Delayed Reaction Puts U.S. on World Mat : Gymnastics: Retton's '84 performance produces a large pool of girls with international talent.


Less than two months after the 1984 Olympic Games, enrollment at gymnastics schools doubled nationwide. Mary Lou Retton captured not only the gold medal as the best all-around gymnast, but also the pocketbooks of parents whose little girls led them to a local club, where they signed up for the chance to dream.

Seven years later, those girls--still little, just older--make up the largest pool of young, talented gymnasts the United States has ever had. There is no longer one superstar, there are two, with several on the cusp and others rising.

For many of these gymnasts, the next step to stardom could come this weekend in the U.S. Classic at Marina High in Huntington Beach, where more than 140 gymnasts will attempt to qualify for the junior or senior national team competition to be held next month at Cincinnati. Junior competition begins today, followed by the seniors Saturday and Sunday.

"I always have said that we would see the results of 1984 in about seven years, and that's what we are seeing now," said Mike Jacki, executive director of the U.S. Gymnastics Federation. "And it's just beginning. It's just starting.

"We will do real well this year and next year at the Olympics, but by 1996 (and the Games) in Atlanta, we could repeat what happened in 1984 with the Soviets and all the rest of the world there."

There is only one gymnast--Chelle Stack--still competing from the 1988 Olympic team, which finished fourth at Seoul. Phoebe Mills and Brandy Johnson have since retired. Mills is now diving.

But the success of '84, while having little effect on '88, expanded the future women's gymnastics market. Retton scored 10s on the floor exercise and the vault to win the gold medal by .10 of a point over Romanian star Ecaterina Szabo. The U.S. women finished second to the Romanians, the best American finish ever. The U.S. men won the gold medal.

And even though the Soviet boycott clouded the importance of the results, nothing could dim the dazzling smile of Retton, which made its way directly to the Wheaties cereal box.

Until 1984, Betty Okino, then 8, dreamed of becoming a professional dancer. But after watching the Olympics, she changed course and is now a gymnastics superstar. Okino and 15-year-old Kim Zmeskal, Okino's teammate at Bela Karolyi's gym in Houston, head the list of Americans who have been consistent winners recently in both national and tough international competitions. Zmeskal outscored the Soviet Union's Natalia Kalinina in the 1990 American Cup, the meet that served as Zmeskal's coming-out party.

Neither Okino nor Zmeskal is expected to compete this weekend. Both have already qualified for the national meet.

A short step down the ladder from Zmeskal and Okino is another group of outstanding gymnasts.

Shannon Miller of Oklahoma, barely 14, beat notable gymnasts from Romania and China to become the first American to win the Catania Cup in Italy. She finished third behind Okino and Zmeskal in last February's American Cup, and is considered by many to be the No. 3 American gymnast.

Sandy Woolsey, a veteran at 18, and Elisabeth Crandall, 16, teammates on the Tempe (Ariz.) Desert Devils, fared well against Soviet gymnasts in the Moscow News meet. Woolsey finished fourth in the all-around and won the silver medal on the beam; Crandall finished seventh overall. Crandall placed fifth in the Chunichi Cup and took the bronze medal on bars in the Tokyo Cup.

And the list of talented gymnasts continues.

There are Jennifer Mercier and Kim Kelly of the Parkettes club in Allentown, Pa.; also Hillary Grivich, the 1991 junior champion; Erica Stokes, and Kerri Strug, all trained by Karolyi. Dominique Dawes, 14, of Silver Spring, Md., finished fifth in this year's American Cup. The floor exercise is her specialty--she does four tumbling passes in the course of her routine. Most gymnasts do three.

Dawes and Shelly Engel, also 14, of Huntington Beach, will try for the first time this weekend to qualify as senior gymnasts.

Engel, who trains with Don Peters at SCATS, already does a trick on the balance beam that is not performed by any other gymnast in the world--a cartwheel into a side flip. And this is only her fifth competition.

