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Beaming Reunion : Former Titan All-American Gymnast Returns for Taste of Success

November 01, 1994|LON EUBANKS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Tami Elliott Harrison has been eagerly awaiting her trip back to her alma mater, Cal State Fullerton, this week.

Maybe she'll sample the pizza dish that bears her name at the Off-Campus Pub, a restaurant on Nutwood Avenue that names some of its menu items after such former Titan athletes as Phil Nevin, Tim Wallach and Leon Wood.

Maybe she'll even stop by the Sizzler down the street to see if her picture is still hanging on the wall in one of the back dining rooms.

But the reason she's returning is the "20 Years of Excellence" reception and dinner Wednesday on the Fullerton campus that will celebrate the school's success in women's gymnastics, a program that Lynn Rogers started, nurtured to national prominence and still coaches.

Harrison will be one of several former gymnasts returning for the event, and she remains one of the program's most sparkling memories. She was honored as an All-American 10 times in the various NCAA events in those days when she was Tami Elliott, student-athlete.

Later she became Miss Virginia, representing her home state in the Miss America Pageant in Atlantic City. She would have preferred representing the U.S. in the Olympics, but an injury ended that dream in her senior season at Fullerton.

Today, at 29, she is married to a former college football player, and is back home, living in Virginia Beach, Va. They have a 19-month-old son, Rex III, who she jokingly says is "almost constantly out of control."

Today, too, she is director of a gymnastics academy in nearby Newport News and is delighted to be coaching the sport.

"It will be fun going back to Fullerton," she said. "I've only been back to California a couple of times since I graduated. And it will be fun to show my husband that all those things I've been telling him about when I competed there are true. Lynn Rogers says I still have the record in number of All-American recognitions.

"What was neat was when I told my husband that they had some kind of pizza dish named after me at the restaurant. I'm still not sure he believes me, so I'll want to show him that. It tickled me to hear that I was right there on the menu with Leon Wood and guys like that."

Her husband, who owns a restaurant and night club in Virginia Beach, played at Lenoir-Rhyne College in North Carolina, and had a brief tryout with the San Diego Chargers, but a knee injury quickly ended that.

"Typical football injury," she said matter-of-factly. "But I guess I shouldn't be saying that about football, though, because my injury was pretty scary."

In March of 1987, she was in top form for another NCAA bid, and only six months away from the Olympic trials. She had finished 13th in the trials for the 1984 Games in Los Angeles, but only 10 made the team.

She was far more proven and poised as a performer four years later at 22. She had been the highest American finisher in the 1985 World University Games, and her career seemed to be peaking.

Then it happened. It was a routine move on the vault, the kind she had made almost without thinking countless times. This time, however, her hand slipped when she hit the vaulting horse, and she crashed down on the top of her head. Her spinal cord compressed, and two cervical vertabrae were cracked and another crushed.

"I have to thank the Lord that I'm still walking around," she said. "I could have really been bad. The doctor told me I was just a millimeter away from really being badly hurt. My spinal cord was nicked but didn't break. I could have been dead, or paralyzed from the neck down."

As disappointed as she was that her competitive career was over, she is comfortable with the turns her life has taken.

"The injury made me feel more thankful for the things I have," she said. "I can remember standing at the end of the runway joking with my friends on the sidelines, and then 30 seconds later, I was hurt. . . . It really makes you think."

Rogers recalls being with her when the doctor told her that her gymnastics career was over.

"I just remember her saying, 'Doc, I've had 18 good years of gymnastics, so I've got nothing to be sad about,' " Rogers said. "Even then, she wasn't going to mope around. I was so impressed by that. Her injury shook us all up. It was the worst we've ever had."

She helped Rogers as a student assistant coach for a year while finishing her degree. She gave some brief thought to staying in Southern California and exploring work in commercials, perhaps even movies. She had been offered the opportunity to portray Nadia Comaneci in the movie, "Nadia," when she was still in college, but she was committed to trying for the Olympics at the time and turned it down.

She decided instead to return to Virginia after she graduated. "I went back mainly to be close to my family again," said Harrison, one of six children of a retired Army master sergeant and his wife. "My parents hadn't been really happy about me going all the way to California to school from the beginning, so they wanted me to come back home."

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