Closing night at the Rhythmic Gymnastics Olympic Trials was surely one of the closest competitions in the history of the sport. Coaches, officials and many of the 5,048 fans in the Salt Palace sat on the edge of their seats Saturday night, fully aware that Diane Simpson, Michelle Berube and Marina Kunyavsky were running an impossibly tight race for two spots on the U.S. Olympic team.

About the only people in the arena who didn't know just how close the commpetition had become were Simpson, Berube and Kunyavsky, who, by design, had avoided scoreboard watching."If we want to know, we can look," said Berube. "I didn't want to know."

Indeed, as they headed into the final event, a mere .15 of a point separating first place from third place, Berube was no where to be seen. She was hiding in the bathroom.

Two nights and seven rounds of competition had come down to one last event: the ribbon. And not even that was enough to settle the issue entirely. Simpson and Berube finished tied for first, with a score of 116.30, leaving Kunyavsky with third place (at 116.15) and no place to go come the Olympic Games in September.

During the award ceremony, Kunyavsky was the picture of dejection as she stole a sideways glance at her two rivals, standing together hand in hand.

"You can look it up in the newspaper," said Irina Vdovets, the Russian-born coach of Berube and Simpson. "I said these two girls should make the team."

But Simpson and Berube had to come far to come to this place. During the last Olympiad, Simpson ranked only 22nd - in the U.S. A year later she finished third at nationals. "Who would have thought then that I'd be on the Olympic team," she gushed Saturday night.

And who would have thought Berube would be there with her. Following her 14th-place finish in the '84 Olympics, she retired from competition and began coaching. She changed her mind last year, but could do no better than seventh at nationals.

"She did not do well, but she was using her old routines, from '84," said Vdovets. This year, Berube moved from Detroit to Chicago to train with Vdovets, who "designed everything new - leotards, routines, everything . . . I felt she was so talented that she could make it."

Berube entered Saturday night's competition in third place, trailing Kunyavsky by .20 and Simpson by .35. By the end of the second event, with a 9.85 in hoop, Berube had tied Kunyavsky. She struck for another 9.85 in the next event, clubs, and this time she passed Kunyavsky and Simpson to take the lead, 106.60 to 106.50 to 106.45. Just as she had the previous night, Simpson dropped one of the clubs - "The clubs hit in the air," she said - and had to settle for a 9.40, which opened the door for Berube. Kunyavsky had a solid routine, which was judged a 9.70 and which her coach, Alla Svirsky, would protest as too low.

The stage was set, but of course the leading characters had little idea of it. "I don't tell them the score, unless they ask," said Vdovets. "But they don't ask."

Simpson repeated her 9.80 of the previous night in the ribbon competition, immediately putting the pressure on her rivals. As Kunyavsky took the floor for her routine, Berube made her way to the bathroom. "I didn't want to hear the music or the scores," she said. "I wanted to concentrate."

Kunyavsky scored 9.70, but Berube somehow equalled it, despite a drop, to tie Simpson and win her return trip to the Olympics. "It (the ribbon) just slipped out of my hand," she said. "I was just lucky it wasn't more disastrous."

"Boy, that was tough," said Vdovets. "But I had this feeling it would come out this way."

And so on to Seoul, where prospects for a medal are remote, at best. As near as anyone can tell, the best finish by an American in major international competition is Berube's '84 Olympic finish _ and that was without the strong Eastern Bloc countries, who were boycotting.

"I'm confident we can break the top 20," said Simpson. "And we have a good chance to break the top 10 if we're accepted, if they (fans, judges) recognize how much we've improved. We're not that far behind, especially when you consider its only been a sport in the U.S. for 15 years, compared to 60 or 70 in Russia."

"These two girls have improved a great deal in the last year," said Vdovets, considering their Olympic chances. "A year can make a tremendous difference. I saw the European championships and I feel we'll be very competitive."