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STAR SEARCH : After Learning at the Hand of Bela Karolyi, Henry Ramirez Pledges to Go to Mat to ProduceOlympians at Agoura Hills Gymnastics Club

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Henry Ramirez, the new girls’ coach and athletic director at Monarchs National Gymnastic Training Center in Agoura Hills, is not afraid to go out on a limb--after all, balance is his business--by predicting that his gymnasts will be competing for Olympic berths and his club will be on a par with the major clubs in the country.

“We have high expectations,” he said after just five weeks on the job at Monarchs, a parent-owned nonprofit club that has never even sent gymnasts beyond regional and state competitions.

Ramirez, 31, no doubt acquired his confidence through his association with Bela Karolyi, the man regarded as the world’s premier women’s gymnastics coach. Ramirez was an elite-team coach for eight years at Karolyi’s Houston gym, which currently is training the top women contenders for the 1992 U.S. Olympic team.

Hiring Ramirez--along with dance Coach Ginny Hintze, who also worked for Karolyi--certainly changes the direction of the club, giving it big-time goals and making some parents “maybe a little nervous,” one of them said.

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The nine-member board of directors was forced to find a new coach when Mike Bisk died last December after suffering a stroke. Bisk, 41, had been running Monarchs since 1977, the year the club moved into its 10,000-square-foot quarters in an industrial park.

The idea to go after Ramirez came from Susie Smith, whose 7-year-old daughter, Brittany, trains at Monarchs. “I suggested we try to get a really high-level coach,” Smith said. Smith had lived in Houston for a year, sending Brittany to Karolyi’s gym and getting to know both Ramirez and Hintze.

“The girls do anything for Bela and they feel the same way with Henry,” said Smith, who lives in Camarillo. As for Hintze, a former dancer with the Joffrey Ballet, Smith said, “Kids here lack dance, and Ginny has incredible technique.”

Ramirez, who describes himself as “a protege of Bela’s,” uses Karolyi’s coaching and training methods. Karolyi, former coach of the Romanian national team and mentor of Olympic legend Nadia Comaneci, brought an Eastern European technique--and work ethic--to U. S. gymnastics.

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“Bela’s kids work out eight hours a day--four before school and four after,” Ramirez said. Already, Hintze said, the gymnasts at Monarchs “are working the hardest ever in their lives.”

A gymnast in high school, Ramirez was attending Sam Houston State in 1981, majoring in business administration, when he took a class at Karolyi’s gym. “I didn’t know who he was,” Ramirez said. Seeing an opportunity, he got a job at the gym and became close to Karolyi, acting as his translator. Did Ramirez know Romanian?

“I know Spanish,” he said, “and the two languages are similar--they’re both from Latin.”

While working for Karolyi, Ramirez helped train current senior national champion Kim Zmeskal and junior national champion Hilary Grivich.

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Before joining Karolyi’s staff, Hintze, 32, was private dance coach for ’88 Olympic bronze medalist Phoebe Mills. Hintze’s decision to leave Karolyi was made easier when her husband took a job in Santa Barbara--the Hintzes compromised by moving to Camarillo--and when Ramirez agreed to coach at Monarchs.

“Ginny and I talked on the phone, and it was one of those ‘I’ll go if you go’ things,” Ramirez said.

Hintze, who had a baby girl just two months before starting work at Monarchs, and Ramirez feel that the club has talented gymnasts “but needs a good elite program,” Hintze said. Currently, the gym has no elite-level gymnasts and only one level-10 gymnast, Perrin Pellegrin, 14, of Camarillo.

“It takes years to mold a gymnast,” Ramirez said. “We don’t have any hopefuls for the ’92 Olympics, but in ’96, we definitely will.”

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There is evidence that the new coaches already are having an impact with Monarchs’ competitive team. “All the girls are scoring nines now,” Smith said.

Perri Fisher, whose daughter Arden, 9, takes lessons from Ramirez, has seen improvement in the last month. “It’s almost as though he’s taking them backwards, cleaning things up before going forward,” she said. “We’re not doing all the fancy things. Henry’s concentrating on form, and he has so much new information.”

Ramirez expects U.S. gymnasts to be more successful in world competition now that communism is dead or dying in the Eastern Bloc. Gymnasts from those nations traditionally dominated the sport thanks to an aggressive training and coaching system.

But now, instead of free state-run training facilities in those countries, parents of gymnasts will have to pay for lessons.

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And Monarchs, Ramirez and Hintze believe, will help construct the new world order in gymnastics.

“We have a great group of little ones at the gym,” she said. “They’re definitely going to be winning. No doubt about it.”


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