Reporter’s Notebook Russian Revolution

When top Olympic contender Vanessa Atler moved to Plano she shocked the gymnastics world-and catapulted two dedicated Russian coaches into the global spotlight.

THE WALLS OF VANESSA ATLER’S life came tumbling down after the 1999 World Championships in China. The 18-year-old 1996 U.S. junior gymnastics champion had already suffered heartbreaking defeats when she fell at the 1997. 1998, and 1999 U.S. Senior Championships while attempting a difficult release move in her uneven-bars routine, Hampered by nagging injuries, she was dejected by her poor showing in China and uncertain about her future. On returning home to California, she discovered her sore ankle was. in fact, broken. Facing surgery, she contemplated abandoning her dream of competing in the 2000 Summer Olympic Games in Sydney. Instead, she shocked the gymnastics community by making an unexpected move.

To Piano.

More specifically to the World Olympics Gymnastics Academy in Piano. With over 800 students enrolled in the recreational program. WOGA also claims thirteen elite gymnasts in their training programs-a concentration of talent that only a handful of gyms in the country can claim.

After two arthroscopic surgeries on her left ankle and some advice from robust Romanian super coach Bela Karoyli. Vanessa put her Olympic dreams into the hands of two dedicated Russian coaches. Evgeny Marchenko and Valeri Liukin, who migrated here six years ago to escape their wildly disorganized homeland and opened a world-class facility at the corner of Parker and Custer.

Liukin won the world all-around championship in 1987 and took two gold and two silver medals at Seoul in 1988. Once treated like a rock star in Russia, Liukin has made the tough transition from athlete to coach.

Marchenko is a former world champion in acrogymnastics, a cousin of regular gymnastics. He coached the Latvian gymnastics team before he and Liukin recruited eight of their Russian coaching friends to bolster their project in Plano.

Vanessa is rumored to be the next Nadia in Sydney. The perky Southern California blonde is gambling that her decision to relocate was the only way to correct the problems she was having on the bars. “It hasn’t been much fun for me the past year. I want to fix my bars routine, but I also want a whole new style for the Olympics. I want to come out and stun everyone with the difference. And I believe Valeri can give me thai difference.”

With the Olympics rapidly approaching, Liukin feels the pressure of putting Vanessa back into form. “We do the best we can,” he says in a heavy Slavic accent. “Not much time, but we can do a lot. She is very smart girl. It was very political thing, her coming to us, and we take it seriously.”

Why Piano? Partly because a guggle of obsessively perfectionist young women wanted demanding training. Partly because Dallas is booming with more than 18,000 kids tak- ing part in recreational and com- petitive gymnastics. But mainly because of supply-side economics: Marchenko and Liukin capitalized on a market of serious youngsters with parents willing to pay big bucks for results. Overnight, they changed the focus from winning regional meets to going for the gold.

“We don’t compete against Houston or East Coast,” says Marchenko, in his thick Eastern European accent. “We train girls to compete against Russia. Romania. East Germany.”

Marchenko and Liukin base their current training programs on the principles they learned coming up through the ranks in Russia. They feel that American girls can benefit from emulating the steely side instilled in Russian athletes. “Russian style comes down to work ethic. The athletes are more efficient technically and strategically. They have important ingredients of physical and mental preparation, character, and technique instilled in them at an early age, They are in a confident state of readiness. They are convinced that they are invincible.”

The long jump from champion to coach isn’t easy for talented athletes like Marchenko and Liukin. Just ask Bela Kayroli, who made his mark coaching Nadia Comaneci to perfection before defecting to the U.S. to make Mary Lou Retton and Kim Zmeskal household names. “Producing champions is a long and frustrating process,” he says. “Many top athletes do not appreciate less talented athletes, and everyone Evgeny and Valeri coach is less talented than they were. But these guys, they are the exception. They know what they are doing, and they will succeed.”

The success of the Russians in Piano has attracted competition in the mushrooming market geared toward churning out champions. Two years ago, former U.S. Olympian Kurt Thomas opened a facility in Piano and now has over 200 kids enrolled in recreational programs. Thomas devotes most of his attention to his 35-member team, who spend over 30 to 40 hours a week in the gym.

Thirteen-year-old Lindsey Vanden Eykel passed the 40-hour-a-week practice mark at WOGA two years ago, and she can’t think of a better place to be.

The diminutive Piano native attended public school until last year. Frustrated by the lack of available practice time, her parents established Starbright Academy, a private school offering high-intensity afternoon classes. The theory is to shorten the time spent in school by cutting out distractions like study hall, freeing mornings and evenings for gymnastics. Lindsey may not be in the marching band, but she is the reigning junior national champion on the uneven bars.

