YOUTH MOVEMENTS : Gymnastics' Competitive World Reserved for Young of . . . Body : Just a Child's Game : Two Gymnasts Come to Separate Terms With 'Early' Retirement

Times Staff Writer

Gymnastics--the Peter Pan of sports--asks a lot of its participants, not the least of which is that they never grow old.

The sport's mega-popularity in America began with a 17-year-old Soviet named Olga Korbut at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Four years later, during the 1976 Montreal Olympics, a Romanian named Nadia Comaneci solidified the sport's widespread appeal with seven perfect scores and three gold medals.

Afterward, she told reporters that her greatest wish was simply to return home, explaining, "I'm only 14."

At the age of 16, Mary Lou Retton made her place in American sports, and started an impressive financial portfolio, by winning a gold medal at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984.

Each was very talented, very young and very done when she ceased to be very young. For everything that gymnastics has become--high intensity, high profile, high ratings--it remains a kid's game.

"Kids are the sport," said Carol Kilroy, a coach at the SCATs gymnastics club in Huntington Beach.

The sport's young nature means that when a woman has grown too old or just grown (5-feet 2-inches is considered too tall for a competitive gymnast), she retires. There are no old-timers' matches, no pick-up gymnastic routines just for fun. Unlike many other sports, when a gymnast quits, it's cold turkey.

"The sport is too dangerous to just continue on a casual basis," Kilroy said.

Suzy Kellems and Tami Elliott ceased to be kids several summers ago.

Each has been a member of the U.S. national team, and each has a few stories to tell about dedication to her sport--Elliott, who started when she was 4, used to make a three-hour round trip from her home in Newport News, Va., to Richmond five days a week.

And each, in her own way and time, has come to accept that the major endeavor of their lives is over.

For Kellems, 25, the end came as planned and was almost a welcomed relief.

"I was 22 and I didn't care to hurt anymore," she said.

For Elliott, 22, the end came as she landed on her head, sustaining a compression fracture of the sixth cervical vertebra, after attempting a vault off the pommel horse.

"The doctor told me I was very lucky to be alive, let alone be walking," she said.

SUZY KELLEMS

"I started gymnastics very late, almost too late. I was 13."

When Suzy Kellems says this, you get the impression she is talking about another person, another life. Gymnastics is very much her past, something from which she has drawn what is useful to her and discarded the rest to her parents' scrapbooks.

"They keep everything," she said. "I don't look at it much."

Kellems' parents live in Costa Mesa. She attended Estancia High School and worked out of the Jetes Gymnastic Club in Los Alamitos.

Today, she lives in Los Angeles, works in interior design, rarely watches gymnastics when it's on television and doesn't know the names of the sport's up-and-comers.

It's not that Kellems dislikes gymnastics, not that she is ungrateful to the sport that procured a full athletic scholarship to USC, it's just that Kellems thinks she and the sport are even. She gave the sport so much, the sport gave her so much.

"Gymnastics, I think, fulfilled my need for competition when I was young," she said. "I guess if I didn't get into gymnastics, I would have got into tennis or something.

"It taught me how to set goals; that's what I've taken from it into the business world. I know I'll be successful in business because of the discipline gymnastics taught me."

From 13 until 18, Kellems put in nearly 30 hours a week of sweating. She put in less time in college--college gymnastics is the sports' seniors tour--but still put in time. She knew when the end was going to come and she prepared for it.

"I knew my senior year would be it," she said. "I tried all the tricks I had wanted to do for a long time but had been afraid to do. I didn't want to leave the sport wanting something. I wanted to leave clean. I think I did, so I don't miss it at all."

Kellems said she knew that retirement from gymnastics was forever, and so she figured a slow withdrawal would be best.

"I made a point to really pursue my social life at USC," she said. "To develop all my other interests outside of gymnastics. It can be very dangerous if you don't. There's a term, 'gymnastic cripple,' that means someone who has been so involved with the sport that they don't know what to do once they leave the gym for good. I knew I didn't want to be one of those."

Kellems has managed to make gymnastics work for her. She has appeared in three commercials as a gymnast, earning more than $20,000. For one, a soft-drink commercial, she did tumbling exercises through sheets of water.

"The tricks they ask you to do are the easiest," she said. "It's funny, whenever I try out for one of these commercials, I end up competing against the same girls I competed against when I was a gymnast."

She speaks in the (very) past tense.

TAMI ELLIOTT

"Even before the accident, I would get teary-eyed in the gymnasium during my senior year," Tami Elliott said. "I didn't want it to end. I love gymnastics so much, it's my life."

At Cal State Fullerton, Elliott tied an NCAA record by being a 10-time All-American. In all probability she would have broken that record at the NCAA championships last spring. But in March she landed on her head and her career ended there.

"I was so depressed for two months I didn't want to do anything," she said. "I was really down. I knew I was lucky to be alive, but there were so many things I knew I wouldn't be able to achieve. It was very frustrating."

Unlike Kellems, Elliott has remained with the sport. She has changed her major in college to physical education so she can go into coaching. Actually, her coaching career has already started at Fullerton, where she is an assistant to Lynn Rogers.

She also will do some commentating on local broadcasts of Fullerton home matches.

"I think I'll always be involved with the sport," she said. "I want to teach, I want to coach. I guess it's in my blood to be around the sport. I can't imagine ever leaving it."

Elliott started when she was 4. The story goes that she got into gymnastics after a neighbor watched her execute a back flip off a trash can.

Before retiring, the longest break she ever took from the sport was eight weeks and was because of injury. The sport has taken her to Germany, Hong Kong, Japan and France. She had been looking forward to competing in the World University Games in 1988.

Asked if she was the gymnastic cripple that Kellems described, Elliott admitted it might be true.

"I guess the worst thing is that I didn't know that would be my last time," she said. "I had no way to prepare for it."

Elliott, who had been offered parts in feature films as a gymnast but had to refuse because of NCAA regulations, said she will pursue that career opportunity. She has been a creative consultant for a cereal commercial.

But, to Elliott, all that seems a poor substitute for what she loved most.

"I don't think there's anything that compares to competing and winning," she said. "It builds character, it gives you different perspectives than the person who watches from the side. I don't think I'll ever get that out of my blood. . . . Knowing me, I would have liked to do gymnastics until I died."

A moment later, she laughs a very nervous laugh when someone reminds her she almost did.

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