Julianne Mcnamara, U.S. Gymnast No. 1, Bids for the World Title in Moscow

updated 11/23/1981 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/23/1981 AT 01:00 AM EST

What has made her, at 16, the best female gymnast in America? "My hard work," says elfin (4'10½") Julianne McNamara with no hesitation. But the six-hours-a-day, five-days-a-week grind that has consumed the life of the freckle-faced youngster for the past 1½ years will be worth it if next week she is named the best female gymnast in the world.

At the World Gymnastics Championships in Moscow, Julianne is a sleeper of sorts, having appeared infrequently in international competition. Yet she is expected to mount a strong challenge to the two favored contestants, East Germany's Maxi Gnauck and Yelena Davydova of the Soviet Union, the 1980 Olympic champion. One of Julianne's strong suits is the uneven bars, according to her coach, Dick Mulvihill, who praises her "swing, constant movement and grace. The effect is delicate and powerful—like being hit by a velvet hammer." She also excels in floor exercise and vaulting, with the potential, says Mulvihill, "to do vaults