WANTED: Male gymnast with talent, flair and charisma to assume vacant superstar berth and give much-needed lift to U.S. men's gymnastics.
FOUND: Bart Conner, Kurt Thomas, Wayne Young and Tom Beach—all capable of filling superstar role.
The word gymnast has lately brought to mind an Olga Korbut, Ludmilla Turishcheva or Nadia Comaneci. Male gymnasts? For years Americans have been hard put to name any, let alone one from the U.S. Then Conner pulled off a stunning upset by defeating some of the world's best gymnasts to win the American Cup on March 28, his 18th birthday. Conner, at the time a high school senior in Morton Grove, Ill., had earned the right to compete in the event first by tying Beach, a senior at the University of California at Berkeley, for the 1975 U.S. Gymnastics Federation title, then by winning the all-round at a dual meet against Canada.
Conner has blue eyes, blond hair, an engaging smile and the ability, as the gymnasts put it, "to communicate with his audience" with his verve and artistry. Those are the qualities devotees of the sport have been searching for in an American male for a long time. As Glenn Sundby, managing editor and publisher of several gymnastics magazines, says, "What our men have needed has been a gymnast-idol, not an idle gymnast."
But first place at the recent Olympic Trials at Penn State went to Thomas. Conner placed fourth. Far from being a disappointment, however, the performances of Conner and the other six men who qualified for the team gave the U.S. more encouragement than ever. Conner did not fail to display his multiple talents. The reason he did not win was simply, and remarkably, because the U.S. has suddenly produced several other fine gymnasts.
By consistently scoring in the middle to high nines at top-level meets, Conner, Thomas, Young and Beach have proved they are all world-class performers. The four scored well against Canada, achieved a resounding victory over a strong Swiss team at Wiesbaden, West Germany and shone at Penn State. As did our women, the U.S. men had to rush to Germany in May after the gymnastics international ruling body voided many teams' qualifying scores "because of unobjective and biased scoring and other irregularities" in earlier meets. In Wiesbaden the men beat 11 other national squads to gain one of the six remaining spots in the 12-team Olympic field. Thomas placed third in the all-round with 110.45 points, Young fourth with 110.15, Conner sixth with 108.95 and Marshall Avener eighth with 108.55, proof that the men had arrived—en masse. All of which raises the question of how so many became so good so fast.
"The shifting of control in gymnastics from the AAU to the USGF, development of age-group programs and the right kind of bodies have helped us make a quantum leap since '72," said the men's Olympic Coach Karl Schwenzfeier. "Having the right-size body is important. If a boy is more than 5'7" and 130 pounds, the problem of body control is increased. The head West German judge, Rolf Timmer, was ecstatic about our team in Wiesbaden. He was impressed because all our men are between 5'4½" and 5'7" and between 117 and 130 pounds. 'They all look the same, just like the Japanese. Except they have round eyes,' he said."
In Munich in 1972 the U.S. men's team had little going for it. Rent asunder by a walkout and a punchout, it folded up like a $2 accordion. One member left the team shortly before the Games, another was hurt and Avener did not help matters when he provoked John Crosby into a fight. A 10th-place finish among the dozen teams ended the worst-ever showing for U.S. men.
Japan and the Soviet Union should finish one-two for the fifth straight Olympics, but Schwenzfeier is hopeful, and justifiably so. He feels that the U.S., which has not won a medal in men's gymnastics since 1932, can beat out East Germany and Hungary for the bronze and that his men might bring home several individual medals.
"We are excellent on the horizontal bar. Any one of our men could take a medal there, especially Beach," Schwenzfeier says. "Young could win a medal on the rings, Thomas on the pommel horse and Conner on the parallel bars. And Pete Kormann is marvelous in floor exercise.
"Our Olympic gymnastics committee has been very cooperative and is letting us take the eight top men to Montreal, where we'll train until the Games begin. That gives us some working room and a chance to settle on a final team of six."
When Schwenzfeier makes his cuts he must be sure that the team is not weak in any event. All six will compete in the six all-round events—floor exercise, pommel horse, rings, vaulting, parallel bars and horizontal bar—with the five highest scores counting toward the team total. Those who score high enough in any event advance to the individual finals.
Thirteen gymnasts qualified at Berkeley in May for the Penn State Trials, and their combined scores for the two tryouts determined their final standing. Thomas, a junior from Indiana State, won the initial event with 113.05 points and was second at Penn State, where he scored a 9.70 on the high bar and a 9.80 on the horse. His total of 113.00 put him in first place with a combined score of 226.05.
The leading scorer at Penn State was Young, whose 113.45 points placed him second overall with 225.80. Since graduating from Brigham Young, he has been at Penn State working on his master's degree in biomechanics. Young, a Mormon, is married and has a five-month-old daughter.
In third place was quiet, mustachioed Tom Beach, who, like Young, maintains a low profile and is taking guitar lessons from Conner.
Conner passed up all the big-name gymnastics colleges to enroll at Oklahoma and is in other ways agreeably unpretentious. While in New York for the American Cup he convinced his coach, John Burkel, that what they should do for dinner was to sit on a curb and eat sandwiches. "So we went to a deli, got sandwiches and sat on a curb in midtown and ate them," Burkel says. And when they spotted limousines waiting for theatergoers to emerge from Broadway shows, Conner won a 25¢ bet from Burkel by slipping into the back seat of one while an astonished chauffeur held the door.
Then there is Avener. "After Munich, who would have guessed all the others on our Olympic team would be gone in '76—that the only one back would be Marshall Avener?" says Avener himself, gymnastics' Muhammad Ali. A Penn Slate alumnus, he is now decorously teaching and coaching at his alma mater. "When I got back from Munich I was not so far gone as to be content with my disposition," he says. "So I went to the psych clinic, and my best friend is now my former therapist." Indeed, Avener even succeeded in controlling his temper and ego.
He also succeeded in peaking when he had to, earning his highest scores ever at the Trials (9.65 on the high bar and 56.80 for the optionals) as he leaped from seventh place to fifth just in time on the last night.
Rounding out the top eight are Gene Whelan, a Penn State senior; Southern Connecticut State junior Pete Kormann; and muscular Mike Carter, an LSU senior. Together they make up a team that does have talent, flair and charisma, and one that may well return with Olympic medals at long last.