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GYMNASTICS WORLD CHAMPIONSHIPS : Simple Sports Adversity Won’t Tumble Waller

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Chris Waller’s most successful year as a high school gymnast was when he won the Illinois State High School championship, went on to place fifth at the junior nationals, then checked into a hospital for previously scheduled open heart surgery. He was 15.

That was the year he went for his school physical and discovered his blood pressure was 170/140 in his left arm. His descending aorta hadn’t developed with the rest of his body, causing it to constrict the blood flow. It was a genetic condition that he unknowingly had had for some time, one that had caused an undue weakness in his skinny legs, earning him two nicknames: “chicken legs” and “bird legs.”

“I found out about the condition before my sophomore year, then I went on to have my best year,” Waller said.

And then there was the year he doesn’t remember--his first year of life. Waller was born with a severe heart murmur that stabilized only after his parents made many trips to the doctor, one about every two weeks.

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“I got babied an awful lot by my parents because of it,” said Waller, now 22, who adds, more seriously, that he continues to have the murmur checked and knows that, someday, it may require him to have another heart surgery.

So when the talk here at the World Gymnastics Championships turned to the adversity the U.S. men’s team faces going into tonight’s final team competition, it takes on a different perspective for Waller, who has faced real adversity.

Waller is the U.S. national champion, but teammate Lance Ringnald is the only American experienced at this level of competition. When Ringnald had to withdraw Sunday because of a shoulder injury, it meant that the remaining five members of the U.S. team must hit their routines in every event. With a six-man team, the lowest score is dropped. In the case of the U.S. team, the lowest score will be Ringnald’s zero.

Four months after Waller’s open heart surgery, he was back in the gym practicing. He worked his way up again and arrived at UCLA as a heralded freshman. It was predicted he would immediately be one of the top six senior gymnasts in the country. But it didn’t happen.

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“We expected big things from him his first year at UCLA, but he just couldn’t put it together,” said Art Shurlock, UCLA coach. “His sophomore and junior years, he could have finished in the top six in the country, but he couldn’t place higher than 14th nationally. Then, his senior year, he finally put it together.”

Waller’s legs, because of his heart condition, had always been weak and underdeveloped, causing him to put in futile time in strength training. At meets, he would quickly get intimidated when he saw the competition.

“Maybe somebody else could have come to UCLA and bought into it (being the best), but I couldn’t,” Waller said. “I worked really hard, and I wanted to believe that I could do it, but I didn’t. At the time, I was doing the best I could, but in a lot of meets I was really tired.”

Then it turned around. At the 1989 national championships, Waller had a horrible compulsory meet and still ended up 19th going into optional competition.

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“I took a look at that and figured that if I would just do my job every day, I could be in the top six,” he said. “Two days later, I came up seven spots to finish 12th and get the last spot on the national team. After that, I believed in myself.”

In 1990, Waller was second in the nationals; in ’91, first.

“I’m not sure how you go from wanting to believe in yourself to actually doing it, but I’m there now,” Waller said.


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