CHIP OFF OLD BLOCK, BONE : Gymnast's Chance to Duplicate Her Father's Olympic Participation Is Ruined by Injuries

Times Staff Writer

In 1984, it seemed as if Marie Roethlisberger's luck temporarily gave out, along with several of her key joints.

Instead of a big break, the 19-year-old gymnast from Huntington Beach had cartilage damage.

Instead of a silver medal as one of the six competing members of the U.S. women's gymnastics team, she got a little plastic bottle containing seven hard, yellow lumps.

They weren't gold, either. Slightly larger than kernels of corn, they were something rarely seen outside of an X-ray--bone chips.

Roethlisberger, the first alternate on the Olympic team, still carries one chip with her, inside her right elbow. The rest are kept in a dresser drawer in her room, just another memento of an adverse '84.

"Someday I'm going to make her a poster of them," said her mother, Fran Wells. "I'll lay them out on a velvet background with some lettering saying, 'The 23rd Olympiad.' Someday she'll be proud of all she did last year. I don't think many people would have had the courage to go out there and compete (in the Olympic Trials) with those bone chips."

Roethlisberger keeps her Olympic memorabilia under her bed--out of sight and mostly out of mind. That way, no depressing reminders of 1984 can interfere with her progress toward November's World Championships at Montreal.

"When I look at my Olympic stuff, I get this little feeling . . . like I kind of want to put it away," she said thoughtfully. "But I'm getting better. Now I'm able to look at it and like it. Before, it just made me sad."

That is not to imply that she wasn't proud to be a member of the Olympic team. But walking around the Olympic Village with a cast on her arm wasn't the sort of contribution she had dreamed of making during 10 years of work.

After being the national champion on the uneven bars in 1982 and a member of the World Championship team in 1983, she was only able to train and compete in full health for three months of the crucial pre-Olympic 1983-84 year.

If it wasn't one joint, it was another. In January 1984, on her first day back in training after surgery on her left elbow, Roethlisberger acted "like a calf let out to graze on new spring grass," her mother said. In her zeal to begin catching up, she seriously sprained her ankle and was exiled to the sidelines again.

Due to her injured right elbow, she was unable to practice the week prior to the Olympic Trials. But she was determined to go through with it in the hope she might be healthy for the Games. She performed at the Trials with no warm-up, at times choking back tears of pain, and earned the No. 7, or first alternate, place on the team.

"I was biting the bullet, it hurt so bad," she said. "When I was actually competing, I didn't think about it, though. It was like my one chance in a lifetime."

After enduring arthroscopic surgery on each, additional bone chips and cartilage were scraped from her right arm during the Olympics.

"I remember the doctor walking out of her room, shaking his head," Wells said. "He said he didn't know how she did what she did on that arm . . . She did everything she could have done, everything humanly possible and maybe a little superhumanly."

In contrast with the rest of her Peter-Pan appearance, Roethlisberger has the elbows of an aging baseball pitcher, with slick, pink scars tracing a map of inner damage. She can no longer completely straighten either arm.

If the saga of injuries sounds disheartening, it isn't the biggest health threat Roethlisberger has survived. When she was 2 1/2 years old, she contracted meningitis and lost all of her hearing in one ear and 30% in the other.

Her most striking attribute is her size--or lack of it. She has grown an inch and gained 10 pounds in the past year, but petite is still too hefty a word to hang on her 4-foot 11-inch, 97-pound frame. Even in a sport where gravity defiance is the common goal, the grand old lady of Huntington Beach's Southern California Acro Team is considerably smaller than her younger teammates.

"I trained so hard, maybe it keeps me from growing a little bit," she said.

Until one converses with her and gets a chance to observe her poise, she might be mistaken for a junior high kid, and often is. But that aspect of her appearance does not bother her too much.

"I don't care," she said, laughing. "When I'm 80, everyone will think I'm 60."

Although she often relies on the word "what?" the naturalness of her conversation betrays few clues to her partial deafness.

"It really doesn't affect me," she said of her hearing impairment. "I never think about it, really."

Part of her success in communicating is due to almost invisible habits of compensation. "I think I'll sit over here," she'll say casually, switching to seat herself on the left of a companion.

