Tim Daggett hesitated for a moment as he stood at the top of the runway, gathering himself for the vault in the U.S. Olympic Gymnastics Trials. He took several deep breaths and stared straight ahead, as shouts of "C'mon, Tim," floated down from the Salt Palace crowd. Surely Daggett had been dreading this moment for months. The last time he had attempted the vault, he shattered his left leg on the landing.
"There was so much anxiety and fear," he would say later of Wednesday's competition.Daggett raced down the runway, or rather hobbled, which is the best he can do these days. He reached the vault at about half speed, flew through the air and, here comes the moment of truth, hit the landing . . . perfectly. He winced and smiled simultaneously, then threw both fists in the air, as the crowd cheered.
The only ones who weren't impressed were the judges. They scored his effort a 9.45, which drew a round of boos from Daggett's many sympathizers in the stands.
By the end of the first night of compulsories, Daggett, one of only two holdovers from the 1984 Olympic championship team, found himself with a score of 57.20, which makes him borderline, at best, to make the six-man Olympic team.
Daggett is 20th overall heading into Friday night's optional finals, but that means little. He is one of five athletes who successfully petitioned to skip the U.S. Championships, which count 40 percent of the final scores in the trials. Thus, Daggett's scores in the trials will count 100 percent in his bid to make the team. Such complicated scoring makes it difficult to say just where Daggett stands overall. However, his 57.250 total was the seventh-best score Wednesday.
"I'm fairly optimistic," said Daggett.
His coach, Yefim Furman, was more realistic. "He is still alive," he said. "He still has his chances, but he needs to perform very well Friday. Now everything is much more complicated."
Few had expected Daggett to compete in Salt Lake City at all when he broke the leg while landing a vault in the World Championships last November in Rotterdam. This was more than your garden variety broken leg. There was fear the leg would have to be amputated. Both the tibia and fibula snapped upon impact, severing an artery in the process. "I was 50 feet away and I heard (the snap)," said former Olympic gymnast Bart Conner.
Doctors had to replace five pints of blood, insert six metal rods to stabilize the bones and graft a large patch of skin from his right hip to his left calf to replace skin that died from pooling "dead" blood.
Daggett's athletic career was finished, or so he was told. He spent one month in the hospital, another month resting at home and was on crutches until Jan. 18.
And on Wednesday night he was back in competition again, even with limited training that, out of necessity, concentrated on upper-body routines. He still can run only at about half speed, and he favors the leg at that. "Everything hurts, but I've accepted that it's not going to be pain free," he told the Chicago Tribune last month. "I have a lot of fears. There are some things I can't do."
Daggett started the evening with a solid 9.65 on the rings, but he struggled on the floor. When he hit his landing and his leg was in one piece, that was cause for celebration, but he scored only 9.30. Then came the pommel horse. It is his strongest event - he won the bronze medal in the event in the '84 Olympics - but not this time. His right hand slipped, and he fell off the apparatus, leaving him with a score of 9.30.
"(The slip) cost him five-tenths of a point," said Furman. "It was very bad. His easiest and best event and he misses it." It might very well cost him a place on the team.
"The pressure got to me," said Daggett, who recovered sufficiently to score 9.65 on the high bar, and then his 9.45 on the vault, which was a laudible performance, all things considered. Only once in the last few months had Daggett made a full-out effort on the vault without extra padding in the landing pit and that was only two days before the compulsories. In his one warmup attempt Wednesday, he hit his landing bottom first.
Daggett might have left himself with no chance at all of making the team if not for his strong showing in his final event Wednesday night: a 9.80 on the high bar.
Immediately after the competition, Daggett made his way to the training room for therapy and refused to meet with the media except for one pool reporter.
"It's hard to describe," Daggett said. "The physical part is one thing and the mental part is another. I've worked too hard not to give this a shot."
And if he fails, one of America's top gymnasts will be in Los Angeles this summer, and not in Seoul, South Korea. Daggett is a seven-year veteran of the U.S. national team. It was his perfect 10.0 score on the high bar that clinched the U.S. team's gold medal in '84. At 26, this could be his last chance to return to the Olympics, but whatever happens Friday he has come far fast.