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The “Other Gymnastics” Slowly Catching On

June 28, 1996

BOSTON (AP) _ When Wendy Hilliard started gymnastics 20 years ago, she’d never even heard of the rhythmic part of the sport.

Now the former national rhythmic team captain is a coach and commentator for ESPN, and rhythmic gymnastics is gradually developing a following of its own.

``The majority of us used to be artistic gymnasts,″ said Hilliard, now president of the Women’s Sports Foundation. ``Most of these girls started in rhythmic, or they started in rhythmic earlier.″

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.

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,″ Hilliard said. ``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!″ she added.

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.″

It has taken time, but rhythmic gymnastics is gaining popularity in the United States. The Olympic trials are being televised, and nearly 3,000 people were in the Wang Center on Wednesday as two-time national champion Jessica Davis won the individual competition and a spot on the Olympic team.

Davis will be the sole American in the individual competition. Aliane Baquerot, Mandy James, Kate Nelson, Brandi Siegel, Challen Sievers and Becky Turner will compete in the group event.

The crowd clapped along as Davis 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.

``It’s a great feeling,″ Davis said of the crowd response. ``The people really loved it and it made me feel good.″

While Davis is probably the best rhythmic gymnast the United States has ever had, she knows she’s still far behind the European gymnasts who dominate the sport. She finished 24th at last year’s world championships, and her goal for Atlanta is to finish in the top 20.

But Davis also is optimistic about the future of U.S. rhythmic gymnastics. Most of the current senior team is young and very talented, and the junior team is just as strong, she said.

Having the Olympics in the United States will give the sport added recognition. The introduction of the group event will help, too, since Americans tend to like team sports more, Nelson said.

``It takes awhile for all the countries to build up that reputation,″ Davis said. ``I think someday we’ll be at that level, but it takes awhile.″

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