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Olympic Dreams : Interest in Gymnastics Increases With United States' Atlanta Success

September 24, 1996|WENDY WITHERSPOON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Elizabeth Porter, 6, is standing on the floor exercise mat at Kips Gymnastics in Anaheim and is refusing to comply with her teacher's instructions.

"Call me Dominique Moceanu," she says.

Her teacher, Bill Callander, grins.

"OK, you're Dominique Moceanu. Go!"

Porter's tiny legs suddenly fly into action and she bounds across the mat with a round-off, back handspring.

Then the rest of the class gets into the act and Callander plays along.

"Shannon Miller, go!" he yells. "Kerri Strug, you're up!"

They dissolve into giggles.

For girls across the country, Miller, Strug, Moceanu and the rest of this summer's U.S. Olympic women's gymnastics team have become what Michael Jordan and Ken Griffey Jr. have been for years to boys in basketball and baseball--an inspiration.

Riding on their gold medal, girls' gymnastics is enjoying a surge in popularity across the country this fall. Boys' gymnastics also experienced a boost after the U.S. men's team stayed in the hunt for the bronze during much of the Olympic men's team competition before placing fifth.

Many club owners say the boon is the biggest since Mary Lou Retton inspired the last flood of children into the gym with her gold medal at the 1984 Olympics at Los Angeles.

"Enrollments are up. Kids are coming into the gym trying gymnastics for the first time or maybe renewing their interest in gymnastics," said Luan Peszek, director of public relations for USA Gymnastics. "We're getting a lot of calls from clubs and coaches and it seems like one of the biggest problems out there right now is having enough coaches to go around."

Gyms typically enjoy a rush after each quadrennial and the degree of the frenzy is most affected by how well the United States fares. Dennis Mailly, owner of Kips Gymnastics in Anaheim and Corona, said the timing of the broadcasts as well as the media's selection of stories also affect the post-Olympic honeymoon.

"Some Olympics are better than others," he said.

In 1988 at Seoul, gymnastics did not occupy a large portion of the prime time broadcast, plus the United States women placed fourth. There was little increase in enrollment. In 1992, Miller's five medals at Barcelona caused a slightly bigger rush to gyms.

This summer, however, interest flared as the U.S. women's team was shown night after night in prime time.

"Once the Olympics hit we started getting phone calls and drop-in inquiries," Callander said.

Mailly said the combined enrollment at his two facilities is up 30% from last year. Don Peters, former U.S. Olympic coach and owner of SCATS in Huntington Beach, reported a similar surge. Ron Manara, the owner of the Irvine School of Gymnastics, said his enrollment is up 50%. Enrollment also is up at the U.S. Gymnastics Training Center in Laguna Hills, which specializes in boys' gymnastics.

Gym owners attribute the rise to kids such as Mariah Goldberg, 4, who talked incessantly about Moceanu after the Olympics.

"She asked if she could take gymnastics lessons, so, along with everything else, here she is," said her father David Goldberg as he steered his little pink-and-yellow-clad daughter through a sea of tiny girls at Kips.

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The vast majority of these pint-sized hopefuls will not persevere through the years of training it takes to reach the sport's elite levels.

Jeanette Antolin, a freshman at Marina High, trains about 30 hours a week at Gym-Max in Costa Mesa. She recently placed fifth in the all-around at the USA Gymnastics junior national championships at Knoxville, Tenn.

Antolin's older sister, Katie, also was an elite gymnast. The Antolin family moved from Paradise, Calif., to Huntington Beach in 1991 so the two girls could train at SCATS. Jeanette recently followed her coach, Jia Wen, to Gym Max.

Jeanette's mother, Nola, estimates Jeanette's training and leotards cost about $4,000 per year. The family also participates in gym fund-raisers to raise money for travel expenses, and USA Gymnastics will foot the bill when Jeanette travels with the U.S. junior national team to Wuhan City for the China Cup next month.

"Jeanette has a drive for this. She is a very, very dedicated, hard worker. You do not have to push her. She pushes herself," Nola said.

Many of the 63,000 athletes participating in the sport nationwide will drop out before they get to high school, where gymnastics teams have become a rare species--there is no program for Antolin at Marina. Since 1982, the number of girls' teams in the country has dropped 40% to 1,520 and the number of boys' teams has dropped 70% to 175.

If the trend continues, by the time this latest wave of toddler tumblers gets ready to knock on high schools' doors, there might be nothing there at all.

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