Skip to main content
Original Issue

Tumbling into a Soviet sea

Waves of U.S.S.R. athletes ruled the Montreal world championships

The United States' best bet to challenge the Soviet female gymnasts at the Seoul Olympics in 1988 stared at the giant orange pain pill in her small, strong hand. "My God," said Sabrina Mar. "How many of these things do I have to take?" Just one now, the tiny Chinese American was told. She grimaced and called for a Coke to wash the Motrin down.

Blocking out the pain that racked her 5-foot, 90-pound body, Mar had just finished 14th—and less than three-tenths of a point from the top 10—in the women's individual all-around event at the gymnastic world championships last Saturday night in Montreal. That's not bad for a 15-year-old straight-A high school student who hadn't seen a Soviet, Romanian or East German gymnast live until last week. She introduced herself with fire and flair.

While Mar was washing down trainer Jack Rockwell's answer to back spasms, the Soviets were 20 feet away, behind a blue curtain, trying to explain to the press how their two new superstars, Oksana Omeliantchik and Elena Shoushounova, had suddenly appeared in Saturday's all-around lineup. As of Thursday night, at the end of the women's team finals, which the Soviets won, Omeliantchik and Shoushounova were not included among the 36 qualifiers for the individual all-around.

One of the rules of the Federation Internationale de Gymnastique (the FIG), and it is a silly rule, is that after the two rounds of team competition, only the three top finishers from each country are eligible for the all-around. Because of falls during their routines on the uneven bars, the otherwise brilliant Omeliantchik, 15, and Shoushounova, 16, found themselves sixth and seventh in the final standings. Three other Soviets finished ahead of them.

No matter. The Soviets blithely announced that Olga Mostepanova (third place) and Irina Baraksanova (fourth) were injured, and that Omeliantchik and Shoushounova would replace them. No problem, said the president of the FIG, Yuri Titov, a Soviet.

"I'd like to see a doctor examine those Kids," said U.S. coach Don Peters. "I'm sure they are not injured. I feel sorry for Mostepanova, especially for her. She should have won [the worlds] in 1983, but the judges underscored her, and she a came in second. Now she has a second chance here, and they do this. That's cruel. They just want to win." And they did. After the dust cleared, Omeliantchik and Shoushounova tied for the all-around "old medal.

It didn't appear that the Soviets needed any added muscle. They powered heir way through the men's team competition (with four of their six Olympians retired, the U.S. men finished ninth), and Soviets Yuri Korolev and Vladimir Artemov finished one-two in the men's all-around. The U.S.S.R. women won the team competition in a cakewalk, by almost five points over second-place Romania. It's kind of easy when you can place five among the top seven. The U.S. women's team, minus Olympic all-around champion Mary Lou Retton, the sport's only multimillionaire, finished sixth after getting off to a jittery start in the first-day compulsory rotations.

On Sunday, when they narrowed the field to the eight best competitors on each of the four apparatuses, it was more of the same. The Soviet men won four gold medals in the six individual events, and the women took two of four golds: Shoushounova, the vault; Omeliantchik, the floor exercise, (Omeliantchik was also voted "most charming gymnast" by the press.) Altogether the Soviets won 11 gold medals.

"I thought I was training hard," said Mar, "but then I saw the Soviets, and I know I have to go home and train even harder. That's why I loved this competition. You got the chance to see who was doing what, and that is good. The thing that makes the Soviets so good is their form, their dance, their toe point—little things that stand out. They have more dedication. They take it more seriously. They look as though they have more concentration, more confidence. They do something, and they know they are going to hit. That is because there are so many gymnasts in Russia and they can never relax. They always train hard. In the U.S., there are not so many, and you tend to slack off in training."

Despite the pain, her face brightened and she smiled happily. "Did you see that Omeliantchik? She's such a little cutie. Everybody loves her. I wish I could have talked to her. But the Russians don't like to socialize as much as we do. You smile and try to talk to them, but you can't."

If they had talked, Omeliantchik, a 4'1" 78-pound bundle of effervescent energy—call her the Cheerful Cricket—could have told Mar about the poetry she writes or some of the jokes she loves to play on her teammates. And the American would have told her Soviet counterpart about the cartoons she draws well, mostly of Garfield, one of her favorite TV characters. She also likes The Cosby Show and Dynasty, "when she can find the time to watch TV," said her mother, Rose, who came to the United States from Canton, China in 1950. Sabrina's father, Richard, immigrated to the U.S. from China several months later. Her parents, who knew each other in China, met again in California and were married in 1956. The Mars (the name means horse in Chinese) now own a grocery wholesale business and raise bean sprouts for commercial use in Los Angeles.

Sabrina—her name comes from the lead in the movie Sabrina, played by Audrey Hepburn, whom her mother loves—discovered gymnastics through ballet, which she studied for eight years. "She did tumbling in ballet class, and her teacher said she was so agile we should put her in a gym," says Rose Mar. "I didn't even know what a gym was. But I said, 'Good.' She is hyper, always active. I told her, 'You go to the gym and stop doing backflips on my king-size bed. You are ruining the mattress.' Can you believe that she'd come home and say that going to the gym was like going to Disneyland?"

Four years ago. Mar was invited to train at SCATS, the giant gymnastic club run by Peters in Huntington Beach. Calif. That's a 28-mile drive each way from their home in Monterey Park. For the past two years, Sabrina has been the national No. 2 junior behind Tracy Ca-lore, who was a teammate in Montreal. Then in June she surprised everyone, including herself, by winning the all-around title at the seniors national championship in Jacksonville.

"Her potential is unlimited," says Mary Wright, her coach along with Steve Gerlach. "She can only improve. For many years she had a problem. She lacked confidence. This is the first year that Sabrina can perform when she competes. It is not normal for her to be an exhibitionist, and that is what it takes."

Her mother blames that on her Chinese cultural background. "I don't think it was a lack of confidence," said Mrs. Mar. "It was modesty. It's our culture. Sabrina is not the type to go out and say, 'Hey, look at me.' She's a Chinese girl. When you are raised 15 years being taught to be humble, it's hard to change. Now she has to be a showboat. She's getting better at it."

Smiling widely, although at times she was gritting her teeth in pain, Sabrina was the first gymnast up on the four-inch-wide beam on Saturday night. It was a tough place to start cold, and she turned in a 9.35 that was slightly underscored. On the floor, to the theme from Rocky, she fired up the crowd with a sparkling 9.65 performance. After a 9.6 on the vault, she was close to tears from the pain. "But you have to block it out," she said. With amazing grit, she closed with a 9.75 on the uneven bars.

And then she swallowed the giant orange pill and said, "Wow, I really hurt bad." But she smiled. Even with the pain, it's still Disneyland to Sabrina.



Mar was a glimmer of hope for the U.S. at an otherwise disappointing meet.



Shoushounova shone in the individual events and shared the all-around title.



Omeliantchik was the "most charming gymnast."