KRISTIE PHILLIPS : THE NEXT MARY LOU : She's Only 14, but in Glare of Fame That's Hard to See

Times Staff Writer

In about the same way that virgins were once tossed into smoldering volcanoes, and for apparently the same reasons, so do we still sacrifice pretty young girls. Only now, we throw them to the media monster.

There it is now, appearing as it does every four years, just ahead of the Olympics, opening its great maw. The glare of TV lights, the whine of tape recorders, the scratching of pencil put to paper all signal its horrible, awakening hunger.

Step up, little girl.

First to satisfy that terrible appetite this time around was the lithesome Kristie Phillips, made of equal parts ligament and braces, who at the age of 14 was consumed by Sports Illustrated, in a gulp.

Many in gymnastics were baffled, to say the least, by her appearance on the magazine's cover last fall. Phillips, though an outstanding prospect in women's gymnastics, had yet to dominate the sport, much less revolutionize it. At the time, she was little more than the national junior champion. For goodness sakes, she was 14 and only marginally better than one of her teammates.

Ah, but many in gymnastics forget the prehistoric hunger we have for heroes and heroines. We need them and we need them now. "The New Mary Lou," the cover read. It is scarcely 18 months until the Olympic Games in Korea and a queen of Seoul must be crowned.

We ourselves guessed it was time when we saw a picture of Mary Lou Retton, the former queen of Los Angeles, in Time magazine holding a bowling bowl. Holding a bowling ball? A spokeswoman for bowling, you say? Step right up, Kristie. We've got what you might call a little void here. We're going to love you to death.

Those aforementioned "many in women's gymnastics," a most fractious group you understand, will not appreciate the to-do we are about to make over Kristie, putatively the next Mary Lou. It could have been--could yet be--Hope Spivey, possibly a more advanced gymnast. Or Doe Yamashiro, who once finished in a tie for first in a meet with Phillips in Texas, but who was entirely overlooked in the local newspaper account of the event.

For that matter, it could have been Phoebe Mills, who trains with Phillips. She is the only one to have beaten Phillips recently and at least one United States Gymnastics Federation official is tabbing her as the best prospect, even ahead of Kristie.

There are, altogether, four or five girls it could have been. Don Peters, who coached the 1984 Olympic women's team and who coaches 1988 hopefuls Yamashiro and Sabrina Mars at Southern California Acro Team, says: "They're all equally good. I think there are five kids that are all pretty darn close and not a great deal of difference between them. Their gymnastics are all on a par."

But Kristie it is, in story after story. First SI, then the New York Times, now here. A TV newsmagazine presented her on prime time.

She is possibly the only 14-year-old from Baton Rouge, La., with a New York agent. That, interestingly, was made public in the same magazine that showed Mary Lou holding a bowling ball. A succession well handled, don't you think? The queen is dead--or rather, gone bowling--long live the queen.

BETTER THAN A HORSE, OF COURSE

The cynical question to ask is whether gymnastics, or rather Kristie Phillips or even her coach, the mysterious Bela Karoyli, is generating some kind of publicity campaign, with coverage altogether inappropriate to her abilities.

Or did the incredible success of Retton, another of Karolyi's products--the toothsome pixie who appeared from out of the West Virginia boonies, create a role that must be played from Olympics to Olympics, regardless of the athlete: A theatrical tumbler who will prove as durable on a magazine cover or cereal box as on a mat.

Just asking: Do we always need a 14-year-old girl with a smile as wide and as bright as a Steinway keyboard? Is it part of the Olympic contract?

Historically, yes. The Olympics almost always produce a dancing darling--a Nadia, an Olga--and for good reasons. For one thing, the gymnastics portion of the Games are held the first week, apart from the ensuing welter of track and field finals the second week. It has the greater share of the spotlight.

More than that, these flexible fliers play pretty well on TV. Whether it's the stone-faced Nadia (still another Karolyi product--no further comment), stoically setting standards of exactitude, or the wide-eyed Olga, weeping in our living rooms, gymnastics seems to produce dramatic starlets as does no other sport.

