America's girl gymnasts are sick and tired of being told they're beautiful. Really. Until recently the line at international matches went, "Darling, you had the loveliest team—even if your scores were terrible." Now, U.S. girls are capable of winning medals as well as compliments. Among those most responsible are the five gymnasts pictured on the accompanying pages, each of whom excels in all four women's events. They perform atop a 4-inch-wide wooden balance beam and on uneven parallel bars, vault over a side horse and execute a form of balletic tumbling set to music known as free exercise. Their maneuvers combine grace with daredeviltry and, now that judges give more credit for difficult routines without unduly penalizing mishaps, the U.S. might win its first Olympic medal in women's gymnastics next year at Munich.
'Give me a brr, bmm, bmm, brr, bmm, bmm'
I'm an outcast," says Herb Vogel (right) of Southern Illinois University, one of the few men who coach girl gymnasts. "When I travel with the team I drink alone. A few years ago at the Elks Club here in Carbondale I heard somebody play a real nice piano. It was a guy. Right away I thought, 'Just what I need—somebody who can provide live music for the girls' free-ex routines.' I also thought, 'Here's somebody I can drink with on trips.' "
For the most part, Vogel drives other girls' gymnastic coaches to drink. They find him too irascible, too suave—and almost unbeatable. This state of affairs will undeniably prevail at Cedar Rapids, Iowa in May, where Southern Illinois is favored to win its fifth AAU championship.
March 29, 1971
Vogel says that he has been in gymnastics as either a participant or a coach for 35 of his 40 years. Most notably, he competed for Indiana (1949-53), and from 1956 to 1963 he coached the Acrolympian Club of Flint, Mich., which was unbeaten in 64 matches. In 1963 he came to SIU—known chiefly to the outside world for Professor Buckminster Fuller; its nickname, the Salukis; its prolific university press and as being the alma mater of Walt Frazier, a nongraduate—to form the university's first girls' gymnastic team. Almost everyone in Carbondale was convinced it would be a farce. But after the first match there were only three complaints, all of which Vogel took care of. He dyed the girls' "too revealing" white leotards maroon, banned gum chewing and curbed his habit of swatting his gymnasts on the fanny.
As in Flint, his SIU girls have been winners, taking their first 55 matches—eight for AAU and collegiate titles—before losing to Centenary (La.) College in 1968. Thus Vogel went through 119 meets and 12 years without a loss. Since then SIU has dropped three more dual matches and, in 1968, its first championship—by four-tenths of a point to Springfield (Mass.) College.
Nonetheless, Vogel has detractors who claim that he doesn't produce enough world-class gymnasts. "They're right," he says. "To a certain extent. Girls learn best between 9 and 14. I don't get them that young. I get a few near that age, kids who move here to finish high school and get my coaching. But mostly I get them in college and have to correct mistakes they've made for years. That doesn't leave much time to teach new stuff, so you polish them as best you can. But my girls haven't done badly."
Understatement. Twenty-three of his girls have competed in international meets, five in the Olympics, seven in the Pan-American Games. All-America teams for girl gymnasts were first picked in 1966; since then 18 Salukis have made them, most more than once. Seven of last year's 10 All-Americas were from SIU.
"I could get more girls on international teams, but it's not the thing for everyone," says Vogel. "Some coaches don't agree with me on this. But we work on a team philosophy here, and our team is Southern Illinois. If a girl wants extra work to try for an international trip, I'll help. That means training almost year-round—only four, five weeks off all year. You can't ask them to give up social life, outside activities, families, just because you want them on a team. Life is for living. A really good girl I had quit a couple of years ago because of politics in the sport. She knew some girls made teams because somebody owed somebody else a favor. It got so bad once that they were talking about putting a girl on a team because of her looks. We have to keep in mind that we're no better than our selfish motives.
"If I have any virtues as a coach, it's that I've been around so long and have tried so much. And I'm creative. But Muriel and Dale [former Olympians Muriel Grossfeld and Dale Flansaas] can teach more style, more technique. They can show it because they're women and were good gymnasts. As you may have noticed, I'm not a woman so it's hard for me to show things to my girls."
