07/15/1996 at 01:00 AM EDT
In Barcelona four years ago, she was the heartbreak kid. Just 10 seconds into the gymnastics competition, on the first move in the first event, Kim Zmeskal fell off the balance beam. A lifetime of dreams ended with that slip—along with America's best hope for a gymnastics gold medal in almost a decade. "I was worried I let everybody down," says Zmeskal—"everybody" being her coach, Bela Karolyi; her team; her country. The next day, Zmeskal rallied to give a nearly perfect performance, leading the U.S. squad to a bronze. "I'm really proud of that team medal," she says.
Zmeskal returned home to a hero's welcome in Houston and then retreated to what she hoped would be the luxurious obscurity of a normal teenager's life. "When I was training, I always thought I was missing out on all these wonderful, great things," Zmeskal says. "I wanted to know what it would be like to be a regular person." (Touchingly, on her 20th birthday last February, Chris Burdette, 21, her first serious boyfriend, and a score of their pals restaged in miniature her senior prom, complete with tuxes, gowns and corsages.) But only a few months into her retirement, Zmeskal discovered one of the side effects of normalcy—boredom—and she returned to the gym. Inspired by figure skater Katarina Witt's comeback in the '94 Winter Games, Zmeskal decided to try for her own encore. That dream died, too, after Zmeskal injured her knee and finally realized that her heart was no longer into competition.
But she continues to revel in performing in exhibitions without judges, and after the Atlanta Games she is scheduled to appear in a tour with the nation's best gymnasts. Wherever she goes, she continues to be the poster child for kids who crumble under the weight of other people's high expectations. Zmeskal herself tries not to focus on what might have been. Failure has its compensations. She carried the Olympic torch when it passed through Houston—a pleasure Coach Karolyi denied his women in training. Her friend Nadia Comaneci says Zmeskal's struggle and grace actually made her more popular with the public. "She has a story," says Comaneci, "that makes her bigger than anybody else."