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The Olympics Deserve a Gold Medal for Inspiration

Sports: It happens every Games: We get out of our easy chairs and plunge into pools or take tumbles in gymnastics. Or engage in some form of athletics. To prevent burnout, though, don't overdo it.

August 07, 1996|KATHLEEN DOHENY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When Joanne Turner arrived to open her Southwind Kayak Center in Irvine last week, there were already two eager customers standing outside.

They wanted two kayaks. And they wanted them ASAP.

"They took colors that weren't their first choice--red and yellow," Turner recalls. "They bought one new boat and one used."

Did they haggle over the price?

"Not at all."

The men, both twentysomething, paid $1,500 (not an outlandish total for two kayaks) because they needed to get to a beach right away!

The night before, the two told Turner, they had been watching Olympic kayaking on TV.

They had been thinking about taking up the sport for quite some time, but seeing the Olympics catapulted them into action.

"One said he didn't sleep well--he had mental pictures of himself, paddling down the Olympic course."

Never mind that closing ceremonies for the 1996 Olympics were Sunday and that most athletes are now home polishing their medals.

Across Southern California, suddenly inspired couch potatoes are swinging into action, taking up not only kayaking but gymnastics, swimming and, yes, even shooting.

And on the other side of the cash register, sellers of athletic equipment and providers of athletic instruction are also going for the gold.

Ever since gymnast Kerri Strug's painful vault, Bernadine Michielsen, of Gymnastics Olympica USA in Van Nuys, hasn't gotten much sleep. If her competition had a name, it would be "Answer the same questions about gymnastics a zillion times an hour with a 1 1/2 degree of difficulty."

"We hired extra people to answer the phone," she says. In a two-day period, they set up 100 appointments for tryout classes. "In a normal week," she says, "we would sign up no more than 30."

Enrollment is up 40%, she says. The downside? Fifteen-hour workdays left her no time to watch the Olympics.

It's the same story over at Fun & Fit Gymnastics in Santa Clarita and Burbank.

But forget the picture of the parent-coach coming in with Ms. Gold Medal Gymnastic Star for the year 2000, says owner Jeffrey Lulla. Most parents are becoming more educated, wanting exercise, not stardom, for their offspring, he says. "When they look at gymnastics on TV, they say, 'That looks like fun.' "

"This happens every Olympics," says Tina Buscemi, associate general director of the YMCA in Burbank. "We expect it. We staff up." Instead of the usual 10 or 20 calls a week inquiring about programs, her staff has been fielding 40 or 50, mostly about gymnastics, swimming and basketball. (Two girls, already swimmers, walked in to say they now wanted to be competitive swimmers.)

And thanks to the Olympics, some sports have gotten better reputations overnight.

Arthur Bright, general manager of Pachmayr International Shooting Sports Park in south El Monte, has Kimberly Rhode, gold medalist in women's double trap, to thank for a twofold increase in young shooters at his center.

"A lot of parents have called," says Bright, who gave the Olympian her first gun. They see the 17-year-old Olympian--good-looking and charming--as an ideal role model, he says.

Even Paul Lennon has gotten calls.

Pretty amazing, since he runs the Adult Aquaphobia Swim Centers in Glendale, city of Commerce and Long Beach.

"It's not a flood of calls, but we get a call or two a day," he says, with many potential students mentioning the Olympics as their great inspiration.

Seeing the Olympic swimming events, he says, is just the kind of nudge to get these "socially handicapped" folks to dial up his centers, Lennon finds.

It all makes sense to Robert Thayer, professor of psychology at Cal State Long Beach.

"There is in psychology what we call a modeling effect," he says.

Translation: We see Michael Johnson do that 200-meter thing like lightning and think we could get off the couch too.

Then there's the Olympic party atmosphere, which weaves its own special magic. "Instead of the usual way of thinking about exercise as an onerous experience, it looks pleasant," Thayer adds.

But Olympic fever can have a short shelf life--especially if you overdo it rather than engage in moderate-intensity exercise.

For many people, getting Olympic fever is akin to making New Year's resolutions, says Toni Farrenkopf, a Portland, Ore., sports psychologist. They're enthused at the outset, but old habits, lifestyle and finances will get in the way of a regular exercise program. Often, he says, "we run on old habits."

Of course, sometimes the fever can be fed miles away from any venue or television set. Turner, of the Southwind Kayak Center, has her premises decorated in an Olympics motif and sells Olympic T-shirts and pins.

And Elissa Rosenberg of Sports Club / Irvine set up Corporate Games, 1996. For a $40 fee, desk-bound types could compete in 20 events ranging from tennis, water polo and swimming to softball and track and field events.

There were opening ceremonies for the 30 participants (and their nearest and dearest) and closing ceremonies are today. Yes, there were even gold-like medals.

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