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Mary Lou-Wannabes Chase Elusive Fame on Mat

TIMES STAFF WRITER

This is what the spectators don’t see. Gymnast Jo McCoy and her choreographer have spent the better part of 30 minutes rewinding her floor exercise music and breaking down her routine into the most intricate parts.

She has left her difficult tumbling out and moves across the mat performing dance elements only. The angle of her hand and her head must be exact. The position of her leg must be perfect. The timing must be flawless. A flexed foot or an awkward transition can take precious tenths off her score.

Only when she is satisfied with her effort does a smile cut through the intense concentration on her face. Hoping to keep the smiles coming, McCoy trains six hours a day.

McCoy, 14, is one of two elites--the highest level a gymnast can reach--competing for Southern California Elite Gymnastics Academy, one of the newest and biggest gymnastics facilities in the state. McCoy is SCEGA’s top hope to make the U.S. national team and, as every serious gymnast dreams, to make the Olympic team, as early as 1992.

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She also is part of a growing gymnastics presence in North County, which has an abundance of training schools for Mary Lou-wannabes.

SCEGA co-owners Kathy Strate and Marci Hauser have high expectations for McCoy and teammates Brandi Comella, Carly Makie and Marilyn Ekdahl, all who are training for the Olympics.

“There are only seven girls who make the Olympic team,” Strate said, “so that’s an awfully high goal. But any of them could make the national team,” which has a roster of 20.

After less than six months of planning, the academy opened last July in a 10,000-square-foot warehouse in the industrial part of Temecula. It has its own dance room and a pit filled with spongy mats for difficult tricks.

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“We’re young, but people already know who we are,” Strate said. “We want to cater to the upper level. We want them competing nationally and internationally. Our goal is to have kids training for the Olympics.”

This month, four of the club’s gymnasts qualified for nationals at three levels, the best showing at the national level by a club in the state. Competing against veteran clubs in the state championships in March, SCEGA took second to Anaheim’s KIPS.

Escondido’s McCoy recently competed at elite nationals, her first elite meet, in Saginaw, Mich. She finished 32nd out of 70 girls.

“I want to be in the World Championships in ’91 and the Olympics in ’92,” McCoy said. “If I don’t get that, I’d go for a college scholarship.”

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Temecula’s Brandi Comella, 15, surprised her coaches and herself by placing fifth on the beam and ninth on floor at Level 10 (one level lower than elite) senior nationals in Indianapolis recently. Comella will compete as an elite next year, said Strate.

Carly Makie of San Marcos and Marilyn Ekdahl of Escondido, both 12, qualified for Level 10 junior nationals recently in Colorado Springs. Although Ekdahl scored high in the vault, it was Makie’s first meet at Level 10. Neither gymnast placed.

The opening of SCEGA was, said Strate, “A dream of ours for a long time.”

But, for the gym they left behind, it was a nightmare.

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Strate, Hauser and Dave Dale all coached at California Gold Gymnastics in Escondido for six years. When they left to open their new gym, about 25 of California Gold’s top gymnasts defected with them. The girls represent the bulk of SCEGA’s competitive teams.

“It really hurt an awful lot,” said Diane Weston, co-owner of California Gold with her husband Bernie, the head coach.

“Some girls moved, but a few are driving all the way up there,” she said. “Some of them had been with us for seven years. It was a big hurt, both emotionally and financially.”

All of SCEGA’s gymnasts who went to the nationals had last year helped California Gold win the Class I state championships.

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SCEGA’s success was inevitable, Weston said, given the gymnasts’ winning history.

“They did it under us last year,” Weston said. “Most of those girls were with us for four to seven years. It was an unusual group. That’s a hard level for most girls to get to.”

Some of the gymnasts said they made the move because SCEGA has higher standards. “The goals are a lot higher here. They want to take us further,” McCoy said.

But Weston said California Gold’s goals are similar.

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“There’s really no difference,” Weston said. “My husband trained Kathy and Marci. They learned all that from my husband.”

KIPS Coach Dennis Mailly said SCEGA’s true test will come in a few years, after its core girls have moved on.

“When this crop is gone, if it has a good feeder program, they’ll continue to stay on top,” he said. “But they have to develop the younger kids. It’s a big roller coaster ride if there’s no one to replace those kids.”

Still, Mailly said, he was impressed by SCEGA at the KIPS Invitational earlier this year.

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“They did a good job against us,” he said. “Their coaches prepared them well.”

Part of the academy’s feeder program is the junior team, which consists of 10 handpicked girls between the ages of 5-8 with unusually high skill levels, said Strate.

The rest of SCEGA is broken into two programs. One, the academy, is designed for the recreational gymnast and had an enrollment of 325 girls and boys. The competitive side, with 65 gymnasts, is for girls who wish to pursue the sport to the limit.

While many gyms churn out gymnasts who perform dazzling tricks and high-risk routines, SCEGA emphasizes technique and execution.

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“We really push for high quality,” Strate said. “We’re trying to pursue perfect technique and skills. The only way to catch the Russians is to do it perfectly, because they’re not going to make mistakes.”

Still, in a sport where coaches often nit-pick, SCEGA uses a soft touch.

“You won’t hear shouting here,” Strate said. “We use positive reinforcement and dedication.”


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