.
Wang Chongsheng of China won the men's floor exercise, still rings and parallel bars, and was second in the pommel horse and high bar, to lead all qualifiers with 58.1 points. Second was the Soviet Union's Alexsei Tikhonkin, who won the high bar, tied for first on the vault, and finished second on the parallel bars and pommel horse.
Daggett won his first event, then struggled. "It was not a good day," said Daggett, who won a gold and a bronze medal in the 1984 Summer Olympics and won this event last year. "I started good on the pommel horse, and I was real pleased with the start of my floor exercise, but then I made mistakes I don't usually make. You definitely don't want to make a major mistake, but there were a lot of small mistakes."
In the women's competition, Mariana Tudor of Romania had her one victory in her last event, the floor exercise, where she scored a 9.8. Tudor finished the qualifying in second place behind Phillips, 38.701 to 38.638.
Mar won the balance beam with score of 9.75, with Phillips second. Mar, 15, the U.S. national champion, finished third with her floor exercise routine, which was set to the music of Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A."
"It psychs people up," Mar said of the tune. "They think of the Boss. It's a fun routine and you can play to the crowd."
The Soviet Union's Irina Baraksanova, who was in fourth place at last year's world championships before being pulled for a minor injury, fell off the uneven parallel bars and the beam. One of the favorites coming in, she was in ninth place going into her last event, the floor exercise, where she finished tied for third. That landed her in sixth place.