Three afternoons a week, at about 3:30, a small group of girls, students at Marina High School in Huntington Beach, walks across the school's athletic field, through a break in the chain-link fence and into a world their classmates could never imagine.
It is a world of ferocious dedication and quiet passion, of spectacular physicality and almost Zen-like concentration. It is a world in which it is often impossible to be sure which is stronger, the body or the will. It is a world of deprivation and isolation and, sometimes, pain.
But there is a reward. And each girl knows that if she attains it, it will be the sweetest moment of all.
They look older, somehow, when they're out on the mat, among the jungle of apparatus that is covered with a ubiquitous layer of chalk dust. Their faces lose the wide-open girlish quality; instead, the mouths become drawn and thin, the eyes tightly focused and hard. They are the kind of eyes you see around an operating table, peering over the masks with the same methodical intensity.
Yet the five girls who make up the elite team of the Southern California Acro Team are no automatons. Rather, they are friendly, intelligent, attractive and self-assured. They are well-adjusted and popular with their classmates. They are all honor students.
They are also five of the finest female gymnasts in the world. And that is where any semblance of a typical high school life ends.
For 21 hours each week, split among a total of seven workouts, Robin Carter, Stacey Gunthorpe, Sabrina Mar, Kristi Phillips and Doe Yamashiro work out at the warehouse-like gym on Research Drive that is the Huntington Beach headquarters of the Southern California Acro Team, probably the most famous gymnastics school in the country. Since its beginnings in 1963, SCATS, as it is popularly known, has placed at least one female gymnast on every U. S. Olympic team. There have been more SCATS gymnasts placed on U. S. national and Olympic teams than from any other gymnastics school or academy. In 1984, five girls on the eight-member Olympic team were SCATS gymnasts.
"That's a pretty phenomenal accomplishment," says Don Peters, head coach at SCATS. "It had never been done before and probably never will be done again. And this year we've got five contenders (for the Olympic team) out of a field of maybe 12 or 13 nationwide."
While Peters says that "any bets for medals (in women's gymnastics) are going to be long shots for the whole American team" at September's Summer Games in Seoul, South Korea, he adds that three SCATS gymnasts have a chance if they make the U.S. team: Phillips on balance beam, Mar in floor exercise and Gunthorpe on uneven parallel bars. However, he says, spots on the team are not determined by scores in individual events but on total scores in the all-around competition at the Olympic trials in August.
The girls know this well. And they want very badly to be Olympians. Some of them say they have dreamed of it since they were small children. They may have worked toward that single goal for 10 years or more. Some have moved to Orange County from homes around the country, sometimes with their families, sometimes alone. All have given up a more normal high-school social life to spend their early mornings and late afternoons in the gym, which is situated just behind Marina High School, where four of them attend classes (Yamashiro, whose home is in Gardena, is a Marina graduate who plans to enter Stanford in the fall on a gymnastics scholarship).
And they have done it in order to train with Peters in Huntington Beach, and perhaps to become worldbeaters.
Such an exalted position in sport never comes quickly and often has quite common and even humble beginnings. Ask Peters how his elite athletes got started, and he doesn't have to go far to show you.
"Like them," says Peters, pointing through a door to the other half of the SCATS gym, where mostly tots in shorts or leotards are jumping, tumbling, swinging on apparatus--exploding with energy in one of the SCATS classes for young children.
All of the five girls on the elite team--the highest level a gymnast can achieve--agree. Although none began at SCATS, nearly all use the word hyper to describe themselves as young children.
"I was 8, and I was just bouncing off the walls, doing cartwheels off the furniture," says Yamashiro, 18, the oldest of the five. At age 13, she says, she began to dedicate herself to the sport because "I always had a dream (about the Olympics). It was something I'd seen people do on TV. And I said, 'I can do that too.' "
Phillips, 16, says she knew at age 8 that she wanted to be a serious gymnast. "I wanted to be the best in the world."
She eventually moved from her home in Baton Rouge, La., to train with famed Hungarian coach Bela Karolyi in Houston, and then to Huntington Beach to train with Peters. She now lives with her mother in Huntington Beach while her father continues to live and work in Baton Rouge.