There was Tracee Talavera, a frail-looking 12-year-old, racing down the runway like a frightened fawn and doing her perfect front-handspring, one-and-a-half-tuck-front-with-a-half-twist vault. There was Marcia Frederick, 16, pin-wheeling around the uneven bars. And Leslie Pyfer, 16, posing regally and steadily on the balance beam.
In fact, all of the top U.S. female gymnasts, a squad of supple and nimble teenagers plus the 72-pound, 4'9" subteen Talavera, were looking good last week in Salt Lake City, where they gathered to do their Nadia Comaneci impressions. And some impressions they were; the judges twice handed out Comanecian scores—perfect 10s.
The occasion was the final trials for the World Gymnastics Championships, which will be held in Fort Worth in December, the first time the event has ever taken place in the U.S. After the four nights of twisting backflips and high scores were over, it was clear that finally Uncle Sam has a team capable of competing with the Soviets, Romanians and East Germans.
Six girls had qualified, primarily on the basis of points accumulated in three meets, the first the U.S. championships, held in May in Dayton, Ohio. Wednesday and Thursday nights in Salt Lake City counted as the second, Friday and Saturday nights the third.
On all four nights at Salt Lake each gymnast competed in four events: the balance beam, uneven parallel bars, floor exercise and vault. Two evenings were reserved for the compulsory routines, two for the more entertaining optionals.
Saturday night, after the last somersault had been turned and the last computer printout read, the high scorer was Pyfer, who, like Talavera, trains at the National Academy of Artistic Gymnastics in Eugene, Ore., but most of the drama had been supplied by Frederick.
At last October's World Championships in Strasbourg, France, Frederick, though hampered by a bad ankle, won a gold medal for her performance on the uneven bars. It was the first such medal ever won by a U.S. female in Olympic or world championship gymnastics competition, but in the ensuing months Frederick dropped from view. In an effort to correct what had proved to be chronically displaced tendons in both ankles, she virtually stopped competing.
"We started again this spring, before the nationals," says Frederick's coach, Muriel Grossfeld, of the American Gold School in New Milford, Conn. "It was almost like starting all over. You cannot be beautiful and elegant with your upper body when your feet don't work."
A rusty Frederick had finished only 19th at Dayton and needed to move up dramatically in Salt Lake to make the team. Until four weeks ago, she spent nine hours a day in the gym with coaches Grossfeld and Rich Carlson. Then she tapered off to seven, which is more usual for gymnasts of her caliber.
Wednesday night, at the University of Utah's Special Events Center, she came on strong with a 9.8 score on the bars, her specialty, and finished third in the all-around. The second night she got a near-perfect 9.95 on the bars and had an all-around score of 38.35. With two nights to go, she had fought her way up to 10th.
Friday night, her compulsory routine on the bars was awarded a 10, to that juncture only the second perfect score ever earned by an American, and came within a tenth of a point of pulling it off again on Saturday. But 9.9 wasn't quite good enough. With her score from Dayton figured in, the U.S.'s only gold medalist finished one place shy of qualifying for the six-member team. She is the first alternate for the Fort Worth meet and will perform there only if one of the regulars is hurt or misbehaves.
"But she was fantastic," said a coach from the Midwest. "To move up that far is an achievement to go with the great moments ever in gymnastics. It shows what a competitor Marcia is."
Talavera, who finished third behind Pyfer and Rhonda Schwandt, at 16 a veteran of five years of international competition, got a 10 at the trials—for that front-handspring, one-and-a-half-tuck-front-with-a-half-twist vault—and scored consistently high in all four events.
Talavera comes from Walnut Creek, Calif., near Oakland, but for almost two years she has been living in Eugene with her coaches, Linda Metheny and her husband, Dick Mulvihill, working under their supervision at the Academy of Artistic Gymnastics, located in what used to be an auto-body shop in downtown Eugene. A significant number of the top girl gymnasts now board with, or near, their coaches, an arrangement that solves a lot of logistical problems and helps keep their minds on their stalder shoots.
"Leslie [Pyfer] enjoys gymnastics immensely, and she works at it," says Linda Metheny, who will coach the U.S. team at Fort Worth. "To Tracee, it's all fun. She does a routine, jumps to the mat and does a front flip to her butt—just carrying on and playing the whole time. She has a tremendous amount of energy and is always in motion.
"We believe kids belong at home with their parents, but we also believe that the girls who have real potential should have the opportunity to develop it, so we have a few living with us. We're like a family. We go on picnics and campouts and things on weekends. Tracee loves to fish, and she's great with my baby daughter, Donijo. They're like sisters."
Talavera's no babe compared to Donijo, but her age may turn out to be a sticky point. She will still be only 13 come December, and 14 is the minimum age for international competition.
Frank Bare, head of the United States Gymnastics Federation, will formally petition the sport's international governing body for a waiver in Tracee's case, and he expects it will be granted.
"It's left up to the discretion of the contestant's country," says Metheny, "but usually everyone sticks to the rule. At the last Winter Olympics, the Russians did have a 12-year-old figure skater, and at the World Championships last year the Bulgarians had about three girls who could have been less than 12. They were tiny."
The Oregon Academy's chief rival is Grossfeld's American Gold Club, which has produced not only Frederick but also Leslie Russo, an olive-skinned 16-year-old whose fifth-place finish at Salt Lake was also a comeback, in her case from a siege of mononucleosis. During warm-ups, Grossfeld swept Russo along with a bubbling rush of coaching tips:
"Leslie, didn't that feel good? Didn't the somersault feel high and snappy? All right. It works, sweetheart!"
And: "Leslie, in two parts. Don't take your hands off the beam, O.K.? Shift your hips back, then arms.... Head, hip counterbalance, then arch!"
Russo listened, apparently did the right things with the right parts and earned a 9.9 on the beam Saturday night to slip past Kathy Johnson, at 19 the grand old lady of the team. Winner of the first American Cup in 1976 and a bronze medalist in Strasbourg, Johnson turned in another strong performance, highlighted on Saturday by a floor exercise that won her a 9.9.
Second-place finisher Schwandt, from Los Alamitos, Calif., had, like Frederick, been on the disabled list; while recovering from knee surgery, she had been unable to compete at Dayton. Still considered to be "potentially the best American gymnast ever," Rhonda was finally declared eligible to compete last week and came in second because, under an unprecedented ruling, it was rather cavalierly assumed she would have performed at the same level of excellence in Dayton as she did in Salt Lake.
More mathematical acrobatics became necessary when one of the leaders, Christa Canary, of the Mid America Twisters of Northbrook, Ill., had a high temperature and dizziness Saturday night and couldn't compete. USGF officials decided to use her optional scores from Dayton, which had been quite high, and she made the team as the No. 4 qualifier, trailing Talavera by 1:30 points.
In four nights of competition the judges awarded two 10s, two 9.95s and seven 9.9s: Frederick, the mere alternate, collected a 10, a 9.95 and a 9.9. Were the blue-coated judges, all from the U.S., guilty of score inflation? The coaches present insisted not.
"I've never seen a meet like this before," said Bill Sands, who will assist Metheny in Fort Worth. "The girls just looked super. It was easily—easily—the best meet ever in the U.S. The routines I saw would get 9.9s anywhere." Said Metheny, "There were 16 double backs attempted, and all 16 of them were made. Over four days, there were only 10 beam falls."
And that is an indication in itself that the U.S. girls are on the rise.