Mary Lou, whose dynamic tumbling skills--nobody went higher or farther--could be appreciated by the poor slobs who couldn't tell a salto from a saltine, certainly enlarged the arena. Short and powerful, out of the West Virginia woods, everything a gymnast wasn't. But, oh my, she could play a crowd. How many teeth did she have, anyway?

Kristie Phillips fits that profile, except that she is a more traditional looking gymnast than the squarish Retton. She's come from a relative nowhere at an impossibly young age. And she, too, can work an audience--"can sell herself," according to Karolyi. Only her smile is artificially brightened by some hated braces.

So the question is obvious: Is Kristie the uncontested heiress to Mary Lou's fame and fortune?

Hardly. The folks at Wheaties should hold off a little. She is, however, the front runner. And time is running out as the media scramble to bridge the two Olympics.

Only thing, as those "many in gymnastics" have pointed out, Kristie has yet to do more than suggest potential.

"There could be a backlash if she doesn't deliver the goods," observes Coach Bill Strauss, a kindly man who tutors Spivey and Jennifer Sey.

If we recall, Mary Lou did win a gold medal or two before her mug got such wide circulation. So how did Kristie get on the SI cover?

Another question, why not? As Mike Jacki, executive director of the United States Gymnastics Federation points out, "They've put horses and girls in swimming suits on the cover, why not one of our top stars."

And before you ask, why Kristie, let's look at the goods she has delivered so far. She has won three of the four major events she has been in this year, including the recent McDonald's American Cup when she edged a top Soviet gymnast for the all-around title.

True, she is too young to have established any credentials on the international scene, and we really won't know where she stands until the World championship meet in Rotterdam this October. But some aren't worried.

"I don't think she's over-publicized," Jacki said. "If you look at last year, she's only been defeated once. Now, if she were performing at a level that was not world class, this is where the conversation goes off the record and I admit it. But the difficulty she has in her routines is comparable to the top (international) gymnasts. On the floor exercise, for example, she does a pike, full-in back-out, and two double backs."

Jacki was referring to Kristie's three tumbling passes on the mat, the first of which is a double-backward flip in the more difficult pike position, with some twists thrown in for good measure. Another way to describe it: It's really, really hard.

Jacki does admit that Kristie is benefiting somewhat from the Mary Lou phenomenon.

"She is a carry-over from Mary Lou, an unknown out of Fairmont, W. Va., becoming champion," he said. "Cute as a button.

"Because of Mary Lou, I think there's more talk about Olympic gymnastics, because of people who fit her image. Kids who came in and trained and worked hard enough."

Peters, for one, is reluctant, however, to see the buildup get under way so soon. Not that he doesn't think Kristie has what it takes. He just hates to see the sport, which is so team-oriented from a coach's standpoint, hinge on a single personality.

"It's unfair to the other athletes," he said. "I thought it was unfair what happened to the Kathy Johnsons, the Julianne McNamaras (from the 1984 team). They got nothing from that.

"I've pointed out before, gymnastics is a team sport. No gymnast, in the World championships or Olympics, has ever won the all-around who wasn't on, at least, the second-place team. You don't get 10s for being perfect. You get a 10 because a kid in front of you got a 9.9."

Peters laments that those kids in front, getting their 9.9s, become so much cannon fodder. Yet, grudgingly, he understands why we are driven, even this early, to pick the next Mary Lou.

"The media wants a star," he said. "They want an Arnold Palmer, not 13 guys on the pro tour."

In any event, far better to see Kristie performing her rubber-backed O on the balance beam on some magazine cover than staring into the vacant face of Secretariat.

TRANSYLVANIA COWBOY RIDES AGAIN

If a gymnast wanted prime-time exposure, she could hardly do better than sign up with Bela Karolyi, the Romanian who defected to the wide open spaces of Houston to truly test our country's entrepreneurial possibilities.

Some would have it that this man, complete with sinister drooping mustache, is nothing more than a media monger in cowboy boots. Somehow his athletes--somehow he himself--find their way to public attention faster than others.

