Mary Lou Rettonhad been settled into her front-row seat for a few minutes before anyoneapproached her. Sporting a new flyaway do and a deep tan, Retton looked a bitdifferent from her Olympic glory days, and onlookers in Indianapolis's MarketSquare Arena did double takes. Suddenly a nymph in braces, strawberry blondecurls and a blinding print shirt charged four aisles over to Retton. The girlhugged and mugged with Mary Lou, then bounded back to her seat, where she filedthis report:
"I can'tbelieve it's Mary Lou! Don't you think she looks good? You know where she'sbeen? Hawaii! I could never get a tan like that. No way. Albino City here.She's going to do the TV. Don't you like her hair? Mine is so retarded.... It'sMary Lou!"
For all hergushing, the gritty reporter—age 14, height 4'9", weight 78, shoe size5—has in the past six months been doing her best to render Retton a memory.Last March, at the tender age of 13, Kristie Phillips of Baton Rouge defeatedveteran gymnasts from 19 nations to win the American Cup in Fairfax, Va.Return's own American Cup victory in '83 brought her to the public eye and lenther credibility before the world's judges. Since her own Cup coup, Phillips hasbeen unbeatable. In June, at the meet in Indy where she spotted Retton, she wonthe national junior title and might well have won the senior but for a rulelimiting senior eligibility to those 14 or older as of Jan. 1. Kristie added awin in the Canadian Classic on June 28, then last month earned four goldmedals, including one for the all-around title, at the U.S. Olympic Festival inHouston, where she trains.
With Rettonsupercharging Madison Avenue, Olympians Bart Conner and Peter Vidmar manningmicrophones and Mitch Gaylord gone Hollywood, Phillips has emerged as arguablythe brightest star of U.S. gymnastics. Greg Marsden, the University of Utah'swomen's coach whose teams have won six straight national titles, says,"Without question, she shows the most promise of our gymnasts. She doesn'tjust execute the routine, she performs it. She'll be at her peak in 1988."Mike Jacki, executive director of the U.S. Gymnastics Federation, says, "Wehave to look at her as our outstanding hope for 1988. At her age, she is beyondanyone else we have ever had."
August 31, 1986
With ex-Rettonguru Bela Karolyi as her coach, Kristie has put herself on a course thatparallels Mary Lou's. Kristie even crowned her American Cup triumphRetton-style, with a kittenish leap into Bela's burly arms. "When I metKristie three years ago, I saw she had a personality sort of likemine—outgoing, a big smile," says Retton, now 18. "I said to myself.This girl is going to make it."
At the OlympicFestival, Kristie's polished personality was ever evident. She carried herselfwith a confident arch in her back and played the pixie, flashing her baby bluesand her braces during every dismount. She meanwhile delivered with enthusiasmthe expected ingenue lines: her ambition to act instead of becoming—as she hadearlier announced—an orthodontist ("too much work"); her longing for asports car (a Porsche); her infatuation with teen actors Ricky Schroder andAnthony Michael Hall, the star of Weird Science ("He has to be funny to gothrough a movie with a bra on his head"): her skill with reporters("When I was eight, I was doing interviews like this," she told The NewYork Times during the festival. "And I gave some pretty goodanswers").
Observes Karolyi,"If you look carefully, you can see many things [in Kristie] acting justlike Mary Lou—the running and the hug. It's natural, because she likes thepublic, but at the same time, she's a good student."
Kristie's styleis more reminiscent of another Karolyi protègèe's, Olympic gold medalist NadiaComaneci of Romania, than it is of Mary Lou's. Where Retton was, according toKarolyi, "an exploding bullet." Kristie is a rubber arrow. Phillipsremains relatively weak on the bars, but she has long lines and a sense ofrhythm that stand her well in floor exercises, and she is a world-classvaulter.
But Phillips wasbuilt for the beam. Her upper-body strength, combined with her tremendouslower-back flexibility, give her an astounding look. She may not haveComaneci's perfect technique, but she has an unusually dynamic physique."Every now and then I have to feel to see if her backbone is there,"says Kristie's father, Jimmy, a section supervisor at Exxon who has workedthere for 26 years. "Even in one of her first gym classes she was lying onthe floor and doing whatever it is she does now when she puts her button herhead."
Ah yes,the-butt-on-the-head move. Early in her beam routine, Kristie locks her heelsand her palms to the beam so that (cereal marketers. Cheerios in particular,take note) she forms a human O. Later Kristie goes from a handstand into areverse planche, which means her back begins to fold backward (aagh!) until hernoggin reaches her rear (owhh!) and her legs and torso form a horizontal(aieee!), whose stem is parallel to the floor. And that's only the beginning.After holding the J pose, with her eyes trained on her heels, she does a split,fanning her legs to 180 degrees. No one else in the world does this straddlereverse planche, destined to become known as "the Phillips."
