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Gymnastics Has a Tight Grip on Young, Suburban Athletes

The sport is booming, especially in Orange County, and the World Championships in Anaheim should accelerate its growth.

August 23, 2003|Dave McKibben | Times Staff Writer

It all started some 40 years ago in a Lutheran church with a young girl from Los Alamitos named Cathy Rigby. Her vault run began in the street, continued through the back door and down a narrow hallway and ended in a tiny gymnasium.

"The equipment was different then, [but] the passion was the same," Rigby said from her home in La Habra Heights. "At that time, there were only about three gyms in the whole Orange County area."

A lot has changed since Rigby vaulted herself onto the national stage in the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. Today, Orange County has become a headquarters of sorts for the sport, with massive state-of-the-art gyms packed with hundreds of young pigtailed pixies in nearly every city. After the World Gymnastics Championships finish a 12-day run Sunday at the Arrowhead Pond in Anaheim, there figure to be even more children -- particularly girls -- joining the gymnastics revolution.

"It's a romantic sport and it's got a lot of artistic qualities," Rigby said. "For young girls, there's so much to be gained from gymnastics: competition, strength, flexibility and poise."

Every day during the championships, the Pond's seats have filled with athletic-looking young boys and girls in gym shorts and warmup suits. Last Thursday, the bottom bowl of the arena was bursting with young gymnasts who paid $15 to watch each country's training sessions. Those sessions lasted three days before the competition opened Aug. 15.

"It's a beautiful summer day, we're a few miles from the beach and yet this place is packed with kids who want to see the best in their sports," Fountain Valley Coach Bill Thoma said. "That should tell you something about the health of our sport in this area."

Since the success of American gymnasts in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, participation in the sport has been growing at a rate of 4% to 5% a year, according to USA Gymnastics officials. But in Southern California, the sport's popularity has exploded. From San Diego to Santa Barbara, there are more than 100 gyms for young boys and especially girls.

Growth is even more rapid in the affluent suburbs of Orange County, where many parents are able to handle monthly fees that can easily reach $300. In one 5-square-mile area of southern Orange County, there are five gyms -- each serving about 1,000 kids.

"The baby boomers seem to want their kids to excel and be involved in sports," said Rigby, who retired from gymnastics to pursue a theatrical career. "The kids get to pick what interests them, and for a lot of little girls, it's gymnastics."

Ceil Mills' daughter Mary started tumbling for fun when she was 7. Seven years later, Mary is training four hours a day, five days a week at the Academy of Olympic Gymnastics in Mission Viejo.

"There are so many great athletes in this area," Ceil Mills said. "We know we have to start them young, because the competition is so tough."

It might be so intense that a star like Rigby from the 1960s might not even make her club team's traveling squad, much less land one of the coveted six spots on the women's World Championships or Olympics' team.

"I didn't have to audition for a local team like they do now," said Rigby. "It's become like a machine. Because there's so much more competition, there's more at stake for the parents and the kids. Anything that gets so sophisticated, becomes less personal and loses a little bit of its heart."

But Peter Vidmar, who captained the U.S. men's team to a goal medal in the 1984 Olympic Games, argues that sophistication is allowing American gymnasts to excel like never before.

"I had to learn my first double back flip on a thin mat made of particleboard," said Vidmar, whose son Stephen belongs to a gym in Aliso Viejo. "My son has a 12,000-square foot gym with a 60-foot-long trampoline, a foam pit, spotting belts. It's a dream gym. He's doing skills now that I didn't learn until I was in college. This higher level of technology helps a child learn and develop skills safer and faster."

With the participation nationally up over 80,000, the odds of qualifying for an Olympic or National team are ridiculously long. But Bob Colarossi, president of USA Gymnastics, said that shouldn't discourage young people from walking into their local gym.

"It's hard to make any Olympic team in any sport," he said. "The real benefit of gymnastics is that it's the foundation for other sports. Kids know when they move on to other sports, they'll be better at spatial awareness, coordination and balance."

Rigby, the youngest member of the 1968 team, placed 16th in the all-around competition, the best finish by a U.S. woman to that point.

In 1970, she became the first female U.S. gymnast to win an individual medal at the World Championships when she won a silver on the balance beam.

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