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Circumventing the System : Reiter Adopts Worldly View to Overcome General Apathy in Training Young Gymnasts

<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

About 10 years ago, gymnastics Coach Fritz Reiter mailed a request to every grade-school principal in the San Fernando Valley, asking them to help him find potential gymnasts by testing their girl students in the 20-meter dash and long jump.

That is what the Soviets, Romanians and East Germans do on a nationwide level, Reiter explained. And that is largely why those countries consistently produce powerhouse teams and Olympic gold medals.

But the principals were underwhelmed by Reiter’s proposal. Maybe they reasoned that Reiter, athletic director at Gymnastics USA Olympica in Van Nuys, was just trying to drum up business. Or maybe they had other things to worry about besides whether the United States turns out world-class vaulters or balance beam prodigies.

“I got zero response,” he said. “That really angered me.”

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Unlike such Olympic sports as track and field, basketball and swimming, gymnastics has not enjoyed grass-roots support, Reiter says. “There’s too much competition from other sports,” he said. And this engenders public apathy, which creates a gymnastic gap with communist countries and causes disappointing Olympic performances.

“For a coach in this country, there are nothing but barriers in front of you,” Reiter said.

But that is the American way when it comes to the so-called minor sports.

“We have more well-equipped gyms here than the Russians, but they have the system,” said Reiter. Communist countries cast “a huge net to catch the best kids, physiologically and mentally, for certain sports.”

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Historically, American girls do better at gymnastics than boys, Reiter says, perhaps because boys perceive gymnastics as less than macho. “That’s totally wrong,” he said. “It takes quite a boy to do gymnastics. I’d say that 99% of football players wouldn’t have the gumption for gymnastics. It’s a lot easier to play ball.”

Reiter also believes that the United States fails to use its technological resources, such as computers, to help American coaches communicate with one another and analyze performances, “and that’s why we go down the drain in this country,” he said.

Another advantage the communist countries have over the United States is coaching. In the United States, elite gymnasts are instructed by qualified coaches, but “young kids get the least-qualified coaches,” Reiter said. “By the time they’re discovered, they already have bad habits. Russian children get trained coaches on every level.”

Reiter, 48, a short, barrel-chested man with red hair, mutton-chops and mustache, speaks with an Austrian accent, not as severe as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s but noticeable nevertheless. He has been in this country for 20 years. Aside from listing him as an Austrian national gymnastics champion, his resume says he spent four years at the University of Vienna studying architecture and art and also undertook four years of studies in “social dance and Austrian folk dance.”

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After meeting an American in Vienna and falling in love, Reiter was invited to the girl’s Los Angeles home in 1968. He decided to stay, although he was unable to find work as an architect because he only knew the metric system. In the late ‘60s, he was working out at the Mid-Valley YMCA when the man who taught the tumbling program quit.

“They asked me to volunteer,” Reiter said. “There were 80 kids in the program, so I told them I’d do it if they’d give me a little money.”

So Reiter became a coach--"It’s what I always wanted to do"--but his father, a Viennese butcher, disapproved. “He didn’t see sports as a career,” Reiter said. His girlfriend also objected. “She was a social worker and didn’t see what sports had to offer in the face of poverty.” They broke up. “We didn’t have anything in common,” he said.

Reiter’s tumbling program soon outgrew the Y. In 1974, he became involved with Gordon Maddux, the ABC-TV commentator who had put the words to Olga Korbut’s dazzling performance at the ’72 Olympics, and they opened a small gymnastics club in Van Nuys. Today, Olympica USA has 16 instructors who teach upward of 400 youngsters--mostly girls--in a modern, 11,000-square-foot facility.

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“Gymnastic equipment has improved tremendously over the years,” Reiter said. “And so have the athletes. I met Cathy Rigby in 1968, when she was 14. I was amazed that she could do Olympic compulsories at that age. In my country, she was a child. But today, girls 10 years old are doing those things.”

Reiter’s club, a nonprofit organization, has developed numerous international competitors and American champions, including Denise Cheshire, the U.S. Gymnastics Federation national champion in 1976, and Sharon Shapiro, NCAA all-around champion at in 1981. “We’ve had reasonable success,” said Reiter, who has coached U.S. international teams.

Reiter spends most his time at the gym. In a small area he calls “the dungeon,” Reiter has been arriving early recently, reclining on a couch in a sleeping bag and watching the Olympics on TV. He doesn’t have much of a social life--he’s still single--but that doesn’t bother him.

“I got married,” he said, “to a sport.”

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