Let there be no doubt as to what this gymnastics business is about.
It is about the Olympics, so much so that parents have been known to bring their 3-year-olds to Carolynn Friedlander, co-owner of KIPS gymnastics, convinced that they have a fledgling Nadia or Mary Lou on their hands. So much so that club owners say enrollment in gymnastics programs across the United States fluctuates on a four-year Olympic calendar, surging immediately after the Games and then dwindling in the final two years of the cycle.
It is also, predictably, about disappointment and waning interest, because the odds against becoming a world-class competitor may be even more astronomical than those in other sports. What it takes even to have a shot at becoming an Olympian, says Rich McGann, director of the Huntington Beach-based SCATS gymnastics club, is to be almost "a genetic freak of nature." For girls, McGann says, that means a height of between 4-feet 9-inches and 5-1, a weight between 75 and 84 pounds and extreme flexibility, combined with a vertical leap of 26 to 36 inches. And that's just the raw material.
Even so, thousands of youngsters are enrolled in Orange County programs--between 2,500 and 3,000 in SCATS alone, the program run by 1984 U.S. Olympic Coach Don Peters that has put at least one member on every Olympic team since 1968.
Coaches and program directors say probably 80% of their students, who are most often girls, enroll with hopes of becoming an Olympian and America's next pixie darling, but the people who run the programs hope simply that most of them finish with such benefits as good posture, self-esteem and good motor skills.
The Olympic emphasis is in part a response to the tremendous success of SCATS, which put Michelle Dusserre, Pam Bilek, Kathy Johnson and one-time member Julianne McNamara on the '84 Olympic team. That year, SCATS had a waiting list so long that it sometimes took a year to get a spot in a class, and even now there is a wait for popular time slots.
For aspiring gymnasts, competing for SCATS is the pinnacle in Southern California. Based in a 20,000 square-foot warehouse in an industrial area of Huntington Beach--with locations in Walnut, Anaheim and Mission Viejo--it is considered one of the top clubs in the country.
Sabrina Mar, 17, the most highly touted gymnast currently with SCATS, is competing now at the Pan American Games in Indianapolis.
Thirty-five SCATS competitors are selected for the club's elite development program, which grooms gymnasts for the elite class, the highest level of competitions. Those 35 pay $100 a month for 25 hour-a-week instruction and for travel expenses to events, but that fee doesn't nearly cover the cost to the club. The money for the elite development program is subsidized by $56 monthly fees from the many whose two-hour, once-a-week lessons are a childhood training ritual like piano or ballet lessons.
Other clubs throughout the county, many of which field teams but few of which have even one elite gymnast, wait for the quality of gymnast that SCATS has in abundance.
"SCATS has always had the No. 1 calling card. We're all trying to catch up with them," said Dennis Mailly, co-owner and coach of KIPS (Kids in Perfect Shape), which is located in Anaheim.
Like most gymnastics clubs, KIPS makes its home in a warehouse complete with truck portals, the only type of affordable office space large enough to house a gym.
"If a parent had a child they felt was a talented gymnast, they would take them to SCATS. If they turned you down, you'd look at KIPS, and then others."
KIPS has two members on U.S. junior national teams--Nicole Fajardo, 13, and Janelle Del Rosario, 12. They are the hope of the future for KIPS. What would a 1992 Olympic team member do for a program?
"Well, it would give you credibility," Mailly said.
But the sort of gymnasts who could make a name for a program sometimes leave to seek the vast resources of SCATS.
This has happened at Gemini Gymnastics, among others.
"We're real small," said Lynn Moody, director of the 100-student operation in Garden Grove. "I've had a couple of young kids I got when they were 6 or 7, but when they started to get real good, it got to the point where they started looking. Both quit me."
One of Moody's gymnasts went to SCATS, the other to Newhope Academy in Fountain Valley.
The opportunities for instruction and competition for girls are many. For boys, they can be harder to find. Only one Orange County club, U.S. Gymnastics Training Center, specializes in training for boys only. The 2 1/2-year-old facility has about 200 enrolled.
For the eager, many clubs offer instruction for babies. At SCATS, you can register your 6-month-old in an activity class for parent and child. Many other programs offer instruction for toddlers, often beginning at 18 months. At 7 years old, they are allowed by U.S. Gymnastics Federation rules to compete. Levels are delineated by a classification system, which ranges from Class 4, the lowest level, to the elite class, a notch above Class 1.
Safety, a concern so high on the USGF list that it last year published a 140-page manual and has instituted a increasingly stringent certification program for instructors, apparently has not been a major problem in local clubs. Although none of several local club officials recalled any major injuries at area clubs, they said the danger is always there.
Most problems occur when gymnasts are allowed to try moves they are not prepared for, instructors said.
"If there's a coach who's building his ego through a 10-year-old, that's a problem," said Mailly. "It's the Little League syndrome. They think if they can get a kid to do a double-back (double-backward somersault in the air), that makes them a great coach. But if the kid's not ready, they can get hurt. . . . Sometimes, being safety conscious can slow up our learning process. If it means not getting a kid on the Olympic team because they're not physically ready, that's just the way it is."
Although the hopes of these youngsters, their parents and the club directors are all pinned on the slim chance of a competitor becoming one of the very few and very best, these programs, even SCATS, operate by sustaining classes at all levels, from tumbling tots to late teens, for students who most often come and go in a year or two.
"We just try to make something available to everyone," Moody said.