"I think thatflexibility is my strong point," says Kristie. "I do have power andgrace, but I think that my flexibility overrules them. It's just a God-givengift. The first time I did it [the reverse planche], it was just something mycoach told me to do—so I did it." Says Kathy Johnson, an Olympic bronzemedalist on the balance beam in '84, "Kristie has a lot of originality, andshe uses her one main asset to great advantage. Things that look so hard, shedoes with ease."
Kristie'sshowmanship and her discipline (she was an honors student at Bammel MiddleSchool in Houston) are due in no small part to the efforts of her mother."If we didn't make sacrifices and show we believe in Kristie, she might notbelieve in herself," Terri Phillips says. Terri set a sporting precedent inthe Phillips family by playing left halfback on the girls' football team at thehigh school in Wisner, La. After a game in which she scored three TDs, ran fortwo extra points and broke an opponent's arm. Terri needed a ride home. Jimmy,three years older and from nearby Gilbert, gave her a lift. They began datingand were married 1½ years later, in 1958.
The Phillipseshad three boys, then Kristie came along. When Kristie was a year old, someonesuggested that Terri enter her pretty little daughter in a Baton Rouge beautypageant, and their venture as performer and performer's parent began. WhenKristie was 18 months old, Terri drove her 25 miles from home for modelinglessons, and a few months later, Kristie began dance classes. She was beginningto develop her winning looks. Told to make eye contact with the judges, shewould stroll out on the runway and stare at them until they stared back.
Beauty led tosport. At four, Kristie won the Louisiana Hemisphere Pageant, which qualifiedher for a national competition at Disney World. When the Phillipses arrived inOrlando, they learned there was also a talent contest. Kristie could not bedissuaded from entering. They borrowed a tape recording an hour before theshow, sketched out a dance and finished in the top 10 among the 120 entrants.At about the same time, the '76 Olympics came on the Phillips's TV screen,Comaneci performed her magic, and Kristie watched enraptured. She was hooked,and a gymnastics career was born.
Kristie had threeyears of local coaching before she and Terri made their first move, nearShreveport, La., where Kristie trained for nearly two years under VannieEdwards, Johnson's former coach. Jimmy stayed home with the boys. To help makeends meet, Terri worked as a housemother to 15 of Edwards's students in threeof his 82- by 14-foot trailers. The next major stop was Atlanta for a couple ofyears, where for $4 an hour Terri cooked and cared for the three children ofcoaches Tom and Bunny Cook. Two years ago, Kristie, usually the youngest andthe best at her training gyms, was ready for Karolyi (she had already spent twomonths with him in 1981) and the big time. In Houston, Terri rents afour-bedroom house, where she boards six of Karolyi's students and twodogs.
Kristie's successhas made it tough on Jimmy and Terri. They see each other once a month; Jimmyhas his job and one son still at home to care for. Terri took to housemotheringin hopes of defraying some of the $20,000 it costs annually to support an elitegymnast, but for part of last year only three kids rented space with Terri,instead of the six she was counting on, and she took an $8,000 bath. As ahousemother, Terri supervises the children and disciplines them. "At timesit's fun, at times it's sad," she says. "When I'm alone, I wonder whywe're doing this. Kristie appreciates it. Sometimes she'll write a little noteand put it on my bed, or write her daddy a letter. But there are times shewon't pick up her stuff or hem-haws when I ask her to do something—things kidsdo. Then she comes back and says, 'Mother. I'm sorry,' and rubs my neck. Weboth get homesick. But she's been a lot of places she wouldn't have been. If Ihad to do it all again, I would."
Karolyi believesKristie's psychological strength stems from Terri: "I've never seen morecare, more love than these two have. I don't get impressed that often, but it'ssomething that brings you to say, gosh, these people are unbelievable. WhateverKristie does in the gym, she looks over to the window and it could beanything—it could be troops dropping bombs on the building—and her mama wouldbe over there."
Kristie'scrucible at Karolyi's is much like the one that forged Retton. Retton matchedflips with the likes of Julianne McNamara and Dianne Durham; Phillips locksleaps with teammates and rival junior stars Julissa D' Anne-Gomez and PhoebeMills, both 13. Biological clocks being what they are, no one knows for surewho will come out on top, but Kristie seems primed for the role. "I'm notin it to get the fame and fortune." she says. "But that would benice."