12-Year-Old Steals Gymnastics Show

New York Times, March 12, 1979    A 12-year-old named Tracee Talavera, the youngest person on the floor of Madison Square Garden, became an instant celebrity yesterday by almost capturing the women's championship in the American Cup gymnastics tournament.

The 72-pounder won two of the four events while the crowd of 13,844, at first merely appreciative, began to roar each time her turn came as it sensed an old-fashioned success story.

Miss Talavera finished third in her first appearance in a major competition, ahead of the United States champion, Kathy Johnson.  Stella Zakharova of the Soviet Union won and Maxi Gnauck of East Germany, another gymnastics power, was second.

Meanwhile, Kurt Thomas was impressive in taking four of the six individual events -- he was beaten only by the world champions in the others, in which he finished second -- and was the easy overall winner again in the men's competition.

Miss Talavera's road to the American Cup has been unusual.  For the last year and a half she has lived apart from her parents, who are in Walnut Creek, Calif.  She has stayed in Eugene, Ore., with her coach, Linda Metheney Mulvihil, a former Olympian.

"Her mother calls her once a week and her grandmother calls her once a week," said Mrs. Mulvihill, "and she goes home for Christmas.  In the summers her folks come to Oregon and they camp out."

Wasn't it strange that a 12-year-old would leave home to pursue such a narrow life?  Mrs. Mulvihill replied:

"It depends on the talent the child has, the goals that she has.  Tracee is excited in learning new skills."

She learned enough to win the uneven parallel bars and the balance beam.

Miss Zakharova, 16, took the other women's events -- the vault, in which Miss Johnson banged her right thigh, messing up the rest of her afternoon, and the floor exercise with a final acrobatic display.

The Russian is unknown here.  Although she was the best yesterday, in her most recent previous tournament in her country she finished fifth in an event for Soviet schoolchildren, a confirmation of the strength of the women's gymnastics program there.

She responded to the pressure by amassing the highest women's score of the day, a 9.75 in the finale, the floor exercise, after Miss Talavera had scored 9.55 and Miss Gnauck 9.6.

Miss Talavera was the understudy who became a star.  The woman considered second best in the United States, Rhonda Schwandt, recently underwent knee surgery.  Other women gymnasts were unavailable to compete in the cup for one reason or another.  Enter Miss Talavera, who goes to school in the mornings and to gym the rest of her time.

Cahoy Loses a Half Point

Another newcomer, also an understudy, was Phil Cahoy.  Bart Connor, the perennial No. 2 behind Thomas, pipped the cup in favor of the Big Eight championships.  He goes to Oklahoma.

The 17-year-old Cahoy, a high school student in Omaha, finished sixth.  He might have been as high as fourth, but on his last move, the dismount from the horizontal bar, he fell and lost half a point.

Thomas has a big finish with the day's top men's score, a 9.8 in the horizontal bar.  That tied a meet record.  He also tied the meet mark of 9.7 in the parallel bars, set a record in the floor exercise with a 9.75 and captured the rings at 9.65.

The world champion in the vault, Junichi Shimizu of Japan, captured that event, and the world title holder in the pommel horse, Zoltan Magyar of Hungary, won his specialty.

"It's good to look good in your own country," said Thomas, who attends Indiana State.  "You get good television exposure and it's good to have people rooting for you."

But Miss Johnson quickly lost the crowd after a pair of 9's in the uneven parallel bars and the balance beam.  She responded with a 9.65 in the floor exercise to pick up fourth place.

"I just didn't come together," she said later as she stood by herself in a corner of the Knick players' lounge while microphones were thrust in front of the understudy turned star, Miss Talavera.

This page was created on October 25, 2003.
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