US, Romanian women now battle for individual gymnastics gold

Nadia is retired, but Romania's women gymnasts keep somersaulting into the spotlight. They held off a frisky group of Americans to win the Olympic team championship, and now the stage is set for what could be some even more exciting individual battles this weekend.

The Romanians didn't stick as many routines as they might have liked in the team finals, but their scores were consistently high enough to keep the US and China at bay and secure their country's first Olympic gold in the team event. The silver was just as much of a milestone for the American women, whose only previous medal was a team bronze in 1948.

Romanian gymnastics, of course, has been synonymous with Nadia Comaneci, who won plenty of individual gold in 1976 and 1980. This time she was only a visitor to the Los Angeles Olympics.

Her former coach, meanwhile, is in L.A. for a different reason - to watch two of his new students, Mary Lou Retton and Julianne McNamara. Bela Karolyi, who defected to the United States during the Romanian team's 1981 visit to this country, runs a gymnastics school in Houston where he coaches the two American stars.

Though not officially on the US staff, Karolyi hangs around the periphery lending advice and encouragement to his two prize pupils - who as a result of their performances in the team competition have both advanced in strong medal contention into tonight's all-around finals.

Retton, a blocky, crowd-pleasing dynamo, enters the concluding phase in first place, just ahead of Romania's Ecaterina Szabo. McNamara, who received perfect scores on the uneven bars and floor exercise, is tied for third with Romania's Laura Cutina.

Julianne would be closer to the top but for a disappointing 9.2 score following a rare fall from the balance beam.

The 4-inch wide beam is often a make-or-break event in big meets, says US women's coach Don Peters, and just about all his athletes were shaky on it in the team finals. In McNamara's case, however, the slip was at least partly attributable to a lengthy judging dispute that delayed her start for several minutes and clearly broke her concentration.

Even without this slip, the Romanians were clearly in control. And though the Americans realized it was an uphill battle, they still had hoped to put on a show that might match the gold medal performance turned in by the US men the night before.

But the silver, even with the Soviets absent, appeared to say something about the future of US women's gymnastics.

''We've just reset our standards,'' said veteran team member Kathy Johnson. ''Before, we were always pleased just to finish in the top six, but now I think we can really be the best in the world.''

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