"He doesn't have to show us," says Claudia Coder, an SIU freshman from Cleveland. "He tells us how to do things, and we know what he means. I'm here because of him. If I hadn't been accepted here, I would have given up the sport. This is the only program in the country I feel is worthwhile. There's less antagonism with him than with a woman coach. And I have more confidence in him as a spotter. With a woman coach, I was scared to try new stuff, scared she'd miss me when she was spotting. When he's there, I'm not afraid."
Herb Vogel looks out for his gymnasts. One time this strapping young man sauntered over to the car in which Vogel was about to transport his girls to a match and started coming on pretty heavy. Vogel, who is 5'6" and 136 pounds, reached out the window, grabbed the guy's belt and tapped the gas pedal. Vogel's girls swear the fellow came close to running the first 9-second 100.
Alyce, Vogel's wife, has faith in him, too, which explains how he got away with a characteristic bit of clowning he used to indulge in when leaving for a match. Vogel would sit in his car—a convertible with the top down—in front of his house, his arm around one of his gymnasts. He would then wave to Alyce and slowly drive off. His shocked neighbors would say to Alyce, "You mean you let him carry on like that?" To which Alyce would reply, "Sure. I was a gymnast once and had a man coach, so I know it's important to have a good working relationship."
To understand Vogel is to appreciate that he has a peculiar—some might say immature—behavior pattern that is lost on some people but wins over most. Alyce saw him win over a small town in Germany—Reichenbach (pop. 800). Vogel was in the Army then and lived off-post with Alyce, whom it took him 12 years to win over. When Vogel wasn't putting on gymnastic exhibitions, he was carving HERB LOVES ALYCE on tree trunks in the Black Forest or taking his bride sledding by moonlight. "Das ist wunderbar!" sighed the local residents, presumably in unison. Vogel proved he could lift his stein all night, too. In fact, the burghers of Reichenbach were so captivated by him they saw to it that the Vogels had—all to themselves—one of the town's two bathtubs.
Recently Vogel was preparing for the AAUs; the Salukis won't be defending their collegiate title next month because it was ruled that some of the girls got improper financial aid and, although SIU officials didn't necessarily agree, they decided to declare the team ineligible. The other afternoon he was watching the free-exercise routine of Sue Werling, a high school senior, and shaking his head. When she botched up the ending, his head was going like a wet spaniel's. "Susie, Susie, Susie," he said sadly. He dropped to his knees so he was at her eye level. The softness left his voice. "Sue, you belong in a sack. Leave. Go jump in bed and stay there." Crushed, Sue struggled to her feet and slumped on a nearby bench. It was what Vogel calls "dew time."
"A little hate goes a long way," Vogel says, as though he really expected one to believe he was a Vince Lombardi. He knows better, knows he communicates with his girls, is aware that they are aware his impishness is never more than 1/32" below his crust. His girls learn to study his face for the first signs of his comforting grin. Another barometer is his eyebrows, particularly the right. When it goes up, fair weather's ahead.
Coaching psychology intrigues Vogel. He works at the art of scolding and praising. How much? When? Whom? Ten girls. Ten personalities. Ten styles. Ten capabilities. His gymnasts range in age from Karen Smith, 21, an SIU senior, to 16-year-old Sarah Rosca, a high school junior. There are good days and bad days for each girl, but Vogel must always have good ones. His girls rely on him.
Vogel has made each one weep at least once. The girls accept tears as part of the price for taking part in such an excruciatingly subjective sport. Judges scrutinize their every move and its components: rhythm, continuity, fluidity, grace, difficulty, range of skills. Perfection is so elusive that hundreds of hours of training may only bring one's score up from 8.6 to 9.0 (out of a possible 10).
U.S. women never did much at international gymnastics meets until the 1968 Olympics when Linda Metheny of the University of Illinois reached the finals on the balance beam, and last year Cathy Rigby became the first U.S. girl ever to win a medal in international competition, finishing second on the beam at the world championships in Yugoslavia.
Vogel predicts that U.S. girl gymnasts will win their first Olympic medals next year. "We have girls trying stuff never done before in competition," he said the other day at a practice session at the SIU arena. The girls drill on a balcony along with the judo, wrestling, track and men's gymnastic teams. "Some have practiced new tricks for two years, and now they're ready to use them. Even if they get to international matches and don't hit on the new stuff, it should have a bombshell effect. One of the best things to happen is that judges now give more credit for harder routines and don't penalize so much when a girl messes up. That gets you away from strictly stock moves and opens the sport to more creativity.
