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Vaulting Into National Finals : Gymnastics: Area competitors will combat injuries and pressure in championships in North Carolina.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

At the ripe age of 12, Erin Winter felt burned out. She had spun, tumbled and twirled with hopes of setting world records, but she could not cope with the spills and frustrations experienced by beginner gymnasts.

Several early disappointments caused Winter to toss out the spandex, stop bathing her hands in chalk and give up afternoons of crashing into foam blocks.

She simply tired of the sport.

After two years away from competition, she returned to gymnastics, hoping to perform just for fun.

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This week, Winter, 16, should be head over heels in her glee.

She has qualified for the 1990 United States Assn. of Independent Gymnastic Clubs Championships, which begin today in Greensboro, N. C.

The Van Nuys-based Gymnastics Olympica USA team to which Winter belongs also includes Charisse Phillips, 15, of Lake View Terrace; Angie Leonard, 12, of Sepulveda; Hana Balfour, 16, of Granada Hills; and Miranda Whittle, 12, of Santa Monica. Stephanie Lau, 11, of Camarillo will compete for the Pacific Coast Gymnastics Club.

In all, 320 gymnasts will take part in the individual competition.

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The local gymnasts qualified for the championships after a regional meet that included competitors from Southern California, Northern California, Utah, Arizona and Nevada.

Winter isn’t the only gymnast who has flipped around a sputtering career.

Victories over injuries, frustration and pressure are commonplace among top young gymnasts, according to Gymnastics Olympica USA Coach Fritz Reiter. Besides helping novice gymnasts cope with the perils of the sport, Gymnastics Olympica has sent competitors to national competition since 1975. This group may not be as strong as previous teams, but it can compete with the rest of the nation’s finest.

“I think this year, of the group we are taking, there are two that have chances (to place), perhaps not in the all-around competition, but in the individual events--in particular, the vaulting and the uneven bar,” Reiter said.

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Phillips is expected to soar highest in those events. She is described as a “fireball” by Reiter, but she is hampered by a heel injury and could not compete in 1989 because of a shoulder injury.

She traveled to the USAIGC team championships in 1988. Her second appearance in a national competition will provide another chance to show off her style.

"(My routine) is different than what you see,” Phillips said. “On TV, they are graceful, and I like to get up there and be sharp. I move really fast, particularly in the dancing.

“I like to show all my moves. I like being different and to show my own stuff. I don’t like being the same or copying anybody.”

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Her demanding routine may be the cause of her injuries, but it also carries with it success.

Phillips finished second in the vault in the regional meet. The vault has been her best routine. Phillips won state vaulting titles in 1986 and 1987. She also won a state floor-exercise title in 1987.

While Phillips consistently contends in several events, Balfour’s scores are sporadic.

After winning the USAIGC regional floor-exercise title in 1987, Balfour struggled in 1989, placing eighth in the all-around competition.

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However, she has done well enough to make her dream of a college scholarship more plausible.

Even with an audience filled with college coaches, Balfour feels no added pressure for the USAIGC tournament.

“You are so concentrated on the meet and your specific routines that I never even think about those things. I don’t think about what is going on around me,” she said.

Balfour, Phillips and Winter will compete in the senior classification. Leonard, Whittle and Lau will compete in the junior classification.

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Leonard, who has won more titles than any current Gymnastics Olympica gymnast, has traveled cross-country for tournaments. It will be Whittle’s first trip.

They should be feeling some pressure, but their coach sees something quite different from the team.

“They are excited,” Reiter said. “For some of them, this is their first national competition, and there is a difference. Seeing the huge sports arena, the facilities and all the people, that is intimidating.

“We try to tell them, ‘A beam is a beam, whether it’s in our gym, a school, a college or an arena.’

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“The aura, the environment, the gravity--it’s all mental.”

Lau’s Pacific Coast Gymnastic Club does not have the tradition of Gymnastics Olympica. Coach Suzanne Gudmundson will be coaching a gymnast in national competition for the first time, but she will have to be as practiced as Reiter in psychology.

“Stephanie always says, ‘I don’t like the competition,’ ” Gudmundson said. “It makes her so nervous. But she likes to win, so she is going to have to learn how to deal with it better.”

As apprehensive as she may be, Lau has begun to perform impressively.

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While competing in the other major tournament, the USGF Championships, she finished third in the all-around competition.

Even competing as a junior, Lau still tied for the highest score in both the junior and the senior competitions on the uneven bars.

Lau feels the tension “the night before, the day before and right before” the competition. Yet her uneasiness may have actually helped.

“I try to use (the nervousness) in a positive way,” Lau said. “It gives me more energy during the meet.”

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Despite being five years older than Lau, Winter is also a newcomer to national competition. The meet will provide the opportunity to display her rediscovered dedication.

“This proves that I never really lost my talent in gymnastics,” Winter said. “If I can do it after quitting for two years, there is still something left.”


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