U.S. Olympic Gymnastics Trials : 5 of Top 8 Are Karolyi's Kids; No SCATS

Times Staff Writer

The U.S. Olympic women's gymnastics team, a nice collection of high tumblers, wasn't the only thing up in the air Saturday. After the optionals, presumably the final element in the team selection, there were still questions of who would really coach the team and where that would be done. Not only that, the eighth-place finisher was insisting, for mysterious reasons, that she would still perform at Seoul.

This is a saga with some promise, and all because three of the six-member team (and the two alternates) are drawn from cantankerous Bela Karolyi's club in Houston. Don Peters, who happens to be the Olympic coach, did not produce any from his SCATS gym in Huntington Beach. The Karolyi camp drew some obvious conclusions.

"If you have five of the top eight girls," said Karolyi protege Kristie Phillips, "and the Olympic coach doesn't even have one, that shows you something there."

Said first-place finisher Phoebe Mills, a Karolyi kid: "I definitely think we should train in Houston (instead of the SCATS gym)." And does she think Karolyi, who produced half the team, should be its coach? "I think it should be obvious."

Peters, perhaps regretting that he ever returned to take this job, spent a lot of time saying, "No comment," and, "It's a done deal," and insisting that he had no plans to step aside.

Karolyi spent a lot of his time shrugging his shoulders and arching his magnificent eyebrows. This is a controversy that appears to have some staying power.

In fact, Peters, whose two hopes--Sabrina Mar and Doe Yamishiro--withdrew with injuries, will remain the coach and will train the team in the SCATS gym. Beyond that, we now know who is on the team. It's the same lineup that emerged in the national championships, the first leg of the qualifying process.

Mills turned in a flawless optional routine to remain in first place. Kelly Garrison-Steves, the only college-age student in the bunch, finished second, ahead of Hope Spivey. Then came two more Karolyi kids, Brandy Johnson and Chelle Stack, who finished ahead of hometown favorite Missy Marlowe.

Karolyi teammates Rhonda Faehn and one-time wonder Phillips earned alternate status, finishing seventh and eighth. Phillips' parabolic career would now seem to be complete. Top-ranked at 14, she now seems a washout at 16. Yet, she seems to feel she will still be on the team.

"I have a definite feeling something will happen," she said, after a routine that included shaky events on floor and uneven bars. "Just a feeling, a miracle will come out of this."

She has some vague idea that competitions between now and the Olympics may be factored into the selection process, although that is not so. More realistic is the thought that the first six won't shape up by September. "I don't mean to say this rudely," she said, "but there is always injury."

This is the one thing on which Phillips and Peters agree. Peters, coach of the silver-medal-winning team in 1984, said: "Over the last 10 years, the No. 8 gymnast has performed more often than not."

But this particular No. 8, as anxious as she is to make the team, is not anxious to work with Peters, her coach of five months when she briefly left Karolyi this year.

"His workouts are not half as intense (as Karolyi's)," Phillips said. "I can promise you that his workouts are not what five of the top eight girls are used to. If we have to work under his program, it will hurt us all."

Peters, who molded Karolyi's girls, including Mary Lou Retton, into an Olympic team once before, said Phillips didn't "stay long enough to find out how we trained. We were in kind of an off-season mode, and she can't really speak about training."

Asked whether he would have trouble with a pack of girls who seemingly owed their allegiance elsewhere, Peters said no. "I think they are all nice kids, not hard-to-deal-with kids. I hope they will develop a strong team bond."

Karolyi has already resigned the head-of-delegation commission that would have gotten him to Seoul for the Olympic Games and is assuming the martyr status, the denied coach. Peters, however, expects that arrangements will be worked out and that Karolyi will attend.

"This is not a slumber party, an excursion," Karolyi said. "Nobody can ask me to come and stay like a dog under a bridge in Seoul. These are the Olympics. There is a village. You need credentials."

Karolyi's ambitions, in a sport that is economically as well as professionally competitive, have combined with his PR flair to stir many tempests in the past. And he seems only to be getting better with age.

It's likely the team will move forward, and with Karoyli's help. Although he said his obligations are fulfilled and that the team faces certain destruction without his experienced guidance--"They are gonna celebrate, celebrate and get this big, and it will be a big stunt to get them to move forward from here"--Karolyi admitted he would be on hand to help if necessary.

"If I hear (from his wife Marta, Peters' assistant coach) that there is trouble, that they are scared to do the big trick, I will come out," Karolyi said. He will not sleep under any bridges, he said.

If this story continues, it will obscure some individual stories of attraction. Phoebe Mills for one. She was a longtime subordinate in the Karolyi gym, eating Phillips' chalk dust. But she has now won both the championships and trials with consistent routines to eclipse everybody for the moment.

Then there is Garrison-Steves, finally making it in her second trials. She is the product of the NCAAs, an all-around champion from Oklahoma. Normally, elite gymnasts go to college as a kind of pasture; Garrison-Steves, the only married member on the team, reversed the process.

There were also performances that Peters believes can earn the U.S. team a medal. "We're equal in strength to the '84 team, relative to the other countries," he said. He agreed that this team is a more level one, without the charismatic star that emerged in 1984. But that was OK from his standpoint. He likes teamwork, even though early bickering would seem to indicate there would be little.

Yet, there were examples of a greater effort. One of the most memorable was Mills' finish on beam. Just as she was about to dismount off the beam, teammate Phillips realized that nobody (Coach Karolyi?) had removed the springboard, where Mills would soon be landing. Phillips rushed out, pulled it away and rolled her eyes. Mills soon landed safely on the mat and earned a 9.85. The team is already rounding into shape.

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