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Gymnast Faehn Finds a Home, Friendly Teammates at UCLA : Gymnastics: After competing for a private club team, she finds her Bruin teammates to be supportive.

January 24, 1991|RAY RIPTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

As a top international gymnast, Rhonda Faehn inhabited a world where dreams of perfect routines kept away reality. It was like living in a cocoon; it was adolescence.

She took her first gymnastics lesson when she was 8, and became so skilled in the next six years that master coach Bela Karolyi chose her as one of his students.

At 14, she left her home in Coon Rapids, Minn., to live in Houston. There she trained and performed for nearly four years on a club team under the guidance of Karolyi, who had won world fame as the coach of former Olympic champion Nadia Comaneci.

As a student of Karolyi's, Faehn achieved things that most girl gymnasts can only dream about.

She scored perfect 10s on the vault in 1987 at the U.S. championships and in the U.S. Olympic trials. She was the U.S. Gymnastics Federation champion in the vault in 1987 and 1988. She competed on the gold-medal winning U.S. team in the 1987 Pan-American Games and in the 1987 world championships. She was an alternate on the 1988 U.S. Olympic team.

But after the Olympics it was time for Faehn to emerge from her cocoon and enter the adult world. She took a big step in that direction when she enrolled as a freshman at UCLA in 1989 and joined the UCLA women's team.

Faehn, a 19-year-old sophomore, said she sometimes was disenchanted with her sport while she was competing in USGF and international meets.

"A couple of times I felt burned out and wanted to quit," she said. "In college, I get tired, but I don't feel like quitting."

In 1990, her first season at UCLA, she had her moments, but the season ended in disappointment. Her high marks with the Bruins were a 9.86 on the uneven bars and a 9.6 on the balance beam. But in the Pacific 10 Conference championships, she injured her right foot and was unable to compete in the NCAA regionals and finals.

She hopes to do a lot better this year. Her goals, in the following order, are for UCLA to win an NCAA championship and to win a national title herself.

There is a world of difference between competing for a private club team and in college, according to Faehn.

"Private club is so individual," she said. "Even though you're on a team, you weren't a team because everybody is competing against each other. In college, you get support and help from your teammates.

"I don't think the competition is any more relaxed, but it is easier to handle when you have 13 other girls behind you out on the floor. I find it helps take the pressure off."

Valorie Kondos, UCLA's first-year coach but a Bruin assistant for the previous eight years, said that Faehn had to make a big adjustment to compete in college.

"Rhonda Faehn needs work on being comfortable with Rhonda Faehn in NCAA collegiate athletics," Kondos said. "She has to realize that her past as a 1988 Olympian, as a top USGF gymnast and as one of Bela Karolyi's kids is (in the past)."

Kondos said that Faehn made a mistake by becoming one of Karolyi's proteges because "you're privileged. You're used to being solely responsible for yourself. Then you're thrown into a team situation and you have to make a big adjustment."

The coach thinks that Faehn is adjusting well at UCLA.

"It's hard coming out of the USGF into college. Coming to college, she was a little scared, and probably asked herself, 'What are people going to expect from me?' Rhonda has worked very hard during the summer and is coming back with a whole new attitude."

Kondos saluted Faehn by naming her the team co-captain with sophomore Michelle Hunt.

Kondos is demanding more hard work from Faehn, too.

For one thing, Kondos has instituted 8 a.m. workouts, instead of having only lengthy afternoon sessions. She has also stressed more weight training.

Kondos, who is also a choreographer for Disneyland and private gymnastics clubs, said that aerobics makes one firm and increases endurance. So instead of giving her performers the responsibility of doing aerobics five times a week, she holds mandatory team sessions three days a week and leaves the responsibility for the other two weekly sessions up to the women.

Kondos said that Faehn and her teammates have responded well to these changes.

"She's done everything I've asked of her," Kondos said. "(The) team didn't particularly like 8 a.m. workouts, but they have all given 100%."

She said that the aerobics conditioning and more work with weights paid off in the first meet of the season, although sixth-ranked UCLA lost to third-ranked Georgia, 192.35-188.6.

Kondos said it was "the first time we went out in our first meet and had no problem getting through our routines. All of our girls finished their last tumbling passes in floor exercise with a higher degree of difficulty than they had at nationals (last year)."

Utah won the 1990 NCAA championship and was followed by Alabama, Georgia and UCLA, respectively.

At Georgia, Faehn led the Bruins with a 38.1 score in all-around competition, but she finished second to Georgia freshman Hope Spivey, her former Olympic teammate, who scored a 38.7. Faehn said she "was not completely satisfied" with her first outing "because I know I could have done better. But for the first meet I was pretty pleased."

Kondos thinks the Bruins can be among the nation's top four teams this year. Besides Faehn, other athletes who should excel include sophomore All-American Carol Ulrich, senior floor exercise specialist Renee Kelly and unheralded senior Natalie Britton.

"Nobody is going to expect much out of (Britton), but she has turned into an incredible gymnast," Kondos said.

And Faehn has apparently turned a corner in her life.

"My life used to be gymnastics," she said. "Now it's gymnastics and school and whatever comes with that."

Said Kondos: "Now she has gymnastics--and a life."

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