Her hearing aids, occasionally visible under her pixie hair cut, raise the auditory level in her right ear to 90%, although she misses many middle-range sounds and cannot distinguish the direction of sounds.

Those facts do change some everyday experiences. When a teammate calls her in the gym, she has to turn and read people's expressions to find the source. Her mother says it is difficult for her to talk on the phone.

Wells remembers one time in 1984 when she got so involved in repeating and explaining and clarifying something for Marie that she backed the family car into a pole. Roethlisberger suspects that her floor exercise coach, Mary Wright of SCATs, turns up the volume of her music during the softer interludes, but she's not sure.

Coaching her on the balance beam requires some adjustment, Wright said, because if she hollers instructions, Roethlisberger has to stop, turn her head and look, which interrupts the routine.

"It is more difficult for her to maintain her level of concentration (with spoken instructions), so we do a lot of nonverbal communication, hand signals and things," Wright said. "But if she's repeating bad habits, we have to get her down off the beam and talk.

"Visually, she's super quick. When we're learning a new trick, she picks it up much faster than everyone else. She's learned to deal with it that way, not having the audio skills that others have."

But Wright half-seriously claims that Roethlisberger's hearing aid has actually been an advantage in some situations, such as when a disagreement arises.

"Sometimes it's been very handy for her," Wright said. "She just turns it off when she thinks she's heard enough."

Said Roethlisberger: "The only good part about it is, if the coaches are yelling at me, I can turn my hearing aid off . . . Actually I never do that, but I like to say I do."

Most people may find her name hard to pronounce, but for those familiar with gymnastics, it rolls readily off the tongue. Her father, Fred Roethlisberger, is a nationally recognized men's gymnastics coach at the University of Minnesota and was a member of the 1968 Olympic team.

Marie remembers "flipping all around the house" after watching Nadia Comaneci do her Olympic performances on TV in 1976. Wells said they initially encouraged their daughter to try the sport at age 9 as an after-school activity and a means of reducing her social isolation.

"She needed her own circle of friends, and going to the gym, she picked up the tricks sooner than the others, and it gave her a real sense of accomplishment and satisfaction.

"Because Marie was so talented, and because her Dad had made the team and she was around so many of her father's (collegiate) gymnasts, making the Olympics became a reasonable goal for her."

In ninth grade, she moved away from her Minneapolis home to get world-class coaching. The search for coaching became something of a nomadic quest, as two of her coaches changed jobs. She lived with five families in four cities during high school, finally settling with her mother at SCATs and Marina High School for her senior year.

Somewhere along the way, she developed a separate personality in the gym, described by her mother and her coaches as "intense," "moody," and even at times "inflexible."

"She's like Jekyll and Hyde," said her other SCATs coach, Steve Gerlach. "She is extremely intense and disciplined in training, but she gets down on herself and expects too much of herself at times."

Said Wright: "She's a lot more mature than when she first came. She used to be really hard on herself. She used to throw tantrums and hit the beam and stamp her feet and spend a lot of time crying.

"It was a matter of turning that motivation around and using it positively. Now she usually uses it to demand more of herself without getting so down and becoming negative.

"She's a warm kid, very affectionate and loving. But in the gym, she can be a little bear. Everything zeros in on her performance. In the gym, you would think she wasn't happy. She doesn't smile. Outside the gym, she's having fun, laughing."

Roethlisberger is beginning to think about the day when she'll retire from international competition and get a gymnastics scholarship to college, perhaps at the University of Minnesota. An honor student, she says she may go into engineering or sports medicine.

"I think she's ready for a little old hometown fun, and she's certainly earned it," Wells said.

But after having to sit out the last World Championships, in 1983 at Budapest, Hungary, plus the Olympics, she still hungers to accomplish something more in world-class competition.

Her gymnastics comeback is well on its way. Last month, she finished first all-around and first in the uneven bars at the American Classic in Colorado Springs, Colo., and third all-around two weeks ago at the USA Championships in Jacksonville, Fla.

"Sometimes I think maybe my body is ready to quit," she said. "The doctor said that I wouldn't have many more years, maybe just another year. He doesn't think I can go four more years.

"It will be a hard decision. Before I retire from gymnastics, I want to have a good ending."

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