Spotlight Inspires Her to Shine : Gymnastics: Jenna Herrmann, 11, is San Diego's first elite gymnast in four years.


Promises of new designer jeans won't cut it. Trips to Disneyland and Sea World wouldn't begin to entice her. Gallons of her favorite ice cream--chocolate, incidentally--as bait? Not even a bite.

Aztec Gymnastics Coach Darla Franz had to look no further than "lights, camera, action," to motivate gymnast Jenna Herrmann.

"Can I borrow your photographer?" Franz asked, half joking during a recent practice in San Diego State's auxiliary gym. "You should have seen the day he was here. She was unbelievable. She hit every (trick), every time. She was doing all her difficulty and never missed, not once."

Franz can only hope the U.S. Classic, beginning today at Marina High School in Huntington Beach, attracts enough paparazzi to strike the proper chords in Herrmann, the county's budding gymnastics star.

Santee's Herrmann, 11, is San Diego's first elite gymnast since 1987--when Aztec Annie Dixon held the distinction--and the only other athlete in the county to reach the highest level of her sport.

"I wasn't really aware of it," Herrmann said. "It feels the same."

When a newspaper named another gymnast as the county's best, Herrmann's good-natured response was, "I think they meant in high school."

High school gymnastics is a far cry from the level at which Herrmann and teammate Wendy Ick--a soon-to-be elite--compete.

"When you're talking about the future of this sport, this is it," Franz said. "The best, most competitive girls in the sport are competing at this level. They're not in college and they're not in high school. They're here."

Like thousands of girls enrolled in gymnastics programs across the country, Herrmann's ambition is to make an Olympic gymnastics team. This meet is an important steppingstone because the Junior B (9- through 12-year olds) elite national team will be emerge from it.

"I'm nervous," Herrmann said. "But if I have a good warm-up, I usually have a good meet. If it's only so-so, then I just do OK."

That is hardly a rousing endorsement of Herrmann's talent, which Franz said is considerable.

"She has twice the talent as Annie did at this age," Franz said. "She's doing skills Annie only dreamed of doing."

Herrmann, at a tender age even in a sport where college-aged gymnasts are past their prime, already is doing tricks equal to the one internationally recognized gymnasts are performing.

Her "flick lay lay,"--a back handspring followed by two layout step outs--on the balance beam is the hardest series done at any level, according to Bruce Seid, one of Herrmann's three coaches. And Herrmann is the only known gymnast in the county that routinely includes a "Tkatchev" or reverse Hecht--a very tricky release move--in her uneven parallel bars routine.

"Her difficulty is very high," Franz said. "Most gymnasts competing at her level don't have her difficulty.

Herrmann's ability to perform death-defying maneuvers is a result of what Franz calls "having the numbers."

"What that is," Franz explained, "is how many times do you have to do something to do it correctly? You have girls that cheat. They're the ones that ultimately fail."

But Herrmann, according to Franz, is among the first to arrive and the last to leave practice.

"She's really dedicated," she said. "She doesn't mess around. She stays and gets it done."

It is nearing time for Herrmann's warm-ups to begin. She looks anxiously at the clock, then politely tells her visitor that she must join her group. On the floor exercise mat, she is back in comfortable territory, and giggling . . .

According to Seid, there is another side of Herrmann that surfaces after the first visit.

"She wants to be a stand-up comic," said Seid. "She's very entertaining. She's fun to travel with because she's funny, always joking and making comments."

Said Franz: "She can get out of hand like any kid. She can match you in energy and silliness any time she has to."

Although Herrmann has been in the sport for four years, she has been a member of Aztec Gymnastics only a year and her presence has stiffened in-house competition.

"She's really outgoing, very aggressive," Seid said. "She doesn't want to get one-upped by anyone."

That anyone is usually Ick, who is Herrmann's closest team rival in age and ability.

"Jenna has given Wendy someone to compete with," Franz said. "They push each other to another level."

Under Franz, her floor and beam coach, Seid, her bars coach, and Bret Carter, her tumbling and vaulting coach, Herrmann had improved most dramatically in her presentation and dance.

"She had to learn to be more dynamic," Franz said. "She's come a long way."

Herrmann's biggest asset is her natural strength. Her most noticeable deficiency is her lack of flexibility.

"She's very powerful," Franz said. "She has exceptional muscle development for someone her age. She's lacking a little in flexibility, but that can be developed."

If not for flying from apparatus to apparatus, Herrmann said the odds are good that she would be doing . . . nothing. "Basically, I'd probably be a couch potato," she said, before reconsidering a try at swimming or diving.

Or basking in the limelight. Franz said at a recent meet, representatives from Diet Pepsi approached Franz about using Herrmann for a national TV commercial.

"She fits the mold," Franz said. "Cute, blonde, petite, All-American. But we didn't want to make a big deal of it if it fell through."

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