DeLeon started singing at 2. Her mother, Deborah, 34, "played a lot of albums and I kept listening," says the 3'11" star, modestly adding, "I catch on easily." At 3, she joined the choir of the Faith Tabernacle Church of God in Christ, where her father, Robert Leon Richards, is the pastor. Two years later she gave her first major performance at a gospel music-fest in Chicago Stadium.
Offstage, DeLeon (her name is a contraction of Deborah and Leon) is much like any other 8-year-old. An only child, she loves to swim, play baseball, watch TV and show off a set of newly grown front teeth.
Onstage, she becomes a fireball who takes total control of her audience. Dressed in starched cotton and ruffles, she skips up to the microphone. "Move on up the mountain!" she screams out to 20,000 fans. But what really sets her apart from the average kid is her calling. "God gave me the voice," says DeLeon solemnly, "and told me to use it."
She stands 4'11", weighs 86 lbs. and is being called the "heiress apparent" to Olympic champion Mary Lou Retton. Her name is Sabrina Mar, and at 15 she is the top-ranked female gymnast in the country. Last June, at the McDonald's Gymnastics Championships USA in Jacksonville, Fla., Sabrina, a Chinese-American from Monterey Park, Calif., won the all-around title, and in November she will test herself against international competition at the World Championships in Montreal.
American Olympic coaches predict Sabrina will be the one to beat at the 1988 Summer Games in South Korea. "She's our best prospect," says Don Peters, who coached the 1984 team. So how does she compare to Retton? "I think Sabrina is further along than Mary Lou was at a comparable time in her career," smiles Peters.
Indeed, while Retton depended largely on sheer strength to win a gold medal in Los Angeles, Mar relies more on style and finesse. Yet at the nationals in Florida, Sabrina displayed a Retton-like toughness. Behind, going into the final event, she scored a 9.65 on the balance beam to win the all-around title.
A 10th grader at Marina High School, Sabrina trains five days a week at a gym in Huntington Beach. Her schedule doesn't leave time for a social life, a sacrifice Sabrina gladly makes. "My friends don't understand why I do it, but I know that a certain inner dedication is needed to be good in a sport."
When DeLeon Richards bounds onstage and belts out, "I am a child of God," she means it. At 8, the pigtailed fourth grader from North Chicago is the newest gospel music sensation and the youngest performer ever signed by a major gospel label. Her debut LP, DeLeon (Word Records), has remained on the Top 40 gospel charts for five months. A radio station in Washington, D.C. recently honored her with a "DeLeon Richards Day," and in the past year she's been on a 25-city concert tour.