But this could be unfair. It is not clear that Bela manipulates the media more than other coaches. He is, uh, accessible but hardly fawning.

He's good copy, though. That Transylvanian accent and weird syntax, coupled with an impossible enthusiasm, make a powerful antidote to every reporter's empty notebook. He also usually has something to say.

That doesn't entirely explain his high profile in this sport. What does is that he almost always has one or more of the top gymnasts.

Perhaps it should be put this way: If a gymnast wanted a gold medal, she could hardly do better than enlist with Karolyi, the only coach in modern times to have sent a gymnast past the Soviets. His roster includes some big names--Nadia Comaneci while in Romania, Mary Lou while here. And now Kristie Phillips.

"A lot of people complain about Bela, and how he courts the press," Jacki said. "But in the 1985 national championships, when he was between Mary Lou and Kristie, and his kids didn't do well, nobody heard from him. He just limped home, got his butt in gear producing athletes. He had zip coverage. And he knew why."

Of course, when he has the goods, he is not exactly scarce. He wasn't hard to find recently when Phillips was winning her second American Cup. He seemed willing to talk about the eerie parallels between Kristie's and Mary Lou's careers.

"History is repeating! History is repeating!" was the exuberant gist of it.

In fact, he has engineered a course for Kristie remarkably similar to Mary Lou's. Like Mary Lou, Kristie, a budding nobody, emerged in the American Cup, winning the all-around. And, like Mary Lou, Kristie then managed to repeat.

In their styles, true, there are few similarities.

Mary Lou's strength was her strength. With her thick, strong thighs, she was a sensational tumbler. Yet her beam work was hardly the best in the world, or even this country.

The more svelte Kristie, on the other hand, is a more flexible gymnast, and her beam work is among the best.

"We cannot provide carbon copies," the ever adaptive Karolyi explained. "With Mary Lou and Dianne (Durham), we excelled with very strong, physical, explosive athletes. And when they went out, we had a little gap, not placing anyone in the first four or five (in the 1985 World meet). There is something missing."

So, gymnastics returned to a more traditional style, using the talent at hand.

"Different styles, yes," Karolyi continued. "That is what is so specifically American. The country is so big, so diversified. We do not have to have the same kind of athlete."

Hence Kristie, who can become a pretzel on the beam.

One constant in Karolyi's gym, though, is the fierce competition he engenders among his students. Sometimes, it may not be healthy, as when Durham crumbled under the onslaught of Retton in the pre-1984 Olympic years. On the other hand, it helped Retton.

"Competition is obviously very better, not just because pressure is equalized," he said. "I always look to create competitive environment. Even with Nadia, I had Teodora Ungureanu. She stood like an engine behind Nadia."

In 1984, he had Durham and McNamara as engines behind Retton. And now he has Phoebe Mills behind Phillips.

Contrary to what Peters thinks, Karolyi believes gymnastics is an "individual competition, not a team competition." And so he finds it useful to encourage fierce one-upmanship in the gym.

As for Mills and Phillips, "They watch each other sometimes like a hawk," he said. "They are very competitive. You say little girls, but 10-11 years' competition behind these little girls. They know only one place to fill up for Olympic champion."

Karolyi sighed. "Fortunately gymnastics is a type of sport where nobody touches each other. They can't punish each other. Instead, they develop more difficult stunts. They punish each other by punishing their own bodies, a very violent act toward their own body."

So far, this competition is not crippling in any way. The girls are close friends and each shouts encouragement when the other competes. They each say, almost by rote, that the competition is highly beneficial.

"It really helps us," Phoebe says.

Says Kristie, her tone evidence of a practiced answer: "Out of the gym, we're best friends."

On the other hand, Mills did not take Kristie's appearance in Sports Illustrated all that well. Earlier, Karolyi had admitted that "Phoebe went through a hard time. Her workouts were not excelling and we could not encourage her."

