Kristie Phillips knew it was going to be close. Just how close, she wasn't sure.
The last event in the finals of the McDonald's American Cup at George Mason's Patriot Center yesterday was the floor exercise. Going in, Bulgaria's Borjana Stojanova trailed Phillips by .075, which meant they essentially were neck and neck. Stojanova was the second of eight to do her routine and she registered a solid 9.7.
"I thought I might be able to win with a 9.7," Stojanova said. "But I had also seen Kristie, so I knew it could go either way."
Phillips waited through five more gymnasts. She would be last. She would need a 9.7.
There were 9,700 in the stands (with more than 1,000 turned away, according to sponsors), and all eyes were on the 4-foot-9, 78-pound Phillips. But the 13-year-old from Baton Rouge, La., by way of Houston, showed a flair for the dramatic by coming through in the clutch. She tumbled and twisted and charmed her way to a 9.8 to capture first place and her first international victory.
As the scores were posted, Phillips went back to the mat to take a bow.
"I was really excited," she said of the feeling before the routine. "Bela [Karolyi, her coach] had talked about going normal and not overdoing it. It was tough, though.
"It helped going last. I could watch the others and kind of figure out what I needed but I didn't know. The crowd was great, and when the crowd is behind you, it helps a lot."
Phillips finished with an all-around score of 38.775 to Stojanova's 38.600.
American Brian Ginsberg led the men's competition throughout until the last event. But the Soviet Union's Alexsei Tikhonkin scored two 9.9s in the final two events -- parallel bars and high bar -- to claim the men's title, with an all-around score of 58.350. Ginsberg, 19, a junior at UCLA, won the floor exercise, rings and tied for first in the vault, finishing with 58.100 points for second place.
Ginsberg had a 9.55 on his high bar routine, then had to watch Tikhonkin win the title.
"I felt a little nervous," he said of the final event. "I was real tired at the end of my set and I ended up a little short on my dismount. On the last two events, he was incredible."
But the two-day event gave Ginsberg a healthy boost. "My confidence level doubled," he said. "I learned that I can compete against international competition."
It was not as happy a day for Americans Tim Daggett and Sabrina Mar.
Daggett, who won two medals in the 1984 Summer Olympics, had to pull out of the competition after three events because of a sprained ankle. "I did it on the first pass on floor exercise the first event ," Daggett said. "When I landed again, I felt it go. I couldn't punch off on the rest of the routine."
Mar, the 15-year-old national champion from Monterey, Calif., finished sixth among the women.
Mary Lou Retton had won this event the three previous years. But since the Olympics in Los Angeles, Retton has spent much of her time doing endorsements and making appearances. She has not been training or competing as much, although she has done exhibitions. This weekend, in a television interview, she said she thought the U.S. Gymnastics Federation was being insensitive by not allowing her to compete this year in the American Cup.
Mike Jacki, executive director of the USGF, said Retton is not participating because she isn't a member of the U.S. national team.
"Mary Lou made the choice not to participate in the American Cup last June, when she did not compete in the 1985 McDonald's Championships of the USA," Jacki said in a statement. "The U.S. national team is selected each year at the national championships, and gymnasts from that team are invited to compete in events such as the American Cup.
"We are operating under the same rules and policies as we have in the past years, when Mary Lou benefited enormously from them. Her agent asked us to change those rules this year. We chose to keep them intact and preserve the integrity of our program."
Jacki went on to say that Retton would be welcome to return to competition, but "the decision is hers and hers alone."
"The USGF will support her decision either way," he said. "In the meantime, we will continue to conduct our program as we have in the past, giving our active athletes the same opportunities we provided Mary Lou when she was competing in our program."