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PAN AMERICAN GAMES : WOMEN’S GYMNASTICS : Stephanie Woods Wins All-Around Title

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The gymnastics career of Stephanie Woods was set on a new path Friday night. Starting today, Woods, 16, will be known as women’s individual all-around champion at the Pan American Games.

“Is this a breakthrough performance? Yes, absolutely,” said Woods’ coach, Cheryl Jarrett. “She was absolutely flawless tonight. This is the best she’s been in big competition.”

Woods, of Austin, Tex., pulled out the victory in her last event, which is also her best--the vault. She was tied for first with teammate Chelle Stack after three events but Woods’ vault--a Yurchenko, which combines a round off and 1 1/2 twist--brought her the best score in the vault for the night, a 9.775.

Stack, of Birmingham, Ala., finished second by the narrowest margin: 38.600 for Woods and 38.525 for Stack. Romina Plataroti of Argentina was third. Kristen McDermott of Brooklyn, N.Y., tied for eighth.

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Woods’ performance Friday night under difficult conditions signals the arrival of another resourceful gymnast to the American fold. Woods had qualified for the Pan American team by placing 15th at the national meet but missed qualifying for the World Championship trials, held later this month in Indianapolis, by only one place. While the United States’ top female gymnasts passed on the Pan American Games to train for the trials, Woods came to Cuba.

She has done nothing but surprise and impress while here. Stack, a veteran of the sport at 18, was considered the more logical favorite Friday night and came into the all-around competition as the highest qualifier.

But Woods utilized the trait that frustrates her coaches--her apparent nonchalance--to remain calm even while the gold medal was yo-yoing between her and Stack.

“She sometimes gives the impression out there that she doesn’t care,” Jarrett said. “She’s one of those kids where you just have to know she’s giving 100%. You can’t see it.”

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Such a demeanor is problematic for a gymnast, who must not only concentrate on performing difficult maneuvers but also impressing judges who prefer to see a little enthusiasm.

It appeared that the judges took a while to appreciate Woods, who is not of the prototype body size--a fireplug with springs. She has long arms and legs, making her appear taller than her 5 foot 2 inches.

“She looks tall while being short,” is the way Jarrett put it.

Woods was seventh after the first rotation, getting a 9.55 on bars. Woods moved to third after getting a 9.775 on beam and was tied with Stack after receiving a 9.6 on floor exercise.

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Woods said she was concentrating on her own performance that she didn’t know she had won the gold medal until Jarrett frantically signaled.

Woods hardly had a chance to hear Jarrett over the din of the crowd. As at many sports here, the capacity crowd of 6,000 for gymnastics has been enthusiastic.

The U.S. coaches have prepared their teams consisting of teen-agers, for almost anything.

Gwen Spidle of Gallatin, Mo., said she trained in a gym without air-conditioning to accustom herself to the Cuban heat. Good thing. The atmosphere inside Alejandro Urgelles Stadium could best be described as a sauna. The open-air arena had several fans circulating the heavy, humid air, but they did little to relieve the heat. Some estimates had the temperature inside the arena at 95 degrees.

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As each gymnast finished her routine, coaches greeted her with a hug and a bottle of water. To get the team ready for the home crowd, U.S. coaches were “pretty tough on us in practice,” said one gymnast.

“We were told there might be trouble with the crowd, that they might throw eggs,” Anne Woynerowski of Mountain Lakes, N.J., said.

Cubans have thrown nothing but their support behind Cuban gymnasts. Their enthusiasm has at times moved out of the realm of cheering and into jeering. In a sport such as gymnastics--with its genteel crowds and polite applause--the roaring noise and open excitement at the distress of other competitors has taken some gymnasts aback.

“The crowd is bad and really a little rude,” Woynerowski said. “They pump their team and stuff, but they are also rude to others. They cheer when we fall off the beam.

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“That’s the best part of this competition. Our first international competition is preparing us for everything. We are ready for the worst: I don’t think it can get any worse.”


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