HOUSTON -- The accusations are ugly, the stories conflict and sometimes it's hard to figure out who dislikes whom the most.

What can't be misunderstood is that the best women gymnasts in America performed dismally in October at the 1987 World Championships in Rotterdam.

And foremost among those tilting and tripping their way to a sixth-place team finish was U.S. national champion Kristie Phillips.

She ended up 45th and did not make any final, not even in her specialty, the balance beam.

"We're not going to do that again," says Mike Jacki, the executive director of the U.S. Gymnastics Federation, the sport's governing body. "We're not going to put people on the floor without preparation. We're going to put our best athletes on the floor. If that happens to not be Kristie Phillips, then it's not Kristie Phillips."

But Phillips, 15, coached by Bela Karolyi, is the national champion. And these were the World Championships. It's unthinkable that she wouldn't be there.

"Bela didn't prepare his kids properly," says Jacki, referring to national team members Phillips, Rhonda Faehn and Phoebe Mills, all proteges of Karolyi in Houston. "Bela knows better than anyone: The performance speaks for itself.

"Bela Karolyi is probably the best person in the world for preparing an athlete -- if he puts his heart and guts into it. Apparently, he didn't put his heart and guts into it."

Karolyi can't stomach such criticism. He became famous coaching Nadia Comaneci in Romania and he coached Mary Lou Retton to Olympic gold in 1984. He knows more than a little about conditioning, training and winning.

"They were prepared," he says. "I promise you they were prepared. Those suckers were ready."

And he should know. But top USGF officials say Phillips' mother called the federation only weeks before the World Championships, wondering if Karolyi was doing his utmost to get her daughter ready.

"Kristie, Phoebe and Rhonda -- I've seen them more intense," says Bart Conner, the '84 gold medalist who was at the worlds as an analyst for NBC. "It might have been that they were not all the way prepared. I watched Kristie in the warmups, and she was laboring."

Nor was Greg Marsden, the national team coach at Rotterdam, impressed by Phillips' readiness.

"Our national champion was ill-prepared for the World Championships," he says. "The first week there she was unable to get through the compulsory and optional bar routines. At one point, I was concerned she couldn't compete at all for us. I had to consider that.

"I'm not saying this was the case, but, if it was intentional that they weren't prepared, then that further angers me.

"Bela was very upset that he wasn't named an assistant national coach on the floor. But he was not there for his athletes; he had an opportunity to be there, but he chose not to be."

The USGF says his accommodations and airfare were paid for and that he knew of the coaching situation. Instead, he went hunting for three days in Alaska, where he shot a caribou and a moose.

His wife Marta accompanied their three athletes to Rotterdam. She is the balance-beam coach for the elite Karolyi kids.

"Maybe we weren't the best prepared," Phillips says, "but we didn't get any coaching {at the championships}. Marta was there, and that made it not as bad, {but} we needed to be told exactly what we were doing wrong -- 'Your feet were apart,' 'More block,' stuff like that.

"Greg would always just say, 'Stand tall.' I don't know what that means. Maybe that works with college kids, but it doesn't work with 15-year-olds."

Did she try to speak with Marsden, who coaches at the University of Utah, about that?

"Yeah, I tried to," she says, "but the words wouldn't come out.

"It's just that Greg can't get us ready. He doesn't know how to . . . With Bela there, I definitely think I would have placed in the top 10."

Her spot in the six-athlete lineup -- a critical part of team gymnastics strategy -- was not particularly advantageous. Coaches put the weakest athletes first and the last ones up almost always score the highest.

"Kristie didn't look that great in the compulsories, and Greg chose to put her up very early," says Conner. "It's hard to get good scores when you're up early."

Marsden acknowledged that the U.S. team was confused and disorganized in Rotterdam.

"I could have provided more leadership," he says. "I'll take the responsibility for what happened at worlds, for not taking charge. This was my first major international experience, and I learned a great deal there."

Karolyi's assessment of the situation as it unraveled:

"He {Marsden} went nuts. He went nuts. He started to fail, he was shaky and he had no decision, no control.

"At the same time, he had no ability or capability to control the kids. All he could do was, like on the college level, start hugging them and kissing them. Hugging is not coaching. It was ridiculous. People were laughing at him."

It is safe to say that Phillips is better than 45th in the world and probably better than 10th. So did Karolyi's absence hurt her performance?

He makes a good case for his understanding of each of his child-athletes, of knowing their needs before and during competitions. He calls them "secret things, small moments," strategies no other coach can know.

"Kristie is a strong personality," he says. "She's a strong girl. You have to be pretty rough on her in order to wake her up. You have to be very firm. Her mental readiness always needs a strong support.

"She's an aggressive kid who can be even more aggressive."

Ah, that telling phrase -- even more aggressive. And where does that "more" come from? From Karolyi, of course.

Conner believes Karolyi's presence at the worlds might have helped Phillips.

"She didn't compete very well because she wasn't too psyched up," he says. "Bela has the ability to bring out that tremendous, on-site intensity. He was a master of it with Mary Lou. He can turn you on. He's an amazing motivator. He works them hard, but they compete even better. He brings out that greatness."

But greatness was not on display in Rotterdam. Mediocrity was. And, in the aftermath, determination.

"Maybe that was good for me," says Phillips of her less-than-Worldly performance. "It made me realize I can't just go out there and do it and get by."

Karolyi, too, says he is more determined than ever.

"The day after she came back," he says, "we sat down and had a talk, and I asked her, 'Are you ready to go for it, to do the work?' She said she was.

"She said, 'They screwed me up badly over there, but they won't do it again.' "

It is extremely unlikely that Karolyi will be the head coach at the '88 Olympics, USGF insiders say, and he might well not be allowed on the floor. That's what happened in 1984. He got credentials from a gym-equipment supplier to be near Retton and Julianne McNamara, whom he coached from the front row of the stands.

But in that enforced outsider status his resolve will undoubtedly grow.

"I'm going to have these kids flying like nobody's flown before," he says. He says Phillips will do well.

"One thing Kristie has -- and it takes you a long way in our sport -- is that pizazz," Conner says. "She is a little star. She's out there and it's 'Hey, look at me,' and 'Check this out.'

"Yeah, she's really got it."