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U.S. OLYMPIC FESTIVAL : LOS ANGELES--1991 : The Gold in California Is in Medals : Regional: The state has made a major impact on the world's athletics. The Festival is expected to be more of the same.

July 10, 1991|ERIC SHEPARD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Men's volleyball tryouts for the Olympic Festival drew 60 hopefuls to the Eastern Regional at Penn State University in May.

Although officials were pleased with the turnout, it paled in comparison to the 140 who showed up at the Western Regional tryouts a week later at Orange County's Golden West College.

Although volleyball no longer is considered only a coastal sport, California continues to turn out most of the top players. Of the 42 on the four Olympic Festival teams, 24 are from California. The state so dominated the tryouts that three of its players had to be put on the East team.

The top two national teams, which will not be competing in the Festival, also are dominated by Californians.

"In terms of numbers and talent, California is clearly ahead of anywhere else in the country," said Andy Read, an assistant at Pepperdine and coach of the Festival's North team. "Kids start playing here on the beach and continue in high school. Almost every high school in the state offers boys' volleyball. While other states are catching on, California has a big jump on everyone else."

Men's volleyball is not the only Olympic sport in which Californians excel. Track and field, baseball, swimming, diving and water polo are just a few of the others.

Some reasons are obvious:

--The state has a large population base, with nearly 30 million residents. The next-most populous states are New York with 18 million and Texas with 17 million.

--The warm weather in many parts of the state makes year-round training possible.

--As the third-largest state in area, California is geographically diverse, with the ocean, mountains and desert. Each is important for various types of training.

--Strong coaching in many of the state's colleges and high schools provides good, early development.

Other reasons are less obvious:

--California is the second-most ethnically diverse state in the country. Los Angeles is the most diverse metropolitan area. Such diversity gives the state strength in sports such as soccer, judo and Taekwondo, which are more popular in foreign countries.

--Some say a laid-back and liberal lifestyle allows athletes to try a variety of sports, not all of them popular and traditional.

"Since California is a relatively new state in terms of a growing population, there is an open-minded approach to everything," said Don Peters, executive director of SCATS Gymnastics in Huntington Beach. "Non-traditional sports have thrived in California. People are willing to be interested in things other than just football, basketball and baseball.

"Volleyball, soccer and gymnastics have been embraced in the state and have thrived," he said. "It's OK to try other things here. No one will look down on you."

Whatever the reasons, no other state has thrived in Olympic events as California has. Although not dominant in every sport, the state's athletes have made their marks in virtually every category.

At the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, 27% of the United States' 611 athletes were from California. They accounted for 30 of the country's 94 medals, including 17 gold medals. If California had been listed as a separate country, it would have finished seventh in the medal count, behind South Korea with 33.

Two of the biggest stars in the Seoul Olympics were track and field competitors Jackie Joyner-Kersee and Florence Griffith Joyner, both Californians. Joyner-Kersee, who attended UCLA, won two gold medals. Griffith Joyner, a Los Angeles native, won three gold medals and a silver.

The Olympic Festival has been even kinder to Californians. The state's athletes have prospered in every Festival. Last year at Minneapolis, Californians won 21% of the 2,309 medals. The state total of 497 more than tripled second-place New York's.

"The fact that California doesn't have a lot of longstanding traditions in certain sports has really helped make it an all-around power," said Peters, who coached former Olympic gymnast Cathy Rigby. "If a boy decides to go out for gymnastics instead of the football team, he won't be laughed at in California."

Peters' SCATS Gymnastics is proof. Since he founded the organization in the early 1960s, he has expanded from one to three facilities and from a dozen members to more than 2,000.

SCATS, which stands for Southern California Acrobatics Team, turns out some of the top gymnasts in the country. Shelley Engle, a sophomore at Huntington Beach Marina High, will participate in the Festival's artistic gymnastics competition and is expected to be a strong contender for the all-around title.

Men's gymnastics also has thrived in California, with UCLA a hot training ground. The school has turned out some of the country's top Olympians.

Former Bruin Chris Waller, who finished his college eligibility last year, won the all-around title in the U.S. championships at Denver last month. Another former Bruin, David St. Pierre of Culver City, will participate in the Festival.

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