A Marvel at 15 : Seoul's Sweetheart Just Might Turn Out to Be Talented Sabrina Mar

Times Staff Writer

What do gymnasts Mary Lou Retton and Sabrina Mar have in common?

Mary Lou Retton is currently starring in television commercials, pitching cereal and burgers, among other things. But Sabrina Mar?

She is a 15-year-old resident of Monterey Park who won the women's all-around championship at Jacksonville, Fla., last month.

That accomplishment has earned Mar the current No. 1 ranking among U.S. female gymnasts. Last year at this time, it was Retton who was ranked No. 1, zeroing in on a gold medal and Olympic fame.

It's three years until Seoul, Korea, and the 1988 Games, but barring injury or unforeseen circumstances, Mar will be a member of the 1988 team and a strong medal candidate. She is also the heiress apparent to Retton's throne.

Mar, 4-foot-11 and 86 pounds, will participate in the McDonald's Gymnastics Challenge: the United States vs. China this weekend at the Forum. The men's team and all-around competition will be held Friday night, the women's team and all-around competition Saturday night, and the men's and women's individual events Sunday.

The event is billed as an Olympic rematch, but there is not one returning American female.

"This is an entirely new team. I'm interested to see how they respond to this type of competition," said Don Peters, U.S. national team coach. "It'll be really good for the gymnasts to learn under these conditions."

It was Peters, who was the U.S. women's Olympic team coach in 1984. That might come as a surprise since Romanian Bela Karolyi, Retton's coach, seemed to always be on camera.

Peters, who has been coaching the national team for five years, says that his current team is a lot different than any other he's prepared for international or Olympic competition.

"This is a whole new wave of gymnasts, many more new people than I've seen at one time."

Mar, a Chinese-American (her parents came to this country after World War II), is no exception, this being her first international competition.

"The pressure is on in this U.S.-China meet," Mar said. "It should be a learning experience, finding out how good they are and how good I am."

Mar may speak of pressure, but she doesn't seem to feel it. The chief reason could be her affiliation with the Southern California Acro Team (SCATS), which has produced a member of the Olympic team in every Olympiad since 1964, with the exception of the 1980 boycott year. Last year, five of the top eight U.S. gymnasts, including Kathy Johnson, were members of this nonprofit gymnastics club.

At the club gym in Huntington Beach, Mar's No. 1 ranking is just a number.

"She receives no special treatment. She has two personal coaches, Steve Gerlach and Mary Wright. But all of the girls have that," Peters said. "All of the girls here are treated equally."

Mar is the second-youngest person ever to win the overall American title and the only other SCATS member to win it besides Cathy Rigby McCoy in 1972. "It was just a big shock winning the nationals, I didn't realize it," Mar said. "One thing that helps me is that I don't like to stand out. I like being part of the team here.

"My parents don't put any pressure on me. They tell me I can do what I want, so that helps."

The success wasn't entirely unexpected since Mar demonstrated her talent by finishing second two years in a row at the junior (14 and under) nationals. Peters was quick to notice when Mar came to SCATS.

"We give a physical ability test to everyone who tries out here. She scored the highest of anybody. But that doesn't mean everything. You still need discipline and dedication. That's so important."

Mar has that. A rigorous training schedule of 29 hours a week leaves her little time for anything else. But the demand on her time doesn't bother her.

"I miss out on stuff, that's true, but I do a lot of things that other kids don't, like travel a lot," Mar says. "Besides I can make it up during college."

Her greatest strength may be her consistency; she doesn't have a weak event. She won two golds (floor exercise, uneven bars) and two silvers (balance beam, vault) at Jacksonville. It remains to be seen whether Mar will be gymnastics' next charismatic figure, capturing the hearts of spectators, a la Retton.

Peters thinks that Mar may be having difficulty dealing with a constant round of media attention. TV crews and newspaper reporters have been in the gym every day for the last two weeks.

"When am I going to get a chance to work out without anyone here?" was Mar's reaction.

Peters, however, says it's part of the process.

"We stress that you have to deal with the media as a gymnast here and talk to them about it," Peters said. "We also tell them not to get caught up in their own press clippings."

Mar's goal is Seoul.

"I am definitely looking forward to that if I can make the team," she said. "I don't think that I'll ever be as good as Retton. But, it's nice to think about, I'm sure Mary Lou is having a blast now."

The Olympics are still a long way off. First, Mar has to prepare for the U.S. Qualifying meet at Minneapolis and then the World Trials at Montreal later this year. But, Mar does think about the future.

"If I make the team in '88 that will be it for me. I will retire then."

Retirement at age 18. She sounds like Retton already.

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