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THE STATE OF U.S. WOMEN'S GYMNASTICS : 7 Months Before Seoul, Turmoil Would Seem to Be Best Word for It

February 14, 1988|RICHARD HOFFER | Times Staff Writer

There are seven months remaining before the Summer Olympics at Seoul, South Korea, so the story stands to get even more complicated and, possibly, sensational. But here it is so far:

The country's best hope for gold, apparently gone to fat (or maybe just womanhood), jumps gymnastic's idol maker for the 1984 Olympic coach, snide remarks to follow; the 1988 Olympic coach, surprised by the politics that others regard as commonplace, suddenly resigns, snide remarks to follow; the 1984 Olympic coach somewhat unexpectedly and reluctantly becomes the 1988 Olympic coach.

New Olympic coach, top gymnast and all, girds for a long campaign and sighs (he, at least, is above snide): "The news really made my wife's day."

In any other sport, these events, which happened within a week of each other last month, might signal alarm. But women's gymnastics is every bit as resilent as these flexible fliers themselves. Understand that for a week every four years, this may be one of the most beautiful and amazing sports, its development and perfection of human motion, the most unlikely kinds in fact, become athletics' highest achievement. The rest of the quadrennium, however, it's a melodramatic mess.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Monday February 15, 1988 Home Edition Sports Part 3 Page 8 Column 1 Sports Desk 1 inches; 22 words Type of Material: Correction
Julianne McNamara won a gold medal, not a bronze in the 1984 Summer Olympics, as was reported in a story in Sunday's Times on the state of U.S. women's gymnastics.

Can you believe that the sport that values precision above all else is born of such apparent chaos? You should.

Concerning Kristie Phillips, who was on the cover of Sports Illustrated at the age of 14, on the move at 16, we will try to damp aforementioned alarm. This is business as usual after all. Maybe not good, maybe bad in fact, but certainly within the traditions of women's gymnastics.

In the 1984 Olympics, the women's second-place finish was predated by a similar sudden move. Julianne McNamara, who would later win a bronze medal on uneven bars and a silver in floor exercise, left Olympic Coach Don Peters' SCATS academy in Huntington Beach for idol maker Bela Karolyi's Houston plant. Phillips' move should hereafter be known in gymnastic circles as a reverse-McNamara.

"It's nothing we encourage," says Mike Jacki, executive director of the United States Gymnastics Federation, "it causes a lot of turmoil in a kid's life. You'd hate for them to think they had to move from Bangor, Me., to Southern California because they thought that's what they had to do to make the team. Yet you look back on 1984 and every athlete in the top 10 except Michelle Dusserre made a change."

Jacki explains that a girl's gymnastic life span has the comparative duration of a strobe light. Timing, thus, is everything. "It's a terrible thing to say, but a girl's birth date is probably more important than her athletic abilities," he says. "The window is so small, it takes such precision to fly through it, you can't blame them for looking for every edge as you get closer to the Olympics."

There is truth to that. Phillips, because she turned 12 at the beginning of the quadrennium, was well positioned to achieve an athletic peak at its end. Yet, given the demands of the sport on a changing physiology, there is virtually no hope that there will ever be another quadrennium for her. Will she compete at 20? Did Mary Lou Retton? So, of course, there is an urgency at hand.

But is there more involved than that? In Phillips' case, we must consider her early success, a vicious backlash and a couple of surprisingly bad performances. We must consider also that she was being coached by Karolyi, who is known for his phenom-fix. The Romanian defector tends to have top stars, some feel at the expense of all others. Romania's Nadia Comaneci, America's Mary Lou Retton--gold medal winners both--in a gym of sulking also-rans.

The perceived intelligence on this matter is that Phillips had outlived her precocity and became simply one of a number of top gymnasts. A sulking also-ran, in other words, suddenly on the fringe of some younger phenom's glare. A discard. The thinking is that Phillips, despite an intense media buildup, didn't come up with the goods and Karolyi, who had already packaged her with a New York agency, moved on to other projects--Rhonda Faehn, Phoebe Mills. And Phillips moved on.

It's true that Phillips had an awful meet at the World Championships last October. After two years of winning everything she entered, she limped out of the World Championships with a 45th-place finish. SCATS' Sabrina Mar had totaled her in the Pan Am Games before that. What a sport, to be washed up at 16. Is that possible?

Karolyi claims to retain confidence in his former star, to believe that she remains a medal hope, especially on the balance beam. Yet he hints at her lack of confidence and her changing size: "Kids don't leave when they are stable, chicken of big competitions or getting upset when somebody else is getting a little more attention," he says.

Also: "Kids are having hard times at 16, puberty really giving them major problems. They are growing in all directions, sideways, too."

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