Touring Gymnasts Are a Hit

By Lawrie Mifflin

New York Times, October 22, 1984   Take the glossy showmanship of the Ice Capades, the clowning of the Harlem Globetrotters, and the fan frenzy of a rock concert, sprinkle them with the red, white and blue glitter of Olympic stardom, and that is basically what the '84 Tour of America's Gymnastics Champions looks like.

It played to about 11,000 people at the Meadowlands Saturday night, then moved yesterday afternoon to Madison Square Garden, attracting a crowd of 12,567.  It was an exhibition -- athletic entertainment, not competition -- but it was highly appealing, and the crowds' noisy response to it plainly showed that people have not forgotten these youngsters who starred at Los Angeles two and a half months ago.

"At first, some of us were a little skeptical about a show like this," said Peter Vidmar, who won the Olympic individual all-around silver medal.  "But sometimes it's hard to express yourself in competition, because you're worried about getting points taken off for a tiny mistake.  Here you can be more flashy -- you're not playing to the judges, you're playing to the crowd."

The crowds included sizable contingents of teen-age girls who, as they teetered on the edges of their seats clutching cameras and binoculars, had eyes for only one person: Mitch Gaylord.  The sight of him, even the mere mention of his name, detonated hysterical screams reminiscent of the Beatles days.

"It's flattering," said the 23-year-old Gaylord.  "It can be a little awkward sometimes, too.  But it's been unbelievable, just very weird for a gymnast, to see the enthusiasm of the crowds.  It's great for our sport."

Bart Conner provided a similar, though less-intense reaction, and there were peals of shrieking for Julianne McNamara.  She and Tracee Talavera are the only ones from the silver-medalist women's team who joined the six members of the gold-medalist men's team, plus several other gymnasts, for the tour.  It began in Hartford Friday night, and will play 10 cities before winding up Nov. 4 in Los Angeles.

"It's different, not as intense," said Miss McNamara, who in the show performs the uneven parallel bars routine that won her an Olympic gold medal in that event.  "When you go into a competitive situation where you're facing tremendous pressure and come out on top, it's a feeling like no other in the world.  But here, you're still performing, you're just not being deducted.  I think it makes it more fun -- for the spectators, too, because they can be a lot louder."

One fan who had special fun at the Meadowlands was Dick Cavett, who said he was Nebraska high school champion on the pommel horse in 1954 and 1955.  He was introduced to the audience and asked to speak over the public-address system.

"When I was in high school, the gymnastics team always outnumbered the audience," he said, after telling the crowd how pleased he was to see so many people at Byrne Meadowlands Arena.  "Of course, I was a pommel horse champion in the days when the horse still had a neck.  Actually, I go back to when it had stirrups."

Few laughed, but the crowd was delighted when the announcer urged Cavett to "go give that pommel horse one more try."  Only when he removed the sports jacket and shirt did they notice that his wrists were already wrapped and he was wearing a white gymnastics uniform, obviously ready for action.

Cavett did two single-leg circles and one double on the pommel horse, then, in a burst of enthusiasm, ran to the floor exercise mat and did a forward roll.  He also arm-walked briefly on the parallel bars, with some of the Olympians egging him on.

The parallel bars served as the clowning site for Gaylord, Conner, Vidmar and Tim Daggett, whose perfect-10 performance on the horizontal bar in Los Angeles had clinched the team gold medal.  They took turns trying to perform a double-back somersault dismount perfectly, with the others trying to distract them.

Saturday night, Vidmar "stuck" one dismount perfectly, but Gaylord rushed over and pointed excitedly at Vidmar's toes, as if contending that he had taken a step.  At the Garden, the others chalked and 'X' on the mat, daring Gaylord to land his double-back dismount precisely there (he did).  And Daggett pulled the mat out from under Conner just after he had landed, flipping him over into a backward roll.

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