The sleepy town of Belcher may never be the same again. Not with all those young women dancing on a balance beam in the front yard of the old Pitts home.
Belcher, La. is a hamlet of some 480 souls, 18 miles north of Shreveport. It sits amid cotton and soybean fields and pecan orchards, and until recently its main attractions had been a couple of stately plantations and a small railroad station at which a train stops twice a day to pick up cotton. Then, late last summer, Vannie Edwards, who is one of the best gymnastics coaches in the country, bought the neglected 67-year-old Pitts mansion out on Highway 3049. By the end of August he was settling in with a staff of four coaches, a pianist, six quarter horses, a wrangler—and his team of 11 gymnasts, all lively, sharp-looking girls ranging in age from 13 to 20.
The new arrivals cut the waist-high grass of the 15-acre pasture surrounding the mansion. They washed the exterior until it sparkled, polished its mahogany floors and built a stable for the horses. They set up a balance beam and a trampoline under the big oak tree on the front lawn, and when the girls practiced on them the sight was guaranteed to stop any cars that happened along the old highway. One of the girls had brought a puppy named Olga, another a cat who fetches frogs from the swamps. They all hitched rides on the cotton wagons, bouncing about in the white fluff, and the community was so enchanted that it arranged a big fish fry at the cotton gin to welcome Edwards' girls properly. On the first Sunday after their arrival, the girls and their coaches filled the small Presbyterian church to capacity, and after the service the pastor asked, bewildered, "Where did all these young people come from?"
They came from as far north as Auburn and Saginaw, Mich., from Chipley in the Florida panhandle, from Huntsville, Ala., Houston, Tulsa and New Orleans. For Vannie Edwards, the move to Belcher was something of a homecoming, since he had taught at Centenary College in Shreveport. For the last 12 years he had conducted gymnastics camps in Summit, Miss., and, since 1972, had run them year-round. Edwards was the Olympic women's coach in 1964 and has been a manager on every Olympic and world championship team since then. What prompted him to pull up roots at the age of 39 and move his operation to the Belcher mansion was his divorce early this year, after 17 years of marriage. "Now that I'm single again, I thought that I might as well make a new start somewhere else," he says. "I have a 16-year-old son and a 13-year-old daughter back in Summit and they are the most important people in my life. But I can't stand to be without kids. To the girls here I try to be father and brother first and then coach."
Edwards' Belcher camp—he named it Olympia Manor—is one of four major training centers in the country. The others are Dick and Linda Metheny Mulvihill's school in Eugene, Ore., Muriel Grossfeld's in New Haven, Conn. and Rod Hill's in Denver. Edwards' camp differs from these in that he considers it his first duty to turn out competent and considerate young women and, secondarily, to develop their athletic talents. "I don't go after the best gymnasts in the country," he says. "I'm interested in their personalities and whether they will take to the country life. If they are unhappy in a rural environment they won't respond to training. Girl gymnasts are high-strung, like racehorses. A house in the country is the most perfect place to unwind."
Edwards' house has 11 bedrooms, six baths and four kitchens, so there is a reasonable amount of privacy for everyone, but the atmosphere is that of a large happy family that does everything together. The girls live two to a room and are responsible for keeping the house clean and orderly. They learn to shop economically with allowances from their parents and they all cook their own meals. One recent morning Edwards was alarmed by an acrid smell and, rushing to find out whether the house was on fire, discovered that 13-year-old Dionne Estopinal had tried to make donuts for breakfast. Unsuccessfully.
The girls' parents pay $115 per month for gymnastics instruction. This covers utilities and the cars Edwards has leased to take the team to exhibitions and competitions around the country. His assistants, Neal and Diane King, David Neel and Jim Archer, are all experienced coaches, but work for bed and board. "It's incredible that this many guys who are not interested in making money got together," says Neal King.
The girls do not pay for their stay at the house. "They are invited guests," says Edwards. To enjoy that privilege, they have transferred to Shreveport schools, where they attend morning classes. In the afternoons they assemble in a modern gym at the Shreveport YWCA for a three-hour workout. Two evenings a week the girls become the coaches, teaching some 180 other girls, mostly children under 10.
