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Flip-Flop of Gymnastics : U.S. Olympian Garrison-Steves, 21, Is a Woman Competing in a Girls' World

Countdown Seoul '88: 12 Days

September 05, 1988|RICHARD HOFFER | Times Staff Writer

Kelly Garrison-Steves is that rarest of things in women's gymnastics. She's a woman. On an Olympic team where three of the gymnasts are 15 and two others are 17, Garrison-Steves reigns as a kind of Grandma Moses. She's 21, a college junior and married.

At that alone, she's quite a curiousity. After failing in two previous Olympic trials she probably should have been given an oldtimer's exemption for this one. She could chaperon. Yet--and this goes against everything we've been led to believe about the sport--she's gotten better as she's gotten older. And she now reigns as this country's second ranking gymnast as well.

Hers is a strange career, unlike that of the other superstars who have been groomed as the next Mary Lou Retton--always the next Mary Lou Retton--rushed through the smallest opportunity of greatness and then, unless that window was the Olympics (that was Retton's great luck), forgotten.

Anybody remember Kristie Phillips? A year ago people were saying we'll never see her likes again, when what happened was, we never saw her again.

"It's a throwaway society," says Becky Buwick, Garrison-Steve's coach at the University of Oklahoma. "It's a shame these girls are such Kleenex to him."

That is a specific reference to Bela Karolyi, who has coached the three 15-year-olds to this Olympic team, and seemingly abandoned a few others in his driven program. But it refers to so-called women's gymnastics in general, where youth, and where it falls in a given Olympiad, is judged the strictest standard of qualification.

Mike Jacki, the executive director of the United States Gymnastics Federation, got a laugh at the Olympic trials last month when he told of the coach who gushed he had the perfect candidate for the 1992 Olympics. Supple, dynamic, creative. How old is she, Jackie wanted to know. "That's the best part," the coach said. "She's just 11." A big laugh, except Jacki wasn't joking.

Given this thinking, that women's gymnastics is all timing, you would have assumed that a young Kelly Garrison would have had her shot at the 1980 trials (she did) either made the team or not (not) and gotten out (wrong). Then long past her prime at 17, she braved the 1984 trials. This is really pushing it. Although a favorite to make the team, she broke down on key routines and washed out of those trials. Her next chance would be four years hence; her window of opportunity, it was clear to everyone who knew gymnastics, had just slammed shut.

This was more clear than ever by 1986 when, coming back after an injury and what her coach calls a period of "de-training," she endured a horrible meet in an Olympic Festival event at Houston. Some people, if they're lucky, have a shot to make an Olympic team. Kelly Garrison-Steves had had two. "I had a little talk with her," Buwick said. "We sat down and I said we now have to make a decision. Are we going for the Games or not?"

The decision was yes. "I had planned to make the (1984) team and then retire," Garrison-Steves said. "But in not making the team, I didn't really achieve my goal. It was hard to continue, and 1988 seemed forever. But we decided to take it one year at a time."

When Garrison-Steves enrolled at Oklahoma, she met and married Mark (a former Sooner gymnast), studied public relations, and appeared to be moving on to the real world. The casual observer may well have thought her year was up. College gymnastics, for women, has been a kind of pasture for the elite gymnast. If, unlike Retton, a gymnast failed to turn her Olympic experience into a red Corvette, she could at least wrangle a free education out of it. The history of the sport is that the gymnast retires to National Collegiate Athletic Assn. competition, where the players are (relatively) fat and lazy.

Well, that may not be true anymore. In fact, if Garrison-Steves turns out to be an example, the reverse may be true. "Girls have been peaking at 16," Buwick said. "The trend is changing, now, though. Even the Soviets are (competing) at 18-19. I don't think it will be a huge trend. But we realize from an artistic point of view that (older gymnasts) have so much to offer."

The NCAA program may keep more in the sport, as it does the men. And, like the men, the women may be better for it. "For Kelly, I think the (NCAA) situation helped her become much more consistent. We have 15 meets a season, the girls have three or four. The repetition, just the consistency in coaching. It works and you're going to see some international gymnasts continue."

Garrison-Steves won the NCAA all-around both her sophomore and junior seasons but this has had zero impact on the gymnastics community. She was getting better, no question. "The NCAA really helped me," she said. "And I kept up with the sport, the increasing level of difficulty. Now, I'm much, much better." But nobody really knew that. Kristie Phillips, at 14, was the one being put on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

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