They call me Mouth," he said. "I never shut up. I'm a speech major and I'm interested in interpersonal communications." There were also the Smiler, the Mystic and Birdman and his Gliders, and they were at the University of Oregon in Eugene for the NCAA gymnastic championships where it was all a bit much, the most much, some said, in the 36 years of the event.
Talkative Marshall Avener of Penn State, smiling John Crosby of Southern Connecticut State and Stanford's Steve Hug, who was forever plugging into hidden outlets of energy, were 1972 Olympians and old adversaries in the sport's most demanding discipline, the all-around. And flying through his routines like one of your feathered friends was Jim Stephenson, captain of an Iowa State team that at times seemed easily as interested in sailing its balsa wood gliders as it was in gaining its second title in three years.
Before the Thursday and Friday all-around began—contestants compete in all six events: free exercise, horizontal bar, parallel bars, rings, side horse and vaulting—Avener admitted that he had a problem. "My verbal repertoire can be cutting and I'm probably hated by a lot of people," he said. Where he was most hated was at the Olympic training camp at West Point and at Munich. He threw tantrums and insults in liberal doses at his teammates for not performing well and for marching abominably in the rehearsal parade, and at team Coach Abie Grossfeld of Southern Connecticut for not finding the finances to house Avener and his wife Judi. They had married during the third day of camp.
"The camp lasted 6½ weeks and Judi had to drive 17 miles each day to a beach to sell beer to support us," Avener said. "I did try," said Grossfeld, "but getting married then wasn't right. Avener's behavior took away from the spirit of the team." At least, it took away the smile from Crosby's face. Lipped once too often, Crosby raised a fist and planted it in Avener's eye.
Penn State Coach Gene Wettstone has had his own troubles with Avener over the past four years—"I've put up with a lot of his mouth," Wettstone said—but, being a gymnast, too, he was able to bend far enough backward not to squelch his star. "Avener is our team captain and we've given him more power than ever because we felt he could convey his winning technique and get the rest to perform their best," Wettstone said Thursday. "Anyway," he added, "Avener's learning to be more tolerant."
"I've tried to improve," Avener said. "People don't realize I'm the one who suffers most. As a kid I was starved for attention so I got into gymnastics. Before one meet in high school I waited during warmups until the crowd was watching me, then took off for the mat, tripped on the edge of it, broke my toe and fell on my face. My coach told me that as far as modesty went I could do nothing but improve."
Hug is as quiet as Avener is verbose. He left his hometown of Northridge, Calif. to spend his senior high school year at an American school in Tokyo and study gymnastics at Nihon University. Sitting on a chair with his legs folded under him in a motel room in Eugene, he said, "Going to Japan was important. I learned to relax, how to make it free and easy. Most American gymnasts are too tense."
Aloof and given to blank stares, Hug goes through long periods of meditation and introspection and has an almost transcendental feel for life. These were always part of his personality, he insisted, and not something he learned at the feet of Buddha or in a Zen garden. But they do have a way of putting off people, including Avener, who said, "We're at opposite ends of the spectrum. I think he's very intelligent and I respect him, but we're different people."
There was almost nothing different about the two in competition. Avener scored well on Friday afternoon despite missing a double backflip in free exercise and slipping a hand in his high bar routine. After the second miss he slumped to a nearby mat and moaned, "So close, so close."
On Friday night it was Hug's turn. He needed 55 of a possible 60 points to win. There to watch was Avener, chattering all the time. "I have such a conflict of emotions," he said. "If Hug falls and I win because of it, we'll both feel bad." Hug did miscue on the side horse, but he finished strongly, causing Avener to say, "What a recovery, what concentration. I hate to say it, but he's a better gymnast."
Swinging smoothly and easily and perhaps drawing energy from the crowd, Hug came up with superb performances on the parallel and high bars, and Avener was even more of a Hug fan. "Look at him," he said. "He's an arrow. What a competitor."
Keeping score, Avener figured that Hug would need a 9.25 in the last event—vaulting—to beat him by five-hundredths of a point. "This is agonizing," he said. "I don't know if I can afford to win. If I do, I'll have to call Judi, and the way I talk, I'll go broke."
Vaulting is the only event in which second tries are allowed. Hug opted for his after a poor vault and Avener said, "Imagine, my college career comes down to one last try, and there's nothing I can do about it." Hug sped down the runway, hit the takeoff board and left it all up to the judges.
Avener was out of his seat and on the floor scanning the scores; 9.2 the judges decided: a tie. Avener scurried across the floor and in a second was in a—you guessed it—hug with his old foe. It was the first tie since 1940 in the NCAA all-around and it meant that Hug would have a chance next year to become only the second person to win three NCAA championships, Joe Giallombardo of Illinois in 1938-40 was the first.
"I'm glad neither of us lost," said Hug.
"I couldn't be happier," said Avener.
After the twains had met—and tied—Iowa State wrapped up the whole happy proceedings with a 2.125-point win over Penn State. Saturday night the awards were presented. The big one, given annually to the senior who displays the best combination of scholarship, gymnastics and sportsmanship, went to Crosby, who had finished fifth in the all-around. Cheer up, America. Smiles won the whole thing after all.