Edwards himself has never done a back handspring in his life. He played football, basketball and baseball in college and did not even see a gymnastics meet until he was 21 years old. He was instantly attracted and began to study the sport at clinics, exhibitions and competitions, and went on to film the European championships in Moscow, Paris, London and Rome. He is now considered by many to be the most progressive coach in the country. Muriel Grossfeld, who succeeded Edwards for the 1968 and '72 Olympics (when it was felt by many women in the sport that a female coach should lead the women's team), says, "He is one of the better coaches in the country—among the four or five I would call the best." Dale Flansaas, women's Olympic coach in 1976, says, "I have done a lot of clinics with Vannie, and I must say he is one of the very best. He is able to psychologically motivate his gymnasts, besides teaching them skills."
In the past it was assumed that a serious gymnast had to train six to eight hours a day and that some 100 repetitions were necessary to learn a new maneuver. Edwards feels that mental discipline is far more important than wearing down the body or "training like a robot." He strongly believes in the use of notebooks. The girls are required to describe their routines and what they must watch out for. "After they have written down a routine," he says, "I want them to shut their eyes and see themselves do it. Then they get on the equipment and perform. We can cut the repetitions to about 30 that way.
"Between performances they are expected to read in their notebooks. We know what they can do. If they fail, we tell them that it is not due to a physical limitation but to insufficient mental discipline. We work with videotape to point out their mistakes. You can punish your body all day long and gain nothing when your mind is not together."
Janie VanEman, a junior at Centenary and Edwards' oldest pupil, says, "It's a totally new approach. You accomplish something without killing yourself. Before I came to Mr. Edwards two years ago, I was on a team in Tulsa where we were doing tricks over and over for five hours. Now I just stop and say to myself, 'Think about it!' I'm amazed at what can be done with the notebook and my mind working."
Edwards' best gymnast is 16-year-old Pauline Litowsky of Houston. She is ranked 18th in the U.S. and will be trying out for the Olympic team. She is working on a new, extremely difficult vault that, as far as anybody knows, has never been attempted by a woman before. It is a vault with a full twist and a 1½ front somersault, and for the time being she needs three coaches to spot her and prevent her from diving into the mat head first. At a recent workout, Assistant Coach Archer began to advise her, but Pauline interrupted him. "Stop," she said. "Let me think." Edwards grinned.
Donut-maker Dionne, a Cajun from New Orleans, is the youngest of the group, and, at 4'8" and 90 pounds, the smallest. "She is our best prospect for the 1980 Olympics," says Edwards, "but right now she is still allowed to play. We don't push her too hard. We want her to enjoy being a child a bit longer." Dionne won't have any of that. "I work as hard as anybody else," she says. "That's what I am here for. I want to go to the Olympics." A sampling from her notebook reads: "Watch out for the toes when doing the rutens [her way of spelling routines]. You have to think toes, butt, arms, fingers, head. Dionne just going to have to concentrate. What do you think your notes are for?"
One recent evening, 17-year-old Carol Vandiver, who inherited her features and elegant movements from her Japanese mother, tried to express what Olympia Manor is all about. "When we are traveling and staying at the homes of other gymnasts," she said, "we are asked a lot of questions by the parents. They want to know whether Mr. Edwards wasn't taking us away from our families. They think that at our age it is vital to be with our parents. I tell them that I'm closer to my parents now than I have ever been. We learn to appreciate all the things they have done for us. When we were living at home, we took everything for granted. Now, just receiving a letter from home is something special. I was a stubborn and selfish teen-ager, but when you live with 10 other girls, you have to think about their feelings. Mr. Edwards explained to me that I had to get along with the others. He said I didn't have to like them, but it is hard not to. I have changed. I really care. This place is an opportunity you can't pass up. Every girl should have the chance to try it sometime."
Whereupon she produced her latest culinary achievement. Carol is not only developing her gymnastics skill at Olympia Manor, she has learned to bake a Spicy Carrot Snake Cake.