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Boy Gymnasts Find a Mentor : He Runs School for Males in Field Dominated by Girls

September 23, 1988|ROBERT KNIGHT | Times Staff Writer

If you don't mind being greeted by a loud chorus of groans, you might say that Rob Banis has had his ups and downs.

In 1984, he entered the Guinness Book of World Records with a 17-hour, 26-minute stint on a pogo stick. That took 125,102 jumps.

A year and a half ago, Banis was jumping again, this time on a trampoline with another gymnast, shooting a TV commercial for a tire company. He had a tire on one shoulder and came down hard, breaking his leg in three places. After two surgeries, he faces a possible third that may or may not restore his performing career.

But Banis, 28, is not so concerned about whether he can resume pogo sticking or flying high on a trampoline; he is too busy running the only gymnastics program exclusively for boys in Southern California and one of only a handful in the nation.

"The real backbone of any gymnastics program is the girls' program," said Peter Vidmar, gold medalist in the '84 Games and now a resident of Woodbridge in Irvine. "I admire Rob in sticking to his commitment to an all-boys program . . . it's pretty bold."

Vidmar, who sometimes works out at Banis' U.S. Gymnastics Training Center in Irvine near Lake Forest and this week is working as a television commentator from Seoul, said Banis' success is due largely to his dedication. "He is extremely consistent, never moody, always enthusiastic," Vidmar said. "With some coaches, they are hyper one day and really up to teach, but in the doldrums on another day."

The gym has 6,000 square feet with 24-foot ceilings, wall-to-wall floor matting and equipment for the men's six gymnastics events (floor exercise, stiff rings, pommel horse, vaulting horse, parallel bars and the horizontal bar). Six instructors, including Banis, teach 182 pupils, from age 3 1/2 to adult.

By contrast, the giant SCATS Gymnastics Academy program based in Huntington Beach has a flagship facility of 20,000 square feet and three other gyms, with total enrollment of more than 3,000.

"It's a small business, of course," Banis said of his own program. "I will never be a wealthy man running a gym and coaching boys' gymnastics. But it's important."

What about the pogo stick? Does that figure into his programs? "Not since the accident," Banis says, patting his right leg. "I have a steel rod in here from knee to ankle."

Banis, whose first love was swimming, moved to Orange County from Topeka, Kan., when he was a high school junior to compete with the Nadadores swim team in Mission Viejo. But he wound up with "teen-age burnout" beacuse of a heavy training schedule. So, relatively late in life, he took up gymnastics, gaining a spot on the Cal State Fullerton team.

The pogo stick entered the picture when a manufacturer's representative from Jetstar came to the Mission Viejo Gymnastics Center in 1983 and asked if any gymnasts wanted to learn the sport and promote it. Banis, who was coaching there at the time, took him up on it, with his training culminating in his record feat at Irvine Meadows Summerfest on June 23, 1984.

With a support team to cheer him on, Banis donned a kidney support belt and began jumping.

"The strategy--if you can say there is a strategy to pogo sticking--is to absorb the stress in the hips," Banis said. "It's usually the ankles and knees that go first."

As the hours wore on, his girlfriend and family members fed him Gatorade, "grapes, bananas, you know, things that you can eat while bouncing." Eventually, he settled into a rhythm that became almost trancelike. "Once you get past a certain point, you just keep going. I was pretty oblivious."

Finally, having jumped from 5 a.m. to nearly 10:30 p.m., with five-minute breaks every hour, Banis took his last bounce and was carried away with cheers to a Jacuzzi at his home.

The record has since been eclipsed by at least one other jumper, (Guy Stewart of Ohio on March 8, 1985; 130,077 jumps), but Banis seems content with his initial effort. "I probably wouldn't do it again," he said. "The reason I did it was because I never made it to the Olympics in either sport (swimming and gymnastics), so I wanted to do something that nobody has ever done. It's something I can show my grandchildren someday."

The media attention also didn't hurt his fledgling boys gymnastics program, he acknowledges. With the gap between girls and boys programs, he figured he needed all the help he could get.

"The ratio is about five to one, girls to boys," said Jan Claire, director of the United States Gymnastics Federation, which represents 160,000 competitive gymnasts, coaches and judges.

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