U.S. on Move in Rhythmic Gymnastics

Times Staff Writer

When Stacey Oversier first took up gymnastics in elementary school she found that she was too tall to do some of the routines, particularly tumbling and tricks on the bars.

She decided to do something else and was torn between ballet and rhythmic gymnastics, a form of the sport that has only women performers and combines elements of dance and acrobatics. She decided on rhythmic gymnastics and has had great success, making the U. S. national team six times.

This year Oversier, now 19 and 5-10, faced another dilemma: whether to continue with her sport, with the hope of representing the United States in the 1988 Olympics, or to concentrate on her budding modeling career.

Modeling jobs began to come her way not only because of her good looks but also because she had excelled as a rhythmic gymnast and was photographed for an article on Olympic hopefuls in Interview magazine. The photographer, Bruce Weber, recommended her for her first modeling layout.

She Wants the Gold

Oversier, a University High School graduate, decided to go for the gold--not the good money she could make in modeling but an Olympic gold medal at Seoul, Korea.

She has been featured in fashion layouts in Britain's Vogue magazine and just recently with other top women athletes in Sport magazine, and Oversier still is the nation's third-ranked rhythmic gymnast. Last year she finished second in the United States at the National Sports Festival, and she hopes to do as well or better in the 1986 national championships Friday through Sunday on the Westside.

The 1986 national team, including 16 senior performers (six of them in group routines) and six juniors, will be selected this weekend. The all-around competition begins Friday and continues Saturday at Culver City's Veterans Memorial Auditorium. Sessions are at 2 and 6 p.m. each day.

The finals, for individual and group routines, will start at 2 p.m. Sunday at UCLA's John Wooden Center. On Friday and Saturday evenings and on Sunday afternoon, Korea's national champion, Sung Hong Hee, will give exhibitions.

Strong Competition

Oversier's chief competition this weekend will be U. S. champion Marina Kunyavsky, 21, of Los Angeles and Diane Simpson, 17, of Chicago. Like Oversier, Kunyavsky has long been a student of Alla Svirsky, the U. S. coach at the 1984 Olympics, at the Los Angeles School of Gymnastics in Culver City.

Kunyavsky and Coach Svirsky are emigrants from the Soviet Union, where rhythmic gymnastics got its start as a competitive sport in the early 1950s. From 1960 to 1967, Svirsky was a member of the Soviet national team, which dominates the sport internationally along with Bulgaria. At the 1985 world championships, Bulgaria was first and the Soviet Union second.

If the two Eastern Bloc countries are the best in the world, Svirsky's students are usually the best in the United States. Last year, the coach said, 15 of the 22 members of the U. S team she coached were from her school.

But the U. S. has a long way to go to be on a par with the world's best teams. At the 1985 world championships, Svirsky's team finished 19th and Kunyavsky turned in the best individual performance for the U. S. squad, finishing 25th among 100 competitors.

Artistic Better Known

Rhythmic gymnastics may have a long way to go in this country because it is an import from Europe and not as well known as its allied sport, artistic gymnastics--the kind that has been practiced and popularized in the Olympics by Olga Korbut, Nadia Comaneci and Mary Lou Retton.

Artistic gymnastics has long been an Olympic sport; for the rhythmic variety, the 1984 Olympics was a first--and it included competition for individuals and not for group routines, which will be in the 1988 Games.

Rhythmic gymnastics is not as strenuous as its cousin. It doesn't have the gravity-defying leaps, the body suspensions, the tumbling or the precarious balancing acts of artistic gymnastics. If a comparison could be made to another sport, rhythmic is to artistic as figure skating is to speed skating.

The relative popularity of the two branches of the sport in the United States probably could be measured by what has happened to each sport's top U. S. woman in the '84 Olympics.

Television Sought Retton

Retton, who won a gold medal in the all-around, gave up her sport and has gone on to a career in television and magazine commercials. Valerie Zimring, 20, of Cheviot Hills, whose 11th-place finish was the better in rhythmic gymnastics of the two American women in the Olympics, gave up her sport and is now a student at UCLA.

Robin Spector, who founded the Los Angeles School of Gymnastics in 1976, defines rhythmic gymnastics this way:

"(It) is a sport for women which harmoniously combines body movement and use of hand apparatus with music to produce routines which can be done by groups or individuals.

"The hand apparatus used can be hoops, balls, ribbons, ropes or clubs. This equipment is used as a means to enhance, enlarge and deepen the expressiveness of natural body movements."

But if it is more dance than acrobatics, that doesn't mean it is any less a sport than artistic gymnastics. Mikhail Baryshnikov is a great dancer, but he is also a great athlete.

Probably Less Burnout

And there may be less burnout among rhythmic gymnasts than there is in other sports. Retton quit while she was still in high school, though she probably could have gone on for years. Lydia Bree of Redondo Beach, now an instructor at Svirsky's school, was a U. S. alternate in the '84 Olympics when she was 25.

"It's a sport made for women, and you really reach your potential when you're at college age," said Bree. She said that it takes a long time for a performer to develop in rhythmic gymnastics and that a "woman's body peaks during the years between 18-22."

She said that she gave up the sport and did not suffer burnout. "I felt as if I could compete forever, but I also felt I could contribute in a different way. You can stay around longer in this sport and, at the same time, get to convey artistic expression."

Exposure in the Olympics did not do as much for rhythmic gymnastics as the appearances in the Games of the Olgas, Nadias and Mary Lous did for traditional gymnastics. For one thing, rhythmic didn't receive as much television exposure.

Surge in Popularity

But the Olympics and TV still gave the sport a boost in America, said Bree. Before the Games, there were about 500 rhythmic gymnasts who were members of the U. S. Gymnastics Federation, and today there are more than 1,500 members, she said.

Though five of Svirsky's students who were members of the 1985 national team have left the sport, Svirsky feels confident that performers from her school will continue to dominate the national team.

Some of her students with a good chance of making the team, she said, are Arina Rubinstein, 16, of Agoura; Alexandra Feldman, 15, of Sherman Oaks; Simona Soloveychik, 16, of Encino; Kim Stiles, 17, of Palos Verdes, and Eugenia Yuan, 15, of San Marino.

Their top, out-of-town competition includes Wendy Hilliard of Detroit, Laura David of San Rafael and Dacon Lister of Muskogee, Okla.

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