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Olympic Dreams : Programs Vanishing From Most High Schools

September 24, 1996|WENDY WITHERSPOON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Girls' gymnastics has flipped in popularity since the gold-medal performance of the U.S. women's team at this summer's Olympics, but the high school version of the sport is doing a weak tumble out of existence.

Twelve schools in the Southern Section offer girls' gymnastics, none offer the sport for boys. There are four programs in Orange County and they compete in the South Coast League: Brea Olinda, Capistrano Valley, Dana Hills and San Clemente.

The Southern Section has not sanctioned a team championship for girls since 1985 and for boys since 1984. The section dropped its team championships after participation in the sport dropped below 20% of the member schools, which is what section bylaws require for playoffs.

In California, the number of schools that field girls' gymnastics teams has dropped almost 75%, to 66 schools, in the last 23 years. The boys' picture is even worse: there are only 12 teams left in the state.

"I have a feeling that it's probably going to vanish," said Ron Hampton, 17-year Brea Olinda coach. "There are a few schools that are holding on to gymnastics. I don't know how long they can hold on. Without CIF's full support, you don't know how long those sports can last."

The difficulty for most high schools in fielding a gymnastics team is that the equipment is prohibitively expensive and qualified coaches are rare.

Jeanette Antolin is a freshman at Marina High and trains at Gym-Max in Costa Mesa. She recently placed fifth in the all-around at the USA Gymnastics junior national championships at Knoxville, Tenn. She shrugged when asked if she would like to compete for her high school.

"If they had the right coaches," she said.

Hampton said the four county high school teams are filled with girls who have burned out on the sport after training with clubs.

"The high school is more fun for the kids," he said, "it's more relaxing."

There is little hope, however, of the team championships being resurrected in the Southern Section--nearly 90 schools would have to add the sport. Instead, the 12 schools gather for a season-ending tournament in spring.

Last spring, the Southern Section staged its final individual championship. It was held atBrea Olinda High and Jamie Moody from Long Beach Millikan won the all-around title. Shaunna DeSimmone, a junior at Brea Olinda, placed second in the all-around and won the vault.

Hampton, who also is the Brea Olinda athletic director, said the fear of liability after injury is another factor preventing more schools from fielding gymnastics teams.

"It's the highest-risk sport for girls," he said. "It seems like we can go out there and tear up little boys' bodies from dawn to dusk but you don't want to see your little girl with a sprained ankle. In football, I'll have parents come in here saying, 'Where can I go to get my kid healed before Friday night?' and I'll say, 'Look, the bone is sticking out of the leg.' The injuries don't seem to bother them as much, but it does bother the girls' parents."

What's more, gymnastics teams tend to be small--there are about 22 girls in the Wildcat program and it is by far the biggest in the county--so the cost per athlete is high.

"You can drop that gymnastics team, add a soccer team and you're servicing a lot of students for the same amount of money or less," said Susan True, assistant director of the National Federation of State High School Assns.

Further, the avenue to a college scholarship in gymnastics is slim. During the 1995-96 academic year, there were 67 NCAA Division I women's programs and 27 NCAA Division I men's programs. UC Irvine does not field gymnastics but Cal State Fullerton has a women's team. The Titan men's program won national titles in 1971, '72 and '74 before the program was dropped in 1991.

Although the men's programs have been dying--often a victim of colleges' recent efforts to achieve gender equity--the number of women's programs have remained relatively secure in the past five years.

Margaret Davis, CIF associate executive director, is optimistic that high schools might follow suit.

"I think schools are looking for ways to improve their programs and curriculum offering for girls in sports," she said. "This is a very popular girls' sport."

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