Starting Out Early to Beat Olga

By Frank Bianco

New York Times, October 17, 1976   Four years ago, Olga Korbut of the Soviet Union caused a boom in Long Island gymnastics.  Nadia Comaneci of Rumania, her successor in the spotlight, also replaced her as the model for the bumper crop of gymnasts that the boom produced.  Many of them have been working well enough and hard enough to dominate the New York State championships in recent years.

A recent session in one Long Island gymnastics school underscored what is happening.  Fifty teen-aged girls were investing their energies in various gymnastic routines.  As each concluded a routine, she would arch her body sharply, throw her arms straight in the air and smile brightly enough to mesmerize a battery of judges.

"They're all working to be Nadias," said Marily Schnarrs, coach of the Carle Place High School women's gymnastics team, which has lost in only four of 79 meets in the last five years.

Those who want to beat Nadia do not have too far to reach, she feels.  Long Island's gymnastics record shows a high caliber of activity, the result of a decade of steady growth, and stimulated into high gear by the Korbut starburst.

Suffolk and Nassau County high-school gymnasts have virtually monopolized New York State championships.  No other county has won as many as Suffolk.  Nassau holds second place.

Two Long Islanders, John Crosby and Marshall Avener, further burnished the Island's gymnastics reputation when they made the seven-man United States gymnastics squad in the 1972 and 1976 Olympics.

"TV's coverage of Olga Korbut really sold gymnastics to the public and made it an 'in' activity," said Mrs. Schnarrs's 33-year-old husband, Dick, who introduced Marshall Avener to gymnastics in junior high and coached him on the Island Trees High School team.

"Five years ago we didn't have any private clubs on Long Island; now we have more than a dozen," he said.  "Back then, six meets made up an entire season.  Today there are four times as many meets scheduled.  Where we once had 60 gymnasts competing on the beginner's level, we now have over 200."

While Mr. Schnarrs's description applies only to private clubs, high school activity has also increased.  In 1960 there were 12 high schools competing in the annual meet sponsored by the Association of Women Physical Education Instructors in New York State.  The number rose to 20 in 1973.  This year's meet involved 34 high schools and 23 junior high schools.

Increased gymnastics activity is even more impressive when one considers its circumstances, according to Mr. Schnarrs.  Ideally, children should get their first taste of gymnastics in first and second grades, he feels.  Their bodies have the necessary flexibility and their natural liking for rolling and jumping predisposes them to learning basic tumbling skills.

"Instead, we get them in ninth grade when that flexibility and spontaneity have been replaced by the conviction that the only sports worth playing are basketball, football and baseball," he said.

Gymnastics physical requirements compound the problem, he said.  Traditional sports and games played in elementary schools develop leg power exclusively, a premium in high-school sports.

Gymnastics requires upper-body strength plus leg power.  Ninth-grade beginners have little in the way of transferrable muscle power for gymnastics skills.  "And the rewards come very slowly," Mr. Schnarrs said.

"You perform the same trick over and over," he said, "until it's flawless and you can do it as reflex.  It's an opportunity for the smaller kid, who's capable of the tremendous concentration and discipline it demands.  The reward and the challenge come when you can do the trick and realize you can move upward, using it as a basis for more complex movement."

Gymnasts tend to be loners, slightly more intellectual individualists who get a kick out of exploring their own physical frontiers, he feels.  "They're the type of people who climb mountains.  But when they perform well, the reward is especially theirs.  A gymnastic routine has all the flow, rhythm and measured control of a symphony.  A gymnast feels it and knows how impressive it looks."

Competition measures male and female within the context of their physical capabilities.  Men demonstrate muscular strength and endurance on the still rings, parallel bars, high bar, pommel horse, and long horse vault.  Three women's events -- the uneven parallel bars, balance beam and side horse vault -- are designed to showcase their balance, grace and lighter, more delicate movement.

The distinctive test each sex meets is most apparent in floor exercises, the only events they both still share.

Both utilize tumbling techniques, but women perform to music and incorporate ballet and other thematic body movement into their routines.  Men's floor exercises range from studied demonstrations of strength to explorations of muscular energy.

Few sports make as total a demand on the mind and body, said Mr. Schnarrs.  "I don't know of any sport where the slightest mistake is so immediately apparent.  It intensifies the pressure on the gymnast who has one chance to do it perfectly."

The comprehensive nature of gymnastics is reflected in its Greek origins.  At first it was a general category that included activities that have since developed into separate sports, such as boxing, wrestling and track and field.  Gymnastics was later practiced as a training regimen to strenuous combative sports before it evolved into a competitive sport all its own.

