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Gymnastics Fans Flip at Chance to See Champions

August 16, 2003|Dave McKibben | Times Staff Writer

Kathy and Erin Long are the first to admit that they are a little obsessed with gymnastics. OK, maybe seriously obsessed. The mother-daughter "gym junkies" landed here early Thursday from North Carolina and Florida, snoozed for three hours and were off to Arrowhead Pond for the World Gymnastics Championships, their fourth event of year.

They arrived at the Pond at 8 a.m., an hour before the training sessions began. Of course, when you're paying $1,400 for a platinum-level ticket, you don't want to miss even a second of practice.

"At least it's a good healthy addiction," said Kathy Long of Sarasota, Fla., who purchased her third-row seats two years ago. "We're not hurting anybody."

If anything, the Longs and other gymnastic addicts are helping the bottom lines of hotels, restaurants, pubs and retail shops over 12-day period as they watch more than 700 athletes from 77 countries compete in the qualifying event for the 2004 Athens Olympics.

Friday night, the championships officially kicked off with the one-hour opening ceremonies.

About 5,000 people came to see the free pageantry, which included the Canadian aerial group Spell, an international children's choir and a rock 'n' roll gymnastics routine by 1996 U.S. Olympian John Macready.

Bela Karolyi, former U.S. national team coach, opened and closed the festivities. The night's biggest cheer -- actually a squeal from all the girls in attendance -- came when the U.S. team was introduced during the parade of flags. The U.S. flag was carried by Guard Young, a 26-year-old men's team alternate.

John Pritchett of Orange said it felt like the Olympics.

"In some ways it's even better," he said. "It's not as crowded and you get to see more countries represented."

Competition gets underway with the men's team preliminaries today and Sunday, but the Longs won't be there to see every triple flip and dismount. For the first time since her daughter Kristin moved to Pasadena, Kathy Long will see her.

"I probably would have never come this far," she said, "except to see gymnastics."

The Longs, former Oklahoma City residents, began their love affair with the sport in the early 1990s when local phenom Shannon Miller became the most decorated American gymnast.

"Gymnastics has that combination of beauty and power that you just don't see in any other sport," Kathy Long said.

Erin dreamed of becoming another Miller or Mary Lou Retton, but she didn't quite fit the mold at 5 feet, 11 inches.

So she was a diver in high school and a gymnastics judge in college.

Now 28, Erin is a Chapel Hill, N.C., dermatologist, spending all four weeks of her vacation hopscotching the country with her mother, traveling from meet to meet.

She comes to each session with her own press kit, including bios on top competitors downloaded from the Internet.

Most of those who spent $15 to skip work and attend a weekday training sessions had the same affliction.

"I tape all the gymnastic meets that are on television and watch them with my [8-month-old] daughter," said former gymnast Yael Rosenthal of Sherman Oaks. "But this is something else being here. You can feel the tension for the competitors. It brings back so many memories."

Dawnielle Patino of Corona del Mar, whose gymnastic career ended at 15 with a broken kneecap, spent the day sizing up each team's strengths, looking for the next Olga Korbut or Nadia Comaneci, and taking pictures of her favorite Russian gymnasts.

"I've been waiting for this week since they announced this three years ago," said Patino, who still competes recreationally. "For a gym junkie, this is like having the World Cup come to town."

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