"Terry Spencer [the best SIU gymnast] is the first to do two flip-flops to the yogi [two back handsprings and a handstand with an extreme back arch] on the beam," Vogel said proudly. "And she's the first on the bars with a sole-circle underswing and release to a back double flyaway over the low bar.
"U.S. sports fans have never fully appreciated athletic grace. They've always been more impressed by power, speed and winning. But if gymnastics is ever to gain popularity, now is the time, for if the new tricks don't dazzle them, nothing will.
"Right now, with Metheny hurt, Cathy Rigby is the best in the U.S., and Terry's second. But Terry's got to get tough, has to believe she's really good. Rigby has a fine sense of kinesthetic awareness—and she has that pixie face. She can win on the beam, and her bar routine is better than most Europeans' because it has difficulty from start to finish and not a lot of stock stuff to help her steady herself.
"Roxanne Pierce is lean and wiry, and if any of our kids can overtake Rigby, she's it. She's flexible, strong, bouncy and not afraid to go after it in competition. Kim Chace has to face stronger opposition to bring out her potential. I see something there, that bit of fire that could make her a tough competitor. Joan Moore takes chances, leaps well, is very fluid and, like all the kids, just needs experience. Our top girls can't float anymore, can't assume they'll make the next international team because the kids are good enough to replace them."
A piano bravely tinkled amid the din in the arena: Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head. "Got a new piano player," said Vogel. "A girl." Turning to her, he said, "On this section you don't want to run it together. All the moves she's making out there are separate. Give me a brr, bmm, bmm, brr, bmm, bmm."
Vogel went over to Terry Spencer, who was lying down on the beam with her eyes closed. "That's Terry's new move," Vogel said loudly. "Snoring." When one of his girls falls, he rushes to her, extends his hand and says, "Care to dance?" A belly-first crash into the side horse is "a navel-destroyer." When a girl slips, slides and lands on her fanny, Vogel stretches out his arms and calls, "Safe."
Vogel's sense of humor can be infectious—alas. One day the members of his team stuffed blown-up balloons under their warmup jackets to show him he had no right calling them "my flat-chested girls."
"Gymnasts are in top shape, right?" Vogel said, lighting one of the 50 cigarettes he smokes daily. "You wouldn't believe the silly injuries they get away from the gym, though. They fall off curbs, trip over their feet. We were in Germany for a match, and one girl couldn't compete because she hurt her back bending over to look in a toy-store window. But they're tough. We're boarding a plane for the collegiates, and Karen Smith shows me her thumb. Big as a grapefruit. She'd fallen over a chair. Karen knew if she'd showed me sooner I'd have left her home. But she made the trip—and won the uneven-bar championship.
"And the girls are cool. Carolyn Riddel, one of my sophomores, was on the bars, started a swing and the whole top bar came off. She flew through the air and landed on her feet, with the bar still in her hands. Once, at an exhibition, a girl was on a beam that came loose. One end began tipping, but she stayed on, and when it touched the floor she calmly came down with it and walked off. The people didn't know gymnastics and thought it was part of the act, so they applauded.
"They don't come much cooler than Judy Wills [a five-time world trampoline champion and twice world tumbling titlist]. When she was hurt she became the mascot for the basketball team and wore the Saluki dog outfit. One night a ref called two technicals against our team. Judy got mad, went over to the ref and did something a trifle indelicate. He called a technical on her and it cost us the game." She came to the next game in her dog suit and diapers.
"There's a move to get rid of all male coaches for girl gymnasts," Vogel said, looking rather wildly about, as though they might be coming for him at that very instant. "It will hurt the sport if they do. There aren't enough qualified coaches, and that's a big reason why our country has progressed so slowly in gymnastics. Another reason is there's no real carry-over value to the sport. What can a gymnast do after college, join the circus?"
Indeed, it is almost impossible for U.S. gymnasts to stay in training. Who can afford to practice 1,000 or more hours a year? Gymnasts don't reach their peak until their late 20s, and by that time most potential U.S. medal winners are breadwinners or housewives.
Suddenly, Vogel whirled and glared at a girl named Margi Schilling, who was working out on the beam. "Your hand sticks out like a meat hook!" he yelled at her. "Chin up! Toe point! Be proud! Be proud!"