TEAM CAPTAINS, named and implied, are nothing new in sports. It's a big factor in baseball, a well-earned letter on a hockey sweater, a facet of team competition that can be neither measured nor denied.
But there's a newness to it in women's gymnastics, an offshoot of age restrictions that have pushed the average age of potential medalists into at least the second half of their teenage years.
Before Athens, someone like 20-year-old Alicia Sacramone might have even been shooed away from the sport. A Brown University junior who had messed up even a chance to compete for the Olympic team 4 years ago, she was already beyond the preferred age as preparations began for Beijing. She hurt her back. She joined her college team. People like Bela and Martha Karolyi, who made household names of kids barely in high school, might not have even given her a second look.
So it was a little strange to hear Martha, the United States women's gymnastics coach, yesterday declare, "This team would not be the same without Alicia Sacramone," after the U.S. Olympic Gymnastics Trials concluded at the Wachovia Center.
Strange because Sacramone, who hails from the Boston suburb of Winchester, was not named to the Olympic team. Not yet anyway, or at least not officially. Only the top two all-around gymnasts from this weekend's competition, Shawn Johnson and Nastia Liukin, got that nod, and Karolyi made it clear that she wasn't too keen about that either.
"If it was up to me, I'd like to select nobody today," she said.
That's because she's all about team gold in Beijing, all about assembling the six gymnasts most likely to accomplish that. Karolyi's long-held view, now shared (more or less) by USA Gymnastics, is the closer to the Olympic Games a team can be selected, the better. Injuries do or don't heal, gymnasts fall in and out of shape, dynamics can change with just one wrist sprain.
Still, Karolyi clearly named five of her preferred gymnasts yesterday, provided nothing changes between now and when the team is finally picked after next month's training camp concludes in Houston. And Sacramone, despite finishing 13th overall and skipping the parallel bars entirely, is one of them.
There are three reasons for that. Sacramone, Karolyi said, is "not just good, but extremely good" on floor and vault. Her scores, which have been amazingly consistent, make her "a medal contender" in Karolyi's view, and her sense of style, which continually put the 13,920 in attendance at shrill pitch, was enhanced through her experience and Ivy League smarts. Off balance on the dismount during her first vault last night, Sacramone saved points by keeping her shoulders high while her feet stumbled.
That poise leads into the third reason: It's this captaincy thing, or "Mother Hen," as younger gymnasts like Johnson have described her.
"She's always been the mommy of the group," Johnson said after finishing first overall at the weekend trials, almost two points ahead of chief rival Liukin. "She takes care of us. She helps us through the hard times and stuff."
Much has been made of Sacramone's mid-event speech at the 2007 World Championships, after the talented but jittery U.S. team had a mistake-prone balance beam rotation.
In the past, when teams were younger and coaches more in control, someone like Karolyi - or more appropriately, her kind-of-retired husband - would be in the center of the ring, rallying the pixies. But it's clear Martha welcomes this new dynamic.
"It's not like she builds the team by herself because a lot goes on in building team unity and everything," said Karolyi. "But she's got a great personality, she's very enthusiastic and being the oldest team member, the little ones definitely look up to her. Not just because she's the oldest, but because she's got a lot of medals around her neck."
Oh yeah. Those. Sacramone owns seven medals in world competition, second only to Johnson and Liukin's nine. But she's been at it since 2002, has perspective that has smoothed out the jitters that cost her dearly earlier in her career - when she was about Johnson's age (16).
"To my benefit I don't get as nervous as I used to," Sacramone said. "But the younger girls, I remember what I was like when I was their age. And I try to help them keep pushing through. Yeah, experience has definitely been to my benefit the last few years."
And for her team, it would seem. It's hard to measure, it might even be overstated at times, but it's there. She's the late-night advisor in hotel rooms, the rah-rah on the floor, the heart and soul of a team with tons of talent.
"That's just my personality," Sacramone said. "It's not like I set out and said, 'I'm going to be team captain,' or anything like that. It's just the type of person I am. Getting the girls together. Keeping everybody in a good mood. It just comes naturally to me." *
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