Neatness Pays in Gymnastics

By Roy S. Johnson

New York Times, March 3, 1983  No smile.  No show.  Julianne McNamara just has some of the strongest technical moves in women's gymnastics. 

"You want to know why she's so good," Don Peters, the coach of the United States national gymnastics team, said yesterday.  "She's so meticulous, that's really why.  Julianne probably won't like me saying this, but I walked into her room the other day, and I was shocked.  She's the only person I know who folds her shoelaces.  I asked her, 'Why?', and she says, 'Cause it's neat.' She's a fanatic."

Olga Korbut, the famous Soviet gymnast, had a smile and style.  Nadia Comaneci of Rumania had perfection.  Julianne McNamara has concentration.

"I don't think much about what's going on around me," she said.  "I block it all out and think about what each move is saying to me as I'm doing it.  You do a lot of routines in practice and I've competed a lot, so it just starts to come natural.  But you really have to think, even if it is so easy, because one slip can blow years of hard work."

At 17 years old, she has hardly slipped at all.

A native of Flushing, Queens, Miss McNamara has competed nationally and internationally for almost five years.  In that time, she has established herself as this country's most talented female gymnast.  A national champion in 1980, the pony-tailed blonde placed seventh all-around in the 1981 World Championships in Moscow, which was the highest all-around placement ever for an American woman in either world championship gymnastics or in the Olympics.  Indeed, next year she is this country's best hope for its first Olympic medal in gymnastics.

Miss McNamara and Peter, one of her coaches, are in New York for the eighth annual McDonald's American Cup competition, the country's top international meet, which will be held at Madison Square Garden this Saturday and Sunday afternoons.  Miss McNamara, who now lives in Danville, Calif., is trying for her third consecutive women's all-around title in a field that includes 44 athletes form 14 countries, including Rumania, Japan, the Soviet Union, and Germany.

"In past years," Peters said, "the European countries have used this meet to showcase some of their up-and-coming stars.  Rumania had Nadia Comaneci here in 1976 before anyone had ever heard of her.  But something funny has happened this year.  There aren't any up-and-coming gymnasts.  Instead, everybody's got their top stars here.  The Olympics are next year, and I think everybody wants to establish themselves."

In Miss McNamara, the United States has a counterpart to the foreign stars.  In competition, she looks as if she were born to fly between parallel bars and dance atop the precarious balance beam.  At 4 feel 10 1/2 inches and a lithe 84 pounds, she has a bounce in her step that makes her seem weightless.  Her compactness is contrasted by the length of her arms and legs, which possess an unusual strength.

"My older sister used to take classes at this club near our home," she said.  "I was only about 8 or 9, so they would only let me watch.  I thought it looked like fun, so I tried it.  It was easy.  I was pretty strong even then, and I just started getting better."

At 9, she learned backflips in her backyard from a neighbor who has a class III gymnast.  After starting classes, she was such a quick learner that she skipped into class II.  By the age of 14, her skills were still raw, but she possessed unusual traits, most of which can be traced to the fact that one of her first coaches had taught her the basic gymnastics skills -- including tumbling and vaulting -- with no regard to her sex.  She learned men's moves -- such as large looping body swings and free hip circles -- from the outset.

She took sixth all-around in her first national meet, a feat that persuaded her parents to send her to the National Academy of Artistic Gymnastics in Eugene, Ore.  Her daily routine there consisted of morning classes, five or six hours of practice each afternoon without a break, homework after dinner and a little leisure time before bed at 10 o'clock.

There is little time for boys, or any other of the normal pitfalls of growing up.  "It's hard to say what's normal," she said.  "For me, that's what's been normal.  But I don't think I've missed anything.  I think I've gained.  I've traveled all over the world.  Most kids my age don't have the opportunity to do that.  Some people never do."

This page was created on August 21, 2004.
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