But soon Mills rallied and, according to Karolyi, "was more confident. She started to look at you a little more nasty. Yes, nasty. The look said, 'I'm my own boss. I'm not a puppy.' "

Soon after, she dusted Phillips, good friend, at the USA-China meet, taking three out of four gold medals including the all-around. She was just 5/100ths of a point behind Kristie in the American Cup.

"Toughness is educable, improvable," Karolyi said.

That much, anyway, is calculated. This Romanian in the cowboy gear--boots, Western shirt--wears spurs, too.

MAMAS, DON'T LET YOUR BABIES GROW UP TO BE GYMNASTS

Behind every great gymnast, besides a coach, seems to be a mom these days. Both Kristie's and Phoebe's have gone to Houston to oversee and care for their daughters. How else could 14-year-olds who train some six hours in a gym retain any perspective?

Kristie's mother, Terri, supplies perspective aplenty. A down-to-earth woman, she brooks no nonsense from either Kristie or the six other girls she boards in Houston to help make ends meet.

A USGF official recalls Kristie making some small demand, in an all-too-petulant voice. Terri swooped down on her like a peregrine falcon on a pigeon.

This is no small sacrifice. Terri's husband of 26 years is left in Baton Rouge to look out for himself and their 21-year-old son. But to him, it's worth it.

"I figured if (Kristie) was gonna board, I wanted her to board with someone who'd have my family values," said Jim, a section supervisor for an oil company. That would be Terri, all right.

The plan was for Terri to recoup some of the tremendous expenses by operating a boarding house for other of Karolyi's gymnasts. "That was the plan, anyway," Terri said.

There remains a fiscal deficit, though, and the $25,000 a year it costs to finance Kristie's gymnastics education continues to come from family savings.

"I don't hunt or fish anymore and our vacations are to gymnastics meets," Jim said. He seems cheerful enough about it. As for the other sacrifices?

"As far as losing a daughter, well, I look at it this way. She's--Terri--gained seven."

The sacrifice is spread around in the Phillips family. Nobody anticipated the tremendous financial drain this would be for the family. On the other hand, there are few regrets.

Nobody rues the day that Kristie, 4 years old at the time, was taken by Nadia in the 1976 Olympics.

Nobody sees an opportunity missed when, at the age of 7, Kristie decided she would prefer to stay home and watch cartoons but then changed her mind at the last minute.

"You've just got to do it," Terri says. "If you don't believe in them, how can they believe in themselves?."

A LITTLE BITTY KID COUNTS DOWN

Training under Karolyi, the walls of the giant gym adorned with likenesses of gold medal winners, Kristie is hardly unaware of her legacy. She saw what happened after Mary Lou's gold. There were a Corvette, TV appearances, advertising money, that bowling ball.

"She knows very well where Mary Lou is now," Karolyi said in another interview. "Being very, very wealthy, very happy, a very public loved person."

At times, Phillips seems eager to get on with it. "Eighteen months!" is a kind of self-motivating cheer she is heard to give from time to time, meaning how long to payday.

But she is not oblivious to what's going on around her in the meantime. The presence of Phoebe Mills, and all those other gymnasts who believe she has been oversold, is a living, breathing one. There is work to be done. This strawberry blonde package of quick-snap fibers does not have enough laurels yet to rest on. So she returns to Houston.

The last picture we have of her is in the arena after the American Cup. The pre-teen gymnasts who fill these arenas with a keening wail for their heroines--"Kristeeeeee!"--are gone.

Karolyi is, as usual, talking, talking, talking. And Kristie, his "little bitty kid," is sneaking up behind him with a can of Flying Streamer, a novelty product available only to pre-teen children. She lets fire.

Karolyi has dodged quicker bullets, however, and the Transylvanian cowboy quickly wrests the can from his prodigy. And soon Phillips' strawberry hair is replaced with a wig of Flying Streamer, essentially colored strands of shaving cream.

The man has no pity; the girl is a mess. Karolyi is very pleased with himself. Kristie, the girl with gold in her eyes, is less so.

It seemed reassuring, if for only a moment, to see that inside this little phenomenon, the next Mary Lou, was a little girl. Remember that, if you can, as the championship campaign, calculated or not, resumes.

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