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Diminutive UCLA Gymnast Hits Stride

February 21, 1988|RICH TOSCHES | Times Staff Writer

David Mariel is on athletic scholarship at UCLA. He cannot slam dunk and his appearance on a football field probably would send compassionate people scurrying to the phone to dial 911.

Mariel's body is roughly the same length as a leg of one of the school's basketball players. It is roughly the same weight as the leg of one of the football team's linemen, some of whom would not be able to fit the waistband of Mariel's pants around their necks.

But at 5-4 and 120 pounds, Mariel, of Northridge, just might be the school's best athlete. It's just that gymnastics, well . . .

"I didn't take up gymnastics to become famous," Mariel said. "And if people don't want to learn and understand the sport, that's their business. But it really ticks me off when people come up to me and ask, 'Hey, aren't you a gymnastic?' They don't even know the word for it. I am a gymnast."

And one of the best in the country. He was ranked 11th in the nation two years ago and moved up to No. 10 last year. But with three sparkling performances in 1988, Mariel has vaulted, tumbled and double-twist back-flipped his way to the No. 4 overall ranking in the United States.

If you want a master of timing, look no farther than Mariel. His emergence as one of the nation's premier gymnasts just happens to coincide with the upcoming Summer Olympics in South Korea. Mariel intends to be in Seoul for the Games, and he does not intend to buy a ticket.

"I know that if I do my best, I will be on the Olympic team," he said. "It's as simple as that. But only if I do my best from now through the Olympic Trials. I am using all of my strength and power to make that team."

UCLA and Olympic gymnastics teams have been acquainted for some time. The bond was cemented in 1984 when Peter Vidmar, Mitch Gaylord and Tim Daggett powered the U. S. men's squad to its first gold medal. Art Shurlock, in his 24th year as the Bruins' gymnastics coach, thinks Mariel can continue the tradition.

"I've felt all along, since his freshman year, that David has had the makings of an Olympic competitor," Shurlock said.

"It was just a question of whether he would become consistent enough and tough enough mentally to achieve it. Now that he's really blossomed, he's not holding anything back, and that's a big part of making the Olympic team. He's made it really important and now he's got a great chance. And if David does make the Olympic team, he'll be a real solid performer for the United States."

Mariel's road to the Olympics began at age 10, when he noticed that the guys with whom he had been playing flag football were undergoing some very unusual biological changes. For starters, they were getting taller. And if that wasn't enough, some of them actually were gaining weight.

"They kept getting bigger and stronger and I wasn't growing," Mariel said. "I started to get intimidated."

His brother, Gregory, had dabbled in gymnastics and took David with him to the gym in 1977. David watched as Gregory and other gymnasts went through their routines.

"And it hit me right away that everyone was small," David said. "The smaller the better, it seemed. And right then I said, 'This is for me.' I tried a back handspring for the first time, and I did it. It was really exciting."

The road took him to the boys' gymnastics team at Monroe High and to the well-known California Sun Gymnastics Club, where he met and trained with future UCLA and Olympic star Gaylord and future University of Illinois standout Charles Lakes, who also had attended Monroe.

"There were so many good gymnasts there, I learned just by watching," Mariel said. "I became a product of my environment. At the age of 13 I started to realize that I was better at this than most guys my age. I wasn't the best, but I could learn the skills very quickly."

The skills he learned the quickest were performed on the high bar. He became a three-time All-American at UCLA in that event and in 1987 he stamped his name in the books as the national champion in the high bar.

His achievement, however, stamped him as a single-event master. His skills in the other five events--floor exercise, pommel horse, rings, vault and parallel bars--were overlooked. And only the best all-around performers in the nation have even a glimmer of hope of earning a berth on the Olympic squad.

This year, Mariel was determined to shed the single-event image and become a better all-around performer. He has done it with a big noise, winning the all-around in all three of UCLA's competitions this year, including a personal best of 57 of a possible 60 points in one of the meets. That earned him the current No. 4 national ranking.

Mariel will participate in the national championships in Houston early in July. The top 18 gymnasts from that competition will be invited to the Olympic Trials, which begin three weeks later in Salt Lake City. The best seven will earn an Olympic team berth.

All of which is, at times, a bit much for Mariel.

"Just the thought of the Olympics is so big, so all-encompassing," he said. "If I could see the future and I saw that I would be on the Olympic team, I don't know how I'd deal with it. It might change my life. It would overwhelm me.

"What impresses me the most about it is that a spot on the Olympic team is something you can't buy. . . . You get it only with hard work. And that's what makes the Olympics such a dream for amateur athletes."

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