The federation's Jacki said there are other factors besides the 1984 U.S. success that have contributed to the nation's depth of talent. The USGF has implemented incentive programs and changes in its bylaws that have helped the athletes' development, as well as curb dissension and political turmoil among some of its members.

There should be no controversy over the selection of the next Olympic coach, as there was before the 1988 Games. All coaches whose gymnasts make the 1992 Olympic team will be credentialed and allowed to train their gymnasts up until the events take place.

The coaches will also decide which two of them will be on the floor to coach the team competition. Under the international federation rules, only two coaches are allowed, and one must be a woman.

For the individual Olympic competition, the coaches will rotate. Jacki said this coaching system was finally used in the 1988 Games.

"We have moved away from an environment that restricted coaches' involvement," Jacki said. "This way, it guarantees that a coach will also be rewarded for hard work. As the athlete rises in the program, the coach's involvement rises also."

In 1989, the federation also started making direct cash payments to gymnasts. Called "Team 92," this program will pay $1 million over four years to the top-ranked eight male and female gymnasts.

For winning the U.S. national competition in 1990, Zmeskal received $19,000 directly from the USGF and an additional $2,500 from the U.S. Olympic Committee, which pays that amount to each of the top eight male and female gymnasts every year.

The federation also awards prize money at selected competitions. For winning this year's American Cup meet, Okino received $7,000.

"We used to pay for the air travel of foreign judges," Jacki said. "That used to cost about $40,000. So instead, we told them they have to pay their own way, and we used the $40,000 to pay the athletes."

Gymnasts are also allowed to contract for commercial endorsements, providing there is no conflict with USGF contracts.

Another notable change was the elimination of a committee charged with deciding how gymnasts would be chosen for specific competitions.

"As far as I'm concerned, we didn't make a decision based on performance in three years," Jacki said. "And no matter what, I think some people thought there were other ways to get on the team other than performance. Well, now there is no question. You either finish in the top six and make the team, or you don't."

That's the system the judges will use in the U.S. Classic. The top 18 scoring juniors and seniors will advance to the U.S. National Championships next month. From there, the top 20 will be invited to the World Championship trials Aug. 24-25. The top six finishers in the trials will represent the United States in the World Championships at Indianapolis Sept. 6-15.

THE U.S. WOMEN'S GYMNASTICS CLASSIC Today through Sunday at Huntington Beach Marina High School


Today -- junior compulsories at 3 p.m.

Friday -- junior optionals at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m.

Saturday -- senior compulsories at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m.

Sunday--senior optionals at 1 p.m. and 6 p.m.

In the senior competition, involving many of the best female gymnasts in the country, the all-around champion will be determined by the best combined score (60% from compulsories, 40% from optionals) in the four disciplines. A look at each of the four events.

VAULT: Gymnasts make a running approach toward the horse, which is 4-feet high. They start the vault by hitting a vaulting board and getting their feet high over their heads quickly, incorporating movements of various difficulty. Gymnasts hit the horse with both hands to initiate the second half of the vault, trying to achieve as much height as possible and to land without taking a step.

BALANCE BEAM: Perhaps the most nerve-racking event, routines are performed on a 4-inch-wide beam, 16 feet long and 4 feet off the ground. Requirements include one acrobatic series, which includes tumbling with flight, a turn on one leg of at least 360 degrees, a jump and acrobatic elements in at least two directions, and dance steps.

UNEVEN PARALLEL BARS: The most spectacular event. The lower bar is 5-feet high, the upper is at 8 feet. Important features: Upward or circular swings, movement from swings to handstands, turns around the longitudinal axis of the body (pirouettes), turns around the short axis (saltos). No more than four consecutive elements may be performed on the same bar.

FLOOR EXERCISE: The floor routine, on a 40-foot by 40-foot mat, is choreographed to music and lasts between 70 and 90 seconds. Important features include: acrobatic elements, gymnastic elements such as turns, leaps, runs, balance elements and dance steps.

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