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UCLA's Successful Men's Gymnastics Team Is Work of Art : Colleges: Coach Art Shurlock has built the Bruins into a national powerhouse. Several of his gymnasts have competed in the Olympics.

February 28, 1991|RAY RIPTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Years ago, Art Shurlock, UCLA men's gymnastics coach, had to get out and bang the drum to publicize his program.

Today, the program speaks for itself.

Years ago, men's gymnastics was not the glamour sport it is today, nor was UCLA among the nation's top teams. In 1979, the Bruins were ranked No. 60 in the country; this week they are No. 1.

Things began to change in 1980, when Peter Vidmar and Mitch Gaylord arrived as freshmen at UCLA.

Vidmar earned a spot on the national team for the 1980 Olympics, but the United States boycotted the Games that year to protest the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan.

In 1981, Vidmar was third in the all-around in the NCAA championships, and he won the NCAA all-around title in 1982 as well as individual championships in the pommel horse and highbar. In his senior year of 1983, he won his second consecutive NCAA all-around title and received the Nissen Award, given to the nation's best college gymnast.

The high-water mark for UCLA--and for American men's gymnastics--was reached in 1984. That year the Bruins won their first NCAA team title, and Gaylord finished first in the all-around, followed by teammates Tim Daggett and Mark Caso, who were second and third, respectively.

Then, at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, Gaylord, Daggett and Vidmar led the U.S. men's team to its first gold medal. Fittingly, the site for the competition was UCLA's Pauley Pavilion.

UCLA men's gymnastics has remained at or near the top ever since.

In 1987, the Bruins added a second NCAA championship, and last year they finished third as Chris Waller won the high bar with an impressive 9.975 score and Brad Hayashi won the vault, a first for a UCLA performer.

Waller, a senior last year, still is reflecting glory on the UCLA program. Last week he and fellow-American Trent Dimas helped bring U.S. gymnastics its greatest international success in years at the American Cup competition for athletes from 13 nations in Orlando, Fla. Dimas won the gold medal and Waller the silver in the men's all-around, and American performers Betty Okino and Kim Zmeskal were one-two among women in the all-around.

Shurlock thinks the U.S. teams in men's and women's gymnastics are "going to get stronger" and that "things will get back" to the way they were in the 1984 Olympics.

He also thinks that a couple of performers on his team, Scott Keswick and Chainey Umphrey, could help the U.S. team in the 1992 Olympics at Barcelona. Keswick and Umphrey were tied for first in the nation in the all-around in this week's rankings.

"They have the capacity to be great ones," Shurlock said. "I'd be disappointed if they did not make the U.S. Olympic team."

Keswick is also one of the nation's best college gymnasts in the rings and parallel bars. Umphrey also excels on rings.

Two weeks ago, Umphrey won the all-around with a 57.2 at the Southwest Cup in Tempe, Ariz.

On Sunday, UCLA defeated No. 6 New Mexico, 283.55-279.45. It was UCLA's highest score of the season. In the all-around at Albuquerque, Keswick with a strong 58.05, Umphrey at 57.00 and Hayashi at 55.30 were one-two-three, each with a season-high score.

The quality of U.S. collegiate gymnastics may be on the rise, but quantity is on the wane. The number of men's college teams in the three NCAA divisions dropped from 78 in 1981-82 to 47 in 1988-89, according to an NCAA survey. Currently, there are 103 women's teams in the NCAA divisions, down from 179 in 1981-82, according to another NCAA report.

Shurlock, in his 27th year at UCLA, said that college athletic departments--looking for ways to save money--often turn to so-called non-revenue sports such as gymnastics, wrestling, water polo or cross-country when they want to drop a program.

"It's ironic that the levels of skill and competitiveness are increasing (in gymnastics), but we have lost a lot of teams," he said. "They haven't been doing that (at UCLA); it's been holding pretty steady."

The UCLA men (8-1) and the UCLA women (8-3), two of the nation's steadiest teams, will combine their annual meets this year in the UCLA/Times Invitational. The meet begins at 7 p.m. Saturday and at 2 p.m. Sunday at Pauley Pavilion.

The men's field includes Nebraska, Minnesota and UCLA, which finished one-two-three at last year's NCAA meet. Others are New Mexico, Illinois and Arizona State.

The women's teams besides UCLA, ranked No. 8 last week, are No. 4 Oregon State, No. 9 Arizona State and California.

Top men in the meet include John Roethlisberger of Minnesota, Luis Lopez of New Mexico and Christian Rohde of Arizona. Joy Selig, last year's NCAA champion in floor exercise and the balance beam, leads the Oregon State women, and UCLA's top all-around performers are sophomore All-American Carol Ulrich and senior Natalie Britton.

Shurlock has been on the job at UCLA for a long time, but he does not long to retire.

"I'd still like to win some more NCAA championships and get some more guys into the Olympics," he said. "I'm enjoying it more than ever. I work with high-caliber athletes, which really increases your job incentives."

Shurlock may not have to wait until next year to win another NCAA championship.

He said that Keswick and Chainey Umphrey (whose brother Greg is also on the Bruin team) used to be relatively weak on the pommel horse but that they are now "extremely strong in every event." The Bruins are not only very strong on the high bar, he said, but also "have a chance to be one of the strongest teams ever on the vault," led by Hayashi, the defending national vault champion.

UCLA should hold its own in other events, but the vault is where the team may have an edge at the NCAA meet, he said.

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