Charles Lakes believed he could take a year off from gymnastics, a sort of extended vacation, and show no ill effects. In 1988, Lakes had completed an exhausting year by placing 19th in the all-around competition in the Seoul Olympics, the highest finish of any U. S. gymnast in those Games.
What could be wrong with a little R & R?
In his first competition since the Olympics, Lakes found out. In the USA Championships in Denver the first weekend in June, he placed 31st in the all-around competition and missed qualifying for the Goodwill Games. It was a rather long tumble and a lousy way to return to work.
Much of the gymnastics community blamed Lakes’ downfall on his layoff. Lakes, however, says that the scores are reflective of a wave of negativism among powerful figures in American gymnastics who were upset about his sabbatical.
“We depended upon the judges being more lenient,” said Lakes, who lives in Newhall. “Having become an Olympian and proved myself to be one of the top gymnasts in the four years before that, we figured we would get (leniency). That didn’t quite occur.”
Lakes, 25, spends as much time bucking his critics as he spends practicing his pommel horse routine. This time, judges in the USA Championships drew his wrath.
“A lot of people were upset about the year off, as if I was turning my back on the American program when I could have been of some help,” he said. “That didn’t sit well, which I thought was a bit strange. I figured after 13 years in the sport, I was certainly within my rights to take a year off.”
The judges took a dim view of his abbreviated six weeks of training for the meet, Lakes claims, and their evaluation of his routine was influenced by it.
“I think people had this idea that I just sat around California that last year and half, and then decided to train six or seven weeks ago,” he said. “That wasn’t the case.”
At one point, though, Lakes considered giving up the sport. After his respectable Olympic showing, Lakes contemplated retiring to pursue the life of an artist. He long has held interests in writing, singing and painting.
Financial difficulties also took Lakes’ attention away from the gym. Among efforts to pay his bills, he toured the country lecturing for the Church of Scientology and also tried to sell a comic strip titled “Life in L.A.”
Since returning to competition, Lakes has relied on funds from his parents and a sponsor, Scientology. He continues to struggle to make ends meet.
“To handle the responsibility of adulthood while competing with youngsters is difficult,” said Dan Connelly, Lakes’ coach. “When you are in school, you don’t have to deal with car payments, you worry about going to the gym and doing your homework. Charlie has had to adjust to that. He saw the opportunity to make money from his fame and he did it. If the Gymnastics Association said, ‘Here’s $10,000, go train,’ like they do in track and field, Charlie would have been in the gym every day.”
Lakes found a compromise, leaving the grind of twisting and twirling for one year to pursue his artistic interests. Other gymnasts, meanwhile, filled Lakes’ stirrups.
“While he was gone, a lot of young guys started working hard and passed him by,” said Chainey Umphrey, a current star at UCLA. “He is not in shape. When he left, he was on the cutting edge of gymnastics. He was in shape, explosive, on top of the game. Now he is slower. He is definitely not on the cutting edge, he’s not the Charles Lakes who left.
“You can see he is no longer number one; he is going to have to work hard to get it back.”
Although not as critical as Umphrey, Connelly gave no credence to Lakes’ rationale for his low scores in Denver.
“The politics, if they are on your side, generally get you one- to two-tenths better on your score,” Connelly said. “Charlie right now is hovering right around a 9.2 to 9.4, without the political edge. Whereas before, he got 9.8s and 9.9s on a regular basis, with that little edge. The difference between the 9.2-9.4 range and the 9.5-9.7 range is pretty distinct. All the politics would do right now is bring him up from the 9.2 to 9.4 level, whereas before, he was pushing 10s.”
His earliest critics, such as well-known U. S. gymnasts Kurt Thomas and Tim Daggett, publicly questioned the shortness of his workouts. Those same questions are being raised by the new generation of gymnasts who are currently defeating Lakes.
“He does not have a program for keeping in shape, he is never maximizing his potential,” Umphrey said. “He is not in the gym every day and I think that hurts him. He needs to put the time in.”
The same controversy raged during Lakes’ earliest years of competition. Even when Lakes performed well, his training methods raised eyebrows.
“Charlie has never been an average person, you have to understand you don’t treat him as such,” said Les Sasvary, Lakes’ high school coach at Monroe. “He has different work habits, and there is nothing wrong with that. I think this is a misconception about Charlie. He puts his time in, but he favors the shorter workouts.”
Lakes insists he is merely misunderstood.
“I wasn’t the orthodox gymnast in terms of my approach to the sport and my emphasis,” he said. “People interpreted this as a lack of discipline or an unwillingness to work hard. That wasn’t the case. I have never done anything to try and change this. I hoped that my production would be good enough, but apparently it wasn’t.”
Lakes denies his work ethic is lacking and instead casts himself as a rebel in American gymnastics. Instead of playing politics, Lakes prefers pitting himself in battles against the Soviets, the Germans and the Chinese. His training methods might not win the support of American gymnasts, but Lakes wants to win gold medals.
“Everybody believes we are going to have to train like the Soviets,” Lakes said. “We need to emphasize an American style of gymnastics, which is what Kurt Thomas did and became our first world champion. He was doing a type of gymnastics that wasn’t like the Soviets. His emphasis was on charisma in the routines, innovation and dynamism. That is America.
“If we were to approach the sport as an art form, rather than as a series of mechanical, technical maneuvers like the Soviets, we would be emphasizing a style that is very American.”
But Lakes’ detractors believe he let the U.S. program down by taking a year away from the mats. Ironically, Lakes’ contributions to the sport away from the gym draw high scores, particularly in the black community. Umphrey, also a black gymnast, cites Lakes’ positive impact on prospective black gymnasts. Lakes’ influence compares favorably to that of Ron Galimore, who in 1980 became the first black to make the United States Olympic men’s gymnastics squad.
“Galimore was the first black man I saw doing gymnastics and I thought, ‘Maybe I can do that,’ Umphrey said. “I can remember watching Charles Lakes also, and again I thought, ‘Maybe I can do that.’ He is a true role model for black kids. They want to know that somebody is out there and doing well. I think that’s what Charles Lakes, Ron Galimore and myself have done.”
While vaulting quickly into explanations for the negative perceptions of others, Lakes tiptoes around attributing the sentiment to racism. He is a black athlete in a sport dominated, in the United States, by white competitors, but Lakes thinks about that distinction only in a positive way.
“I embrace the role of being a role model for young blacks and minorities. It seems like I’ve been accepted in the sport, even though it is predominantly white,” Lakes said. “But a lot of people also question how much racism and prejudice might be involved. I have tended to not focus on that, because I like to think if I’m good enough I’m going to be judged on my performance.”
Although he believes that Lakes is out of shape, Umphrey still worries about competing against him. He acknowledges Lakes’ ability to regain his form.
“I have faith in him. If Charles works hard, I know he can do it,” he said.
Lakes will spend the year training, albeit at his own pace. He will enter competition when able. His goal is to ready himself in time for the world championships in Indianapolis next summer and the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, Spain.
During Lakes’ training, Lakes and Connelly will design moves that Lakes says will “revolutionize the sport” as well as, it is hoped, reverse the negative publicity he has received.
Regaining respect, it seems, is as important to Lakes as recapturing his skills.