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A Question of Balance : Gymnastics Can Hold Benefits, Pitfalls for Girls


Jennifer Blank's tiny feet slipped off the uneven parallel bars. She dropped to the canvas.

She quickly bounced up and tried again to perform a squat on-- grabbing the high bar from a squatting position on the low bar.

Again, the canvas.

"Slow down, and lean forward more," implored her coach, Ryan Glen.

Jennifer didn't learn. She fell seven more times.

Finally, slowing her pace, she landed her feet perfectly on the bottom bar and mastered the new trick.

Jennifer is 11, too young to drink, drive or date--but the perfect age to plan for Atlanta and the 1996 Summer Olympics.

"I'd like to go as far as I can," said Jennifer, who is from Northridge and will compete formally for the first time in October. "That means the Olympics."

About this time every four years, Jennifer's dream is shared by millions of young girls, and 1992 is no exception. Everyone wants to be the next Shannon Miller.

"We've been inundated," said Charlene Bottner, owner of le club gymnastics in Northridge, which accepted 30 new girls in one week earlier this month--double the usual enrollment. Other San Fernando Valley clubs report the same response and expect the heightened interest to last through October. The number of boys also went up this month, though Glen said gymnastics has always been a "female-dominated sport."

"Parents tell us their kids are jumping off the couches and off the beds. It's Olympic fallout again," Bottner said.

With the fallout come the quadrennial questions: Is it fair to subject such young girls to the pressure and time commitment of athletic competition? Do they sacrifice too much of their childhood? Does the unusual physical regimen put too much stress on their undeveloped bodies?

"It can be an extremely negative thing," said Dr. Paul V. Carlson, a Tarzana clinical psychologist. "For many of these girls, too much of their life depends on their performance and it becomes a type of abuse. It lowers their self-esteem and could be a major blow emotionally."

Carlson treats one ex-gymnast in her early 20s who has never overcome the frustrations of her athletic experience. After five years of hard training, she peaked at the state level. "She thought that gymnastics was her big thing," he said, "but she didn't make it to the next level. She never found success in other areas, and that led to bad grades and drugs."

Conversely, some youngsters benefit from the intense competition. "Certain personality types thrive on this," Carlson added. "I'm just saying we should evaluate which personalities can deal with this and which can't, and go from there."

The girls start to tumble these days almost before they talk. Valley gymnastic clubs offer classes for girls starting at 18 months or 2 years old. Escorted by their parents, the girls stick to fundamentals.

"Upside-down is a very big deal for kids," said Christina Karlen, who teaches girls ages 2 to 5 at le club, which was established in 1978. "We're just trying to get them used to the idea of turning their bodies."

The movement to start them so young became increasingly popular in the 1970s and '80s when the gold medals captured by Nadia Comaneci and Mary Lou Retton showed that a female gymnast normally peaks at 16 or 17, before excess body fat diminishes her sense of gravity and balance. By starting younger, the girls become better prepared for serious competition during adolescence.

"When they are 17, they become women," said Brad Smith, the national team trainer for the U.S. Gymnastics Federation in Indianapolis, "and you don't see too many women gymnasts."

Another advantage of starting so early is ignorance. The girls are too naive to understand how intimidating gymnastics can be.

"When you become old enough to realize what you are doing, you don't want to do it anymore," said Lee Coltman, director of the competitive program at Junior Elite Training Center in Canoga Park. "If they've done the scary things earlier, maybe they'll think it won't be so bad."

Coaches say they don't spend a lot of time searching for potential Olympians. They just want girls to have fun, and they point out that many do well enough to eventually earn college scholarships.

"It would be like searching for a needle in a haystack," Glen said. "Coaches who are looking for that needle push their kids into burnout, and the kids wind up crushed."

Added Coltman: "You can turn them into gymnasts or into humans who have a life. These kids are going to walk out of the gym at 16 and that will be it. Maybe they'll be college gymnasts. And then there's adult life. They have to be ready for that."

Still, the difference between the recreational gymnast and the girl with Olympic potential is noticeable at an early age.

"Those kinds of kids just come right out to you," Karlen said. "We don't have to find them."

Until girls reach 8 or 9, coaches emphasize training over competition to develop the proper skills before trying them out in public. Classes at Valley gymnastic clubs range from $45 to $180 for four-week sessions.

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