At last year’s U.S. Championships, WOGA captured four of the top 11 junior spots, led by Lindsay’s fifth place all-around and winning bars routine. WOGA girls Brittany Talbert. Hollie Vise. Kaitlyn White, and Lindsey Vanden Eykel all made the U.S. National Junior Team. “Their” Olympics will be the Athens Games in 2004, when each of them will be at the peak age (16 through 18) for their sport.

On this day Lindsey is practicing a new skill, a rotation-and-a-half from a handstand on the high bar. This is not one continuous turn, but a full turn, then a slight pause, then a half turn. “Three sixty, then half.” Marchenko emphasizes.

Lindsey appreciates such fine distinctions, Like Vanessa she is here to perfect her ticket to her gymnastics future. It could bring national prominence, the Olympics, sponsorships, college scholarships, or even her name in lights above her own gym.

As she prepares for the challenge of a big meet in two weeks, her time on the bars is precious. Marchenko critiques her in a garbled mix of Russian and English punctuating, his words with gyrating body movements. He spots Lindsey effortlessly from bar to bar, over and over, carefully judging each curve of her body as she swings up and off the bar with surprising power. Paying close attention to the details, he meticulously corrects the arch of her back and the position of her toes, striving for the absolute perfection in every detail that can make the difference between winning and losing.

“Technique, Lindsey, technique,” he chants after she hits it right. “With proper technique, you can be tired, you can be hurt. You still get il right, huh?”

Technical perfection is part of the Russian gymnastics style that works so well with this group of young athletes. It is a whole life concept of feeding the mind and body. The WOGA girls are teenagers who eat no junk food, get plenty of sleep, and value commitment. From day one they are taught to respect their coaches, their parents, each other, and themselves.

Sixteen-year-old Marie Fjordholm hopes that mindset will propel her to a spot on the Olympic team. Oldest of the WOGA girls, she made the national senior team last year, placing nineteenth all-around, with a third place in the vault. “If anyone can get us where we want to go. they can.” Marie says of her coaches. “I have always appreciated their technique. The Russian athletes are all so confident, and that helps in competition.”

For most parents gymnastics begins with a Gymboree class followed by endless car-pools to the nearest rec center. For some parents, that routine gets altered when a teacher spots a budding young talent and encourages fast tracking her to an elite level. Many a parent has been seduced by visions of gold that cloud their reality, leaving them open to criticism for pushing their kids into long hours at the gym.

“You don’t really think it’s going to take this much at first,” says Deborah Walton, whose daughter is a nine-year-old Level 6 champion. “You move into it gradually, and then you look around and you are spending most of your time here.” Some parents have more than one child practicing on different schedules, and so they sit for endless hours in chairs off to the side of the floor, read, make calls, or do paperwork.

Bui don’t your other friends feel you’re obsessed with gymnastics? “These people become your friends,” says Cathy Vanden Eykel, Lindsey’s mom, “and they are here with you.”

Members of the parent support group at WOGA struggle with the same questions that concern parents everywhere: Are your kids doing this because they think you want it? Are they missing out on a more “normal” school and social schedule? And how much control should the coaches exert over your child?

Deborah Walton’s daughter. Merit De If. had the stomach flu For a regional meet last year. Walton wanted to keep her home, but participating here was the only way Merit could qualify for state.

“It ’sa tough call for a parent,” Walton says. “Do you keep her in bed, or let her do what she’s trained for all this lime?” The mother relied on the wisdom of her coaches, who assured her that performing could not harm the youngster. They kept Merit in bed away from the floor except for her performances. And she performed like a champion.

Parents and instructors agree that the idea of pushing a child into elite gymnastics is absurd, says Walton. “You couldn’t push kids into training this hard, even if you wanted to. They would have injuries or headaches or something wrong that would keep them away every day. It has to be inside them from the start.”

Encouraging kids to be winners pays different dividends. While a few may go on to collect medals, others repay their parents’ investments in their talent with college scholarships or national prominence that leads to lucrative product endorsements.

Along with the training schedule, the gymnasts have the opportunity to compete all over the world. Away from the mats, they receive training in diplomacy and dealing with the media: lessons in life.

Liukin is philosophical about what he and his fellow coaches are teaching their high level athletes. “I’m reminded of an old Russian saying. ’A soldier is not a good soldier unless he wants to be general. ’You can’t be best at what you do unless you want to be top person, always striving.”

Firmly in the routine of her new life in Piano. Vanessa Atler is on the upswing and feeling “awesome.” She looks forward to hanging pictures from Sydney on her bedroom walls. A typical teenager looking forward to a trip? Hardly. This teenager talks about Sydney with steel in her eyes, the look of a champion.

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