Freshman Is Senior as a UCLA Gymnast
Stella Umeh wanted to retire at the top of her game. So, at 19, she folded the leotards she wore while competing as Canada’s top gymnast and joined the sport’s senior tour--college.
Because so few elite gymnasts compete collegiately--most are either too young or too busy internationally--the UCLA freshman is expected to be a star.
“Stella has got not only the tricks, but she has the international experience,” UCLA Coach Valorie Kondos said. “So when she gets up on an event, it’s a totally different look than someone who only competed nationally.”
A member of the Canadian national team for the last six years, Umeh won national vault titles in 1992 and ’93 and finished 16th in the all-around at the 1992 Summer Olympics. She retired from international competition after the 1994 Commonwealth Games in August at Victoria, Canada, where she won the all-around title.
“I shed a few tears, knowing that it was my last meet and that I wouldn’t be able to see my friends anymore around the world,” she said. “I didn’t want to keep going and push my ability any further in case I ended up going down.”
Umeh, whose father, David, was a Nigerian soccer player, began in gymnastics by fluke. When Umeh was a rambunctious 6-year-old, her mother, Patsy, got lost while driving around their home town of Mississauga, Ontario. She stopped at Gymnastics Mississauga to ask directions and Umeh soon was bouncing on the equipment.
She was switched from dance lessons to gymnastics the next week with her parents’ hope that tumbling might better drain her abundant energy. Her sister, Anastasia, continued in dance and has choreographed Umeh’s floor exercise routines.
Umeh is expected to lead UCLA in its season-opening meet Friday at Cal State Fullerton at 7:30 p.m. The Bruins’ first home meet is scheduled for Jan. 21 against Stanford and UC Santa Barbara in the Wooden Center at 7 p.m.
A compatriot, Leah Homma, greeted Umeh when she made her transition to college competition at UCLA. They have known each other since they were young girls competing for different gymnastics clubs near Toronto.
Homma, who won the Pacific 10 Conference all-around championship last season as a freshman, was a member of Canada’s national team for five years, placing second in the all-around in the Canadian national championships in 1991 and 1992.
Like Umeh, Homma retired from international competition before going to UCLA. But unlike Umeh, Homma’s parting with the Canadian team was bitter. Homma was a lock for the 1992 Olympic team but had to withdraw from the Canadian Olympic trials after two days because of an injury. She retired after Canadian officials refused her petition to join the team.
“I knew right after it that I didn’t want to be on the Canadian team anymore,” Homma said.
Canada’s loss was UCLA’s gain. Homma has moves named after her in the international code of points: the Homma Flip, a twisting flip that she finishes straddled on the beam; and the Homma Flares, similar to the Thomas Flares on the pommel horse. She uses the flares as her beam mount and on the floor.
“She offers another dimension to the sport that very few athletes do,” Kondos said. “She is so beautiful to watch. She takes it to an art form.”
Each season, Coach Mark Schubert attracts more top swimmers to USC. His assistant coaches alone make the pool deck look like a Who’s Who of U.S. swimming.
Schubert’s assistants are Don Wagner, one of the nation’s most successful coaches at the Fullerton Aquatics Sports Team (FAST) before joining USC in 1992; Cynthia Woodhead-Kantzer, who held 16 American and four world records during her career; and newly hired Mike Bottom, a member of the 1980 U.S. Olympic team.
There also is an impressive group of volunteer and student assistant coaches who are at USC primarily to train under Schubert. Among them: third-year assistant Janet Evans, a four-time Olympic gold medalist; and rookie assistant Greg Burgess, who won silver medals in the 1992 Olympics and 1994 World Championships.
“It has been fun,” Schubert said. “They do tend to set good examples, you know?”
The UCLA women’s swim team lost its best swimmer when Richelle Depold left school in August to train in Colorado Springs for the 1996 Olympics.
“That put a pretty big hole in all of our relays,” UCLA Coach Cyndi Gallagher said.
Depold, 1993 Pac-10 champion in the 50-yard freestyle as a freshman, will have one year of eligibility remaining when she returns after the Olympics.
In Depold’s absence, Gallagher is counting on 10 freshmen. Jill Jenkins, a high school All-American from Scottsdale, Ariz., is expected to lead UCLA in the sprint freestyle and 100 backstroke.
The 10 freshmen on the UCLA women’s swim team had a combined grade-point average of 3.4 for the fall quarter. . . . Kerri Strug, the youngest member of the U.S. Olympic team in 1992 when she was 14, has signed a letter of intent to attend UCLA but won’t compete in gymnastics until after the 1996 Olympics. Still, Strug’s commitment was important for the team. After the athletic department dropped the men’s gymnastics program last year, many wondered about the stability of the women’s team. “To get someone like Kerri Strug to sign definitely says that we’re back and a power to be reckoned with,” Coach Valorie Kondos said.