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The “Other Gymnastics” Slowly Catching On

June 27, 1996

BOSTON (AP) _ Jessica Davis is good, very good, probably the best rhythmic gymnast the United States has ever had.

Yet she knows the timing just isn’t right for her.

Maybe if she’d been born a few years later, or if the sport had caught on a little earlier here. But Davis has the mixed blessing of being America’s best when the country is still trying to catch up to the rest of the world in rhythmic gymnastics.

``They have a longer history in the sport,″ she said, referring to the European countries that dominate the sport. ``It takes awhile for all the countries to build up that reputation. I think someday we’ll be at that level, but it takes awhile.″

Rhythmic gymnastics was recognized as a sport in 1962, but it wasn’t until 1984 that the rhythmic individual all-around became a medal sport. The group event will be a medal sport for the first time in Atlanta.

Davis, the two-time national champion, will represent the United States in the individual competition. Aliane Baquerot, Mandy James, Kate Nelson, Brandi Siegel, Challen Sievers and Becky Turner will compete in the group event.

Extremely popular in Europe, rhythmic gymnastics has been slow to catch on in the United States. The combination of dance and gymnastic moves confused many Americans conditioned to seeing gymnasts fly through the air, flipping, spinning and twisting.

Rhythmic routines are similar to the floor exercise, but the gymnast can’t perform any handsprings or aerials. Instead, she works with different equipment _ a hoop, a ball, clubs, a rope or a 20-foot ribbon.

In the ribbon routine, for example, the gymnast might perform several spins or leaps, all the while swirling the ribbon around her without getting caught up in it.

``People can’t always relate to it. It’s not like running a race like they’ve done before,″ said Wendy Hilliard, a former national rhythmic team captain. ``They haven’t gone home and stuck their leg above their head while spinning a ribbon.

``The only thing they know is the hula hoop, and they didn’t do anything graceful with that!″ said Hilliard, now president of the Women’s Sports Foundation and a rhythmic coach.

There are some who say rhythmic gymnastics isn’t a ``real″ sport, a notion Hilliard scoffs at.

``No athlete has to be so fully conditioned, head-to-toe,″ she said. ``Everything’s got to be strong.″

Slowly, though, rhythmic gymnastics is gaining popularity. The Olympic trials are being televised, and nearly 3,000 people were in the Wang Center on Wednesday as Davis won the individual competition and a spot on the Olympic team.

The crowd clapped along as she performed her club routine to ``Hand Jive,″ and there were whistles and cheers every time she stepped onto the floor. She and the group event members received a standing ovation when the Olympic team was introduced.

Having the Olympics in the United States will give the sport added recognition, as will the introduction of the team competition, Nelson said.

``The American people tend to be very interested in team sports,″ she said. ``So I think group is a great opportunity for rhythmic because it will get more people involved. It’s a team thing, and that tends to be what Americans enjoy watching more.″

Both Davis and the group members know they are out of medal contention already. Davis, 24th at last year’s world championships, just wants to finish in the top 20.

There will be a time, though, when American rhythmic gymnasts can challenge the European powers. It’s not that far off, either, Davis said. Most of the current senior team is young and very talented, and the junior team is just as strong, she said.

``I’m glad I’m not going to be competing against them,″ she said with a laugh.

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