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Original Issue

Muscles and grace

The nation's best gymnasts, men and women, competed for Olympic team positions

The sounds of gymnastics are essentially soft: bare feet running along canvas mats, hands slapping against leather horses, bodies spinning in mid-air and landing, feet first, with dull thumps. Indeed, where there is noise—an excessive rattle of the parallel bars, for instance—there is imperfection, and a judge could well do his job by ear instead of eye. It is enough to lull the casual spectator to sleep.

Not that gymnastics isn't exciting. When a man hangs upside down from the rings and swings across the room, that's exciting. And when a lissome girl walks limberly by wearing a pink leotard, that's exciting too. There was excitement of both kinds last weekend at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where the leading gymnasts in the country competed for the National AAU championships and, more importantly, positions on the U.S. Olympic team. When it was over late Sunday night, 12 men and 10 women had been selected on the basis of their performance to make up a tentative Olympic squad. Before departure for Rome the squad will be pared to six each.

The scene at West Point was a mixture of circus and theater. At times there were as many as four acts going on at once: a girl in one corner doing a delicate ballet on what looked like a wooden fence (see page 26), another hanging by the back of her knees from a parallel bar, a man on a huge white mat in the middle of the room contorting his body into a perfect circle as he did his free calisthenics, and farther on another man playing leapfrog with a wooden horse. Right in the middle of this confusion sat the judges, a group of four for each event, calmly rating the individual performance of each gymnast. Gymnastics is scored the way figure skating is, or diving. Marks range from 10 to zero, although most fall between 9.6 and 6.5.

Just offstage was a practice room where contestants waited before going on. Girls nibbled at lumps of sugar, talked to mother or loosened up by standing straight-legged and touching their chins to the floor. Men dressed in white flannels and white ballet slippers practiced the deft maneuvers they would soon perform outside. Several West Point cadets, employed as officials, strode smartly about the room, notifying the gymnasts when it was time for them to get ready and speaking words of encouragement.

"The cadets help you smile," said Carolyn Osborn, a pleasing blonde whose figure (about 9.9) helped the cadets smile, too. Miss Osborn, attempting a gymnastic comeback at 21 after undergoing a knee operation, made the women's preliminary squad of 10.

So did Muriel Davis, another attractive blonde, who recently married Abie Grossfeld, a gymnast on the 1956 Olympic team. Chances are good that both husband and wife will make the team. ("If one does and the other doesn't," said Muriel, "we'll still both go to Rome.")

It is doubtful whether any of the U.S. gymnasts will win gold medals in Rome—or medals of any kind, for that matter. Gymnastics has never been popular in this country, and perhaps this is because it is, really, so dull to watch. To see a pretty girl bend and dip for 70 seconds to the strains of an untitled tune written especially for the event is interesting. But to watch 32 girls, one after the other, do exactly the same bends and dips to exactly the same tune is deadly. Even a man swinging upside down becomes routine after an hour or so. The connoisseur may enjoy it, but not the casual spectator. He becomes tired of everything except those leotards. You don't have to be a connoisseur to enjoy them.