It declined after the decline of Greece and was not practiced again until 1811, when a Berlin high school teacher, Friedrich Jahn, organized the first turnverein, or gymnastics association.  He hoped the turnverein would develop greater physical strength and fellowship among young Germans who might then help free their country from Napoleonic rule.

Though the turnverein never fulfilled Jahn's political intentions, they did become popular as centers for social and physical activity.  They later spread to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, where they became known by the Czech word "sokol."

Turn-of-the-century immigrants from those countries brought the turnvereins and sokols to America.  A "turner" gymnast, Anton Heida, won gold medals in the 1904 Olympics for the long-horse, side-horse and horizontal bar events, and amassed enough points to win still another gold medal in the all-around category.  It was the last Olympics in which an American gymnast won multiple gold medals.

Turnverein and sokol-trained gymnasts dominated American competition until 1940, when a University of Illinois team won the national Amateur Athletic Union title and tied New York City's Czech Sokol Hall the following year.  Sokol Hall, in Manhattan at 420 East 71st Street, is still an active gymnastic center.

Gymnastics gained popularity in the country's colleges and junior and senior high schools in the two decades after World War II.

Most of Long Island's physical education teachers who are actively involved in gymnastics today discovered the sport as college undergraduates during the late 1950's.  They came to Long Island during its school building boom, when new sports were being introduced and added.

Valley Stream's Don Wilderoter, whom the Schnarrs term the "father of Long Island gymnastics," remembers the time.

"I was the A.A.U.'s chairman for metropolitan area gymnastics at the time, and the schools sensed that gymnastics could give the girls a sport all their own instead of a watered-down version of a male sport," he said.

Mr. Wilderoter held weekly training sessions for interested physical education teachers.  He taught them simple gymnastic routines and had them observe how he taught and coached their students.  Together with their colleagues who learned the sport in college, they began gymnastics activity on Long Island.

High school girls loved it, Mr. Wilderoter recalls.  "We took them out of those funny gym bloomers and put them into leotards," he said.  "All of a sudden they saw gymnastics as a way to unqualified physical excellence and achievement that would enhance their femininity.  The fact that the boys started whistling didn't hurt."

Girls still dominate Long Island gymnastics by a 10-to-1 ratio, according to Dick and Marilyn Schnarrs.  Mr. Wilderoter, now A.A.U. national chairman for women's gymnastics, agrees, adding that the same situation occurs nationwide.

He confirmed that Long Island's gymnastics reputation compared well nationally.  "We're known as a hotbed resource of women who can be trained for national level competition, and our men qualify as prime material that can be trained for international level competition."

Future growth will now likely come from the private clubs, Mr. Wilderoter believes.  "High school sports are confined to a specific season and coaches are forbidden to work with the athletes before or after the season," he said.

"Top level international gymnasts train three hours a day, six days a week, 52 weeks a year.  Our high school season ends just when the gymnast arrives at the point where he's in shape for serious work."

Private clubs represent the only opportunity a serious gymnast has for necessary one-to-one coaching and competitive seasoning, he added. 

"Those clubs are often run by the same dedicated people who interest elementary school kids in the sport, give them extra attention and the opportunities a young gymnast needs to grow.  People like the Schnarrs give a lot more than they get."

While appreciative of such compliments, the Schnarrs say that gymnastics gives them a great deal of personal satisfaction.  "When you get a young kid like Marshall Avener, it's worth every bit of effort you can give," Mr. Schnarrs said.

Both he and his wife are actively training in anticipation of the start of the Masters Gymnastics Competition, an A.A.U.-sponsored national-level event for age groups over 25.

The couple reserve a major part of their energies and time for their Farmingdale Gymnastics school, where about 240 young girls, aged 7 through 17, train regularly.

The gym, which could easily hide a 707 jet airliner, is filled with parallel bars, balance beams and other apparatus.  Gymnasts of varying skill levels and sizes, eight to an instructor, leap, spring, swing and glide on and about the various pieces of gymnastic apparatus.

"If they don't want to work, we don't want them to waste their money," Mr. Schnarrs said.  "But I think that what looks like work to an outsider is really fun for them.  For those who do well, I guess the dream of winning adds that much more incentive."

Such dreams apparently nourish the smallest of the Schnarrs' gymnasts, 10-year-old Jackie Cassello of West Hempstead.  Her gymnastics skills were judged sufficiently high to warrant excepting her from the 12-year-old minimum age rule in last year's A.A.U. Junior Nationals.

She looks smaller but more tightly muscled than Nadia Comaneci, who, she says, smiles when they compete in her dreams.

"She has more moves than I do right now," says the fifth-grader, "but I'll beat her."  That victory, she confides, is eight years distant.  "I'll be only good enough to beat Nellie Kim for the silver in four years.  And 1984 is the year I'll beat Nadia for the gold."

This page was created on October 09, 2004.
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