FIVE TO WATCH : Who Will Be the Stars of '88 Olympic Games? These Up-and-Coming U.S. Athletes Could Be the Ones Who Steal the Spotlight in Seoul

Times Staff Writer

Her face may stare at you across the breakfast table every morning. From a box of cereal.

Or maybe you see her on the way to work on that billboard across the freeway. Or on your TV or the magazine bulging out of your mailbox.

One thing's for sure. There is no getting away from Mary Lou Retton.

But once upon a time--was it really just a year ago?-- most sports fans in this country had probably never heard of the teen-aged gymnast with the perky smile.

That's Olympic magic for you.

One gold medal later and she has joined a long list, from Johnny Weissmuller to Jesse Owens to Bruce Jenner, athletes whose Olympic performances catapulted them into a permanent spot in the nation's consciousness.

Even as you read this, a whole new crew of perky, smiling American youngsters are laboring away in relative obscurity, at dawn's light, at great personal expense, at the cost of all else, to be next in line for that glorifying trip up to the elevated stage where gold medals are dispensed. Some teen-ager you may have inadvertently bumped into today, you might be furiously chasing for a handshake or an autograph three years hence, after the Olympic flame has been rekindled in Seoul, South Korea.

Who are they, these Olympians of the future?

It's an educated guess at best, but the following are five of the best bets for 1988:

ERIKA HANSEN, Swimmer

The possibility that America's next superstar swimmer might come out of the little Germantown Academy Aquatic Club is not really that surprising.

The club may be tucked away in Fort Washington in the Pennsylvania countryside, 22 miles outside of Philadelphia, part of the 226-year-old Germantown Academy, but it is certainly not isolated from the world swimming scene.

Sue Heon, a member of the 1984 U.S. Olympic swim team, trained at Germantown under Coach Dick Shoulberg. So did Polly Wendy, a member of U.S. teams at both the 1982 world championships and the '83 Pan-Am Games.

That pair owns the fourth- and fifth-fastest times ever, respectively, for U.S. women in the 400 individual medley.

But now they have been left in the wake of the newest pride and joy of Germantown, 15-year-old Erika Hansen, a 5-6, 111-pound native of King of Prussia, Pa.

Hansen's 4:45.58 in the 400 IM in the U.S. long-course nationals in Fort Lauderdale last year broke an age group record (14 and under) of American gold medalist Tracy Caulkins and was the second-fastest time ever for a woman from this country, the fastest being the mark (4:39.57) Caulkins set at age 21.

As fast as she was moving at the nationals, though, Hansen found another potential future American superstar almost literally breathing down her neck. Fifteen-year-old Michelle Griglione finished that race in 4:45.75, breaking Caulkins' standard as well.

Hansen also owns another of Caulkins' former 14-and-under records after swimming the 200 IM in 2:17.1.

Hansen had a brief flirtation with an Olympic spot last year, finishing third in the Trials. Had she made the team, her best in the 400 IM would have been good enough for a silver medal.

Instead, she went to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where she won the 200 butterfly and 400 IM and had the highest point total in the senior national championships. It was, however, an event that did not draw any Olympic performers because it came right after the Games.

Illness struck Hansen in the fall. She missed nine weeks of training due to a cystic tumor she had removed from her back and a subsequent case of chicken pox. When she returned to competition in the national short-course championships at East Los Angeles College in April, she lost both the 200 and 400 IM to Griglione.

But she has now plunged back into a training schedule at Germantown that stretches to seven hours some days.

Now in her fifth year as a swimmer for the Germantown club, she will enter the tenth grade in the fall with a 4.0 grade point average.

"She loves to work," Shoulberg said. "She's technically very sound. She's very quiet, but loves to race anybody and is very methodical."

Does Hansen worry that such dedication to one phase of her life might be robbing her of others inherent to most teen-agers?

"I've thought about that," she said. "But the things I'm doing and the traveling I'm getting in makes up for it. It's better than something I might be thinking I'm missing."

SABRINA MAR, Gymnast

After the compulsories of the U.S. Gym Federation championships had been completed last month in Jacksonville, Fla., Sabrina Mar was second among the women.

As she entered the last round, she was tied.

When she had finished, she knew her only remaining pursuer, Kelly Garrison from Oklahoma, needed a 9.6 on floor exercise to win. Garrison, however, stepped out of bounds and finished with a 9.45.

"I couldn't believe the congratulations," Mar said. "I kind of sat there for awhile. I didn't know what had happened."

What had happened was Sabrina Mar, 15, of Monterey Park had become the heir apparent to Mary Lou Retton by winning a national championship with a 74.94 score. Garrison finished with a 74.8.

"She's an exciting prospect," Don Peters said of Mar. "Everybody knew she was a great talent. But it took her about three years to develop the ability to compete nationally."

His knowledge comes firsthand. Peters is head coach of the SCAT (Southern California Acro Team) gymnastics program in Huntington Beach, the program in which Mar trains. He also coaches the national team.

"She does not have a weak event," Peters said. "She is equally balanced in all of them. You can see that by the fact that in the individual events, she won two golds and two silvers."

Mar, a Chinese-American whose parents came to this country after World War II, first demonstrated her talent nearly a decade ago. She was just five when her mother took her to a ballet studio and she excelled at tumbling.

The instructor suggested gymnastics and she's been at it ever since, now working under the guidance of Steve Gerlach and Mary Wright.

Mar, a tenth grader this fall at Marina High School in Huntington Beach has the perfect form for a gymnast (4-11, 86 pounds) and the perfect mind set, enthusiastically putting in five hours a day, five days a week on her technique.

"Sometimes you don't feel like doing it," she admitted, "but you just have to remind yourself what you're striving for. Sometimes my friends don't understand. They ask me, 'Why do you do this?' I just tell them I've set a goal and I'm trying to work for it."

The long-term goal, of course, is Seoul. Could she be the next Mary Lou?

"They have a similar attitude about competition," Peters said. "Mary Lou Retton has some great traits in that regard and I see some of those in Sabrina. She showed some signs of that when she won the national championship. Going into the balance beam, she knew she had to win, but she was really having fun out there."

Ask Mar, however, about any comparisons to Retton and the response is quite different.

"Oh no," she said, "I've never seen anybody as good as she is. I just hope to be half as good."

EUGENE SPEED, Boxer

Dave Jacobs knows all about good fighters. After all, this Washington D.C. area amateur coach prepared one of the best--Sugar Ray Leonard. That was nine years ago.

As most sports fans know, Leonard went on to a gold medal in the 1976 Olympics in Montreal.

These days, Jacobs is again looking in his corner and seeing gold. But when he looks at his newest find, 21-year-old bantamweight Eugene Speed, he doesn't see another Sugar Ray. He sees Thomas Hearns.

"That's who he reminds you of," Jacobs said. "He has the punching power of a Hearns, but he's more powerful for his size. He's a one-punch KO fighter. You don't have to hit your opponent with two punches, when you only need to hit him with one. When Eugene hits you, the program is over."

With Speed in the ring, a lot of programs end early. His record is 78-2 with 50 knockouts.

He fought in the U.S.A./Amateur Boxing Federation championships in Indianapolis last winter, beating Les Fabri of Seattle in the final. In this year's national Golden Gloves tournament in Little Rock, Ark., in April, Speed stopped Lupe Lopez of Denver in the second round to win his division.

He has done as well in international competition. In February, he took part in the US-USSR dual meet in Reno and knocked out Vyacheslav Shulepko in the 2:28 of the first round of the final. Last month, Speed faced Luis Rojas of Venezuela in a dual meet in Orlando, Fla., and was so dominant that the referee stopped the fight in the third round.

One of his biggest advantages is his height. At 5-8, he is two-to-four inches taller than most of his opponents.

"It's not too often you run into a bantamweight like him," Jacobs said. "A lot of times, he's punching down. He's awesome."

Speed has always been his name, but it wasn't always his game. When Jacobs first saw him a year ago, Speed fought flat-footed, a man always in search of that one, big knockout blow.

"He'd been fighting five years and he had the talent," Jacobs said, "but he didn't work hard enough. He couldn't get his career off the ground and he decided to come to me. I could see he wasn't boxing enough. I have him moving more, boxing, using his jab more. I told him to stop worrying about knocking people out and to just get the points. I told him, if you are a KO artist, the knockouts will come. But don't go out looking for them."

He gets no arguments from Speed.

"I have the best trainer in the world," said Speed, who lives in Palmer Park, Md., the same town that produced Leonard. "I wish I had started with him. He saw what I have and has utilized my talents."

When it comes to those talents, Speed certainly doesn't short change himself.

"Right now, I feel I'm the best bantamweight in the world," he declared. "I don't know what to work on because I'm stopping everybody."

CURT WHITE, Weightlifter

Before each lift, White has a coach put an ammonia capsule under his nose and has a teammate follow with a slap across the face.

"It's just to get me awake, and it gets me kind of angry," White said.

In 1984, he was awakened by a sharp slap of another kind. Competing as a heavy favorite in the Olympic Trials in Las Vegas, White failed in his first of three attempts to lift 407 3/4 pounds in the clean and jerk. On his second try, he got the weight all the way up. So far, so good. Coming down, though, was a different matter. The rules state that a competitor must hold onto the bar until it passes his waist.

"I got the down signal from a judge," White recalled, "but I let go too soon. It was a sad thing. They rarely call that. It was a judgment call. I wouldn't feel so bad if I had not come so close."

He missed his final chance and did not record a total, the first time that has happened to him since he began lifting in 1976.

So the American record-holder in both the snatch (347 pounds), clean and jerk (440) and total (780 for one day) was left off the Olympic squad and had to sit home and watch Romania's Petre Becheru win with a total equaling White's best.

It wasn't easy.

"I was disgusted," White said. "I wasn't mad at anybody but myself. But it's part of life."

A year later, the slap still stings.

Now 22, the Charleston, Ill., resident is attending a chiropractic college in St. Louis, and working toward attending the '88 Games as a participant. Having graduated from the 181.5-pound class to the 198-pound level, White was a winner at the nationals in Maryland in May and will compete in the world championships in Sweden next month.

"I'm enthused again," he said. "I really want to make the team. Everybody expected me to last time and I guess I took it for granted. It was not as special as it could have been. I realize now it's not so easy. Having had a taste of it, I really want it."

And you can be sure that the next time White has a chance to grab a berth on the U.S. Olympic squad, he won't let go so quickly.

HENRY THOMAS, Track and Field

How good a bet is Thomas to win a gold medal in Seoul? Not bad when you consider the American sprinter won three of them there last year--at 200 and 400 meters and in the sprint relay.

Last year?

That's right. Thomas, then a 16-year-old Hawthorne High School junior, qualified for the Olympic Trials last year in the 100 (10.27 seconds) and 200 (20.73) at the CIF finals and the 400 (45.82) at the Pepsi meet at UCLA, but then declined to participate in the pre-Olympic event.

Several weeks after the Olympic Games, however, Thomas decided to run in the Junior Olympics in Seoul, where he took the three gold medals.

"I had a long high school season," he said in explaining his decision to pass on a shot at Olympics in '84. "I was tired mentally. I had run a lot in '84. My body was run down and I did not think it was worth it. I thought it was better to rest and wait."

There were reports his father had a lot of influence in the final decision.

"It was totally up to me," Thomas said. "Yes, there were people who told me this was a once-in-a-lifetime thing. It's true. I may not be around in '88. But whatever happens, happens."

If what has happened to Thomas thus far in his career is any indication, he will be a factor for the U.S. in '88.

Kye Courtney, his coach at Hawthorne, said Thomas "may be the fastest kid ever to come out of California. The only sprinter who can run with him is Roy Martin (Roosevelt High, Dallas). They may be the two greatest ever. Houston McTear could run the 100, but he couldn't run the 400."

When Thomas first showed up on the Hawthorne track a couple of years ago because he didn't want to go to regular physical education class, Courtney tried him out in the quarter mile. Thomas did it in 53.5 seconds.

Two weeks later, Courtney had to look twice at his stop watch. Thomas had cut his time to 50.3 "Then, I knew we had something," Courtney said.

By the time he graduated last month, Thomas had the fastest times ever for a California high school runner in both the 100 meters (10.25) and 200 meters (20.64). He won the state title in the 200 meters as a sophomore and, as a junior, added the 100 meters, and anchored the winning 400 meter and 1,600-meter relay teams. He was a heavy favorite to repeat his senior year, but an appendicitis ended his prep career in mid-May. In three years at Hawthorne, he lost two races.

In this year's Texas Relays, Thomas and his Hawthorne teammates ran a national-record setting 3.07.40 in the 1,600-meter relay. Thomas anchored the event with a 44.5. It should be noted that Lee Evans' world record in the 400--although not having the advantage Thomas had of a running start in a relay--is 43.86.

For Thomas, 6-2 and 170 pounds, the road to Seoul will run through Westwood, where he'll enroll in the fall at UCLA. He plans to continue to compete internationally and to point for 1988, to make sure this time he is ready in his own mind to compete.

As for the increasing burden of fame that Thomas will have to carry along for the next three years, he just shrugs it off with a nonchalance only a teen-ager could muster. "I'm me," he said. "Running is something I love to do. I'm Henry Thomas. Just a name."

No, more than that. A name to watch for.

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