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Sabrina Mar's Back Is Back on Track of Gymnastics Gold : COMING AROUND AGAIN

August 27, 1987|ROBYN NORWOOD | Times Staff Writer

If Sabrina Mar makes it to the 1988 Olympic Games--and the doubters are becoming fewer--she may have a thing or two to show people about herself, as well as gymnastics.

She showed a bit of it Saturday, when she sat, composed and patient, at an interview table at the Pan American Games in Indianapolis, explaining the details of a congenital back disorder that nearly forced her out of gymnastics a year ago. Next to her, Kristie Phillips, 15, the reigning national champion whom Mar had just upset in the all-around competition, sat and sobbed.

Granted, Mar, who lives in Monterey Park and trains at the reknowned Huntington Beach SCATS club, was the gold-medal winner. But those who know her well say she would have responded in a like manner to a medal of a different metal, or none at all.

In gymnastic circles, the term veteran is currently reserved for Kelly Garrison-Steves, 20, and Mar, 17. In Mar's case, particularly, it is not so much because of her age.

Already, success--and the cameras and note pads that follow it--have come her way and gone.

It came in 1985, when she won the national championship at 15. After that, she appeared on "The Merv Griffin Show" with Tim Daggett, a 1984 Olympian, and numerous camera crews followed her through school. "I couldn't concentrate on classes," she remembers. "People stared."

In 1986, she saw it go. Bothered by back pain--she was born with a slight curvature of the lower spine that when stressed can cause extreme pain--she fell to 11th at the national championships, and came "very close," she said, to quitting gymnastics, the pain was so intense.

But she persevered. With strengthened back muscles, and the new on-a-day, off-a-day workout schedule that allows her back to recover from the micro-traumas of a routine workout she--and her back--are back.

In February, she broke her ankle. But in June, she finished third in the national championships at Kansas City, Mo. And last weekend, she scored the highest marks in each of the four events in the all-around competition, winning the gold with a Pan Am record score. In the individual event competition, she added two silvers and a bronze. It was, she said, "by far my best meet ever."

Don Peters, the SCATS coach and the 1984 U.S. Olympic coach, figures Mar is ahead of the game in part because of her experience with her back.

"She is more mature because of what she's been through," Peters said. "She's had early success in her career and dealt with the media. Then in '86, nobody cared about her. She knows what that feels like, and she's learned that it's not all terribly relevant."

By the time of the Seoul Olympics, Mar will be 18, and less than a year, she said, from retirement. Already, at 5-feet 1-inch and 104 pounds, she is a bit bigger than the standard gymnast. But one of the greatest differences between her and pixie-like, pliable teen-agers who have caught the imagination of past Olympic audiences, is that she is neither a Mary Lou giggler nor a Nadia automaton.

Which is not to say that she lacks appeal, particularly if the squeals of welcome from a group of 9- to 12-year-olds who greeted her at SCATS Tuesday is any indication. There is her gymnastic ability and her admirable composure. And something else--the undeniable attraction of seeing a first-generation American tumbling toward the Olympics with a floor routine performed to Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA."

Mar's parents, Richard and Rose Mar, came to the Los Angeles area from Canton, China, as children, and the extended family has lived in Monterey Park for more than 30 years.

For a time, Mar lived during the week at the SCATS boarding house in Huntington Beach and attended Marina High School, which is so close to the SCATS gym that a hole has been cut in the separating fence to facilitate the passage of the student-gymnasts. But Mar decided so much time away from her family was not right for her.

Now, she lives at home and commutes, although she still attends Marina. During the school year, she rises at 5:30 a.m. to make the 40-minute drive from Monterey Park to Huntington Beach--guiding her '76 Camaro down the 5 to the 605 to the 405. She probably could do it in her sleep. Operating on 5 1/2 hours rest, as she often does during the school year, chances are she has come close.

Like dealing with the pain in her back, making do with little sleep is largely a matter of mental discipline, she said. "You just adjust."

Part of that adjustment has been learning to get routines down with fewer repetitions.

"She doesn't need to do as many repetitions as others just to keep reinforcing, 'I can do it, I can do it,' " Peters said.

Knowing her back functions best on less stress, she practices routines with an efficiency similar to the one with which she pursues her other passion, shopping--she doesn't go just to look.

"I go to buy," she said. "I like to go with money in my pocket."

For now, she's striding toward the Olympics will full pockets. But the trouble with her back is something that won't ever go away and is not guaranteed to remain manageable.

"There is that possibility," Peters said. "But she's going to make it. She's had her trouble. Everyone has it sometime."

There's no promise that trouble comes around only once, but Peters is confident.

"It doesn't seem as likely," he said. "I don't worry about Sabrina."

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