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SUCCESSOR TO MARY LOU? : Kristie Phillips May Emerge as the Next U.S. Gymnastic Sweetheart in '88 Olympics

September 14, 1986|RICHARD LUNA | United Press International

HOUSTON — In one so young and dainty, such single-minded determination is astonishing.

"There is nothing else in my life besides gymnastics," says Kristie Phillips, the 14-year-old cover girl of America's hopes for a gymnastics gold medal at the 1988 Olympics.

How many 14-year-olds have you talked to lately? Do they talk this tough: "I know if I want to do good, I'm going to have to work hard and push myself. Nobody else can push me. I know what I want.

"The thought of getting to the Olympics has been my goal for so long. I had taken gymnastics for four years when I was 8, and that's when I really started thinking about going to the Olympics.

"Sometimes I miss things that normal 13 and 14 year olds do, but I know in my life I can't have everything. I knew if I was going to accomplish my goals, I was going to have to make some sacrifices. I can only have what I want most, and what I want most is to go to the Olympics."

By day, Phillips hits the books with her freshman classmates at Westfield High in northwest Houston. At sunrise and sunset and on the weekends, Phillips is one of the country's premier gymnasts.

Phillips this year became the youngest gymnast to win the American Cup and later won the junior title at the Championship of the USA. Her scores would have captured the senior title, but she was not old enough to compete in that category.

Phillips also turned in a stunning performance at the U.S. Olympic Festival this summer, capturing four gold medals despite a broken wrist. She now stands firmly in the gymnastics limelight, a position she enjoys and intends to keep until 1988 and beyond.

"I'm kind of looking foward to the competing part, but not for the work part," says the 4-9, 78-pound gymnast. She has no worries about losing interest before '88. Her coach, Bela Karolyi, will take care of that, she says.

"A couple of years ago, I thought about what would happen if I burned out," she says. "But now that I've been working with Bela, I have no fear of burning out. He can just push you and push you and you'll just get better and better and you'll push yourself so much. I don't think I'll burn out, at least not before 1988."

Phillips is quick to credit Karolyi with much of her success.

"I feel coming to Bela was the second best decision I've ever made in my life," Phillips says.

The second best? "I just got baptized and I think that was the best decision I ever made," she says. "I believed in God all my life, but I never really made it public until then."

Karolyi ranks nearly as high on Phillips' list. He coached Olympic champion Nadia Comaneci prior to his defection from Romania, then tutored Mary Lou Retton to an Olympic gold in 1984.

For Phillips, joining Karolyi's team meant leaving home in Baton Rouge, La., to take up training at his gym in Houston. She now lives with her mother and several other gymnasts in a Houston home, while her father and brothers remain in Baton Rouge.

"I knew he was coaching all the best gymnasts in the country and so I said if I wanted to be the best, I needed to go to him," Phillips says.

When Phillips showed up, Karolyi saw her as no different from the hundreds of other students seeking his expert tutelage.

"The only difference was she was younger than many of the girls," he says. "She had a hard time keeping up with the intensity of the program. She had to slow down a little before she was able to take the intensity.

"Now, she is ready for what is ahead. There is no question as to what she can accomplish. She is preparing for one of the most exciting times in her life, something her life has been oriented to for several years. She has no trouble remembering that."

But with Phillips' success has come comparisons, especially to Retton. Phillips often is called the next Mary Lou.

"Sometimes it bothers me because I'd rather be my own person," Phillips says. "Besides, I think my style is different from hers and I think my style is different from Nadia's. I think my style is more like Olga Korbut's (of Russia), but they're not comparing me to her. If they were, it wouldn't be so bad.

"She (Retton) is a real nice person. There's been a lot of bad rumors about her that aren't true. She worked for what she wanted and she accomplished her goal. That was great because she got out of it and has given more people a chance. She probably didn't want to compete any more because she had accomplished her goal. What else is left? I feel she made the right decision."

Karolyi says overall the comparison is not negative and Phillips agrees.

"I think it makes her (Phillips) very proud," he says. "It's a tremendous credit. Mary Lou is the idol of children all over the world and it's a great comparison. But Kristie points out she wants to be Kristie Phillips."

Phillips has one move unmatched by any other gymnast in the country--it's unofficially called "The Phillips," and is performed on the balance beam.

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