Diane Simpson finished her final routine, the ribbon, Saturday night and posed there at the center of the Salt Palace floor for a second, punctuating the moment. The leader through the first two nights of competition, she'd slipped into second with just one event left after missing one club in the same place where she'd dropped two clubs the night before. But she'd just scored a 9.8 to bring herself back and to present a challenge for Michelle Berube, who had moved ahead of her for a while, and Marina Kunyavsky, who was just .05 of a point behind her. They had yet to perform in the ribbon.
"Right when I finished," said Simpson of her poignant pause, "I saw the American flag."And she made the American Olympic team.
That was much to the delight of 5,048 rhythmic gymnastics fans in the Salt Palace Saturday night. They'd clapped along with Simpson's music during the ribbon routine, helping the national champion pull herself through.
Her Illinois Rhythmics teammate, Berube, a 1984 Olympian, had pulled herself through the last year, getting better and better after having taken a couple of years off. She'd started the U.S. Olympic trials in third place and moved into first after seven events - four Friday and three Saturday.
That despite a "jinxed" leotard.
With one event to go, Berube dropped the ribbon early in her last routine.
"It slipped out of my hand slightly, and I grabbed it, and I continued even stronger," she said.
She needed 9.6 to beat Kunyavsky, who'd scored 9.7, for the second Olympic team berth and 9.7 to tie Simpson. She got 9.7. The two Illinois Rhythmic club teammates, then, are flying Seoul-O together, as equals.
They tied for the Olympic trials championships and the two spots the sport has to offer in the Seoul Olympics in September.
Simpson ended with 116.30 points after a three-part competition that included the national championships a couple of months ago. And Berube finished with the same 116.30 points.
Kunyavsky, a three-time national champion but never an Olympian, was third with 116.15 points, nearly 2.0 ahead of fourth-place Alexandra Feldman.
There was bitterness in the LA Lights camp. Kunyavsky's coach, Alla Svirsky, who'd brought in four of the eight women who competed in the Olympic trials, only to have all four go home empty-handed, had protested Kunyavsky's 9.7 score in clubs and pointed out that Kunyavsky had gone through all eight routines in Salt Lake City without ever dropping the apparatus.
"No mistakes in two days," she said, pointing out that Simpson had dropped the clubs both nights and Berube dropped the ribbon Saturday and the clubs Friday and still finished ahead of Kunyavsky.
"This score decided everything," Svirsky said of the protested 9.7 in clubs. It was better than the 9.55 Kunyavsky had scored in the same
event Friday but well below the 9.8 she'd gotten at nationals. Had Kunyavsky scored 9.75, she'd have had second place to herself after Simpson had received 9.4. Instead, she went into the final event in third and stayed there.
Simpson and Berube both denied knowledge of how close the race was during the meet. Simpson said missing the club after it had clicked the other in midair made her finish stronger. Berube said the same about the dropped ribbon.
Simpson was first up in ribbons and, with pianist Robert Stahnke playing Ravel's "Bolero," her determination captured the crowd, which clapped in time for the first time in the meet.
"I felt very excited about that," Simpson said. "I heard it, and it made me more powerful."
Berube's coach, Irina Vdovets, had perhaps changed her luck at intermission.
On Friday, Berube had posted the two best scores of the night in the first two events, rope and hoop, then seemed to lose her sparkle a little for clubs, where she scored 9.55.
Saturday, Vdovets told Berube not to change leotards during intermission. Most of the rhythmic performers change for each event. Actually, Vdovets didn't want Berube to wear her black-and-white outfit on Friday either, believing she performs better in all black, "but I already had it on," Berube says. Saturday, she went with the all-black leotard for both hoop and clubs, and she got 9.85 in clubs, the highest score of the two days of the meet.
Berube says Vdovets thinks the black-and-white outfit is "a hex on my routine. Actually, it's one of my favorites. I designed it," she said.
"It's just a silly story, and it doesn't mean anything," smiled Vdovets, but she still believes Berube does better in all black rather than black and white.
And she doesn't believe in telling her two stars how close the competition is unless they ask. She keeps the tension to herself. "Boy that was close," Vdovets allowed, "but I had this feeling it's going to come out this way."
She wasn't quite so sure when Simpson missed the club and Berube missed the ribbon handle. "My heart stopped for a second, but I thought, `It's not over yet, and I cannot show them my heart stopped.' "
As for the Olympic outlook, it's unlikely the pair will tie for any gold medals. The Americans, including Berube, did reasonably well in the first rhythmic Olympic competition, but that was in Los Angeles, and the boycotting Eastern Bloc countries that dominate the sport weren't there.
For the Olympic trials, Simpson won two events and Berube won two. Simpson totaled 19.4 in two rope competitions and 19.6 in two ribbon events. Berube had 19.6 in hoop and 19.4 in clubs. Kunyavsky's totals were 19.2 (third) in rope, 19.3 (third) in hoop, 19.25 (second) in clubs and 19.35 (third) in ribbon.
As the third finisher, Kunyavsky is officially the Olympic alternate, but it's a non-traveling position unless Berube or Simpson can't perform. Svirsky wasn't sure if Kunyavsky, at age 23, will continue or retire.