Sophomore Birgit Schier of UCLA was born in the wrong place to be a gymnast. She comes from Innsbruck, Austria, one of the world's skiing capitals, where gymnasts are about as numerous as waterfalls in the Sahara.
Everyone in Schier's family--mother, father, two sisters and a brother--skis, and so does she. Skiing and other winter sports are a way of life in Innsbruck, the site of the 1964 and 1976 Winter Olympic Games.
But the 19-year-old Schier also took up gymnastics at age 5. Her parents sent her to a gymnastics club so she could practice her toddler's somersaults and tumbling the proper way--on mats and with an instructor instead of in an aimless fashion on the living room floor.
She became a talented gymnast, but as she grew older and set her goals higher, she discovered that she had learned as much about gymnastics from her coaches as they knew about the sport. Ski instructors may have been plentiful in Innsbruck, but gymnastics instructors were few.
After moving from one club to another in her home town in search of teachers, she ran out of clubs and coaches. So she looked outside of Austria.
"In order to have the best coaching," Schier said, "I trained in the Eastern Bloc, with the head coaches of different national teams in Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Russia."
She trained with the best and eventually became one of the best, winning the designation of Gymnast of World Class at the 1983 World Championships in Budapest and also qualifying for the 1984 Olympics. Her performance aroused interest from many college coaches in Europe and the United States, including some from Nebraska, Minnesota and Cal State Fullerton. But more on that later.
She said that qualifying for the Olympics had long been her goal and that it was the first time an Austrian gymnast had done so. "I'm more or less the Austrian national team," she added.
But she didn't come to Los Angeles for the 1984 Games, she said, because "Austria was not interested in sending one person in gymnastics." Not going to the Olympics "was a great disappointment. But life goes on, and I decided to take advantage of a bunch of offers (from colleges), keep training and improving and see how well I could do in the 1988 Olympics."
Her training included a difficult trick known as a full-in on the uneven parallel bars. A full-in, she said, is a double back-flip with a full twist. In completing the trick one day, she said that she landed all right but that her spine was sharply jarred on impact because the gym's mats were worn from use.
Doctors discovered three fractured vertebrae. Though they couldn't say whether all were broken in the landing, or if one or two had been stress fractures from the past, they advised Schier not to continue in gymnastics.
She didn't take their advice. Instead, she went to West Germany and consulted a specialist who had treated many top athletes. He prescribed medication and exercises for Schier, who returned to competition after a year of treatment.
And while she was competing in an international tournament in South Africa, she accepted a scholarship from a Cal State Fullerton assistant coach who had brought one of that college's gymnasts to the tournament.
But after enrolling at Fullerton for the 1985 fall term, she said she had a falling out with Coach Lynn Rogers before she attended class.
"I did not quite see eye to eye with (Rogers)," she said. "He was very focused on the team. I wanted to prepare for the 1985 World Championships, but there I wouldn't (have gotten) a chance for international competition."
She also said that coming to the United States and undergoing "so many changes in a short period of time was such a shock, besides the cultural shock."
She wanted to pursue her education, however, and called Jerry Tomlinson, coach of the UCLA women's team, and asked him for a scholarship. She said she wanted to stay in California and knew that the UCLA men's team had provided three performers--Peter Vidmar, Mitch Gaylord and Tim Daggett--who had led the U.S. national team to a gold medal in the '84 Olympics.
Tomlinson was happy to accommodate Schier, and she enrolled at UCLA but was ineligible to compete as a freshman last season because she had transferred from Fullerton.
The UCLA coach said that Schier's biggest problem at Fullerton was that "she was so far away from home that she didn't really get a chance to see what was there for her. It just wasn't what she quite expected."
She did expect to do well in the 1985 World Championships, but, she said, she had more "bad luck." She fell and fractured her elbow doing a routine.
Schier went back to her West German specialist, she said, and by last November was ready for the 1986 Austrian national championships. So ready that she won her country's women's title and with record scores higher than those she had set in capturing national championships in 1983 and 1984.