In the world of women's (girls?) Olympic gymnastics, timing is everything. Consider that only two years ago, Kristie Phillips, all of 14 years old, was on the cover of Sports Illustrated and was being hailed as the next Mary Lou. She was considered by some to be the finest gymnast in the world.
But in the last year, Phillips has battled weight problems and self-doubt, changed coaches and then changed again, and fallen from her perch atop the gymnastics world. Just how far became evident this week as Phillips finished eighth in the U.S. Olympic Trials in Salt Lake City. Eighth place is the second alternate on the Olympic team.Phillips thought she deserved better in the trials, but her coach, Bela Karolyi, didn't agree (see related story).
While Phillips has fallen, her teammate, Phoebe Mills, a 15-year-old converted speed skater, has risen to replace her as America's top Olympic hope. She used to finish consistently behind Phillips, but this year she moved to the fore, and she had the good luck to do it in the Olympic year.
"For the girls in this sport, you not only have to be good, you have to be good in the right year," said Bart Conner, the 1984 Olympic gold medalist. "I think that's what happened to Kristie Phillips. She peaked two years ago."
In 1986 and 1987, Phillips won the all-around titles at both national championships and the U.S. Olympic Festival. In international competition, she won the all-around title at the USA-USSR meet, the Canadian Classic and the McDonald's American Cup. And then began the slump, which seemed to happen overnight.
Just weeks after winning another national championship and finishing second in the Pan Am Games, Phillips placed 45th in the '87 World Championships. She finished ninth in the 1988 national championships and placed little better in the Trials.
Phillips rallied briefly during Thursday's compulsories, scoring 9.713 on the floor and 9.925 on the balance beam - this after earning weak marks of 9.325 on the vault and 9.288 on the bars earlier in the evening. She was solid on Saturday, earning marks of 9.863, 9.50, 9.863 and 9.60, but she was unable to catch Missy Marlowe for the sixth spot on the team.
Phillips blames her slump on "weight problems and a lack of self-confidence." She refuses to say just how overweight she became last year - "I've never told anybody," she says. "Just say a lot." Of her performance in the World Championships, Phillips says, "Other coaches were talking behind my back. They said I was over-scored and that I was just gifted. It hurt my confidence."
Thinking she wasn't training hard enough and that her motivation was slipping, she decided a change was needed. She quit Karolyi's club and joined Don Peters' rival SCATS Club, but two months ago she returned to Karolyi.
"She's not back (in shape) completely," said Karolyi. "It will take a couple of more weeks or a month to get back to full strength and endurance. She's not there yet. I can't deny it."
But Peters, who is also the Olympic head coach, doesn't seem to agree. "I think her performance (at the trials) was as good here as I've seen her do. Some of the other kids have just improved."
During the trials, one reporter suggested that the media had pressured her unduly with its comparisons to Mary Lou Retton, but the perky Phillips quickly replied, "Yeah, but I enjoyed that."
Phillips will time to return to form for the Olympic Games, but barring injury, she won't even get to compete in Seoul. Such is the lot of an Olympic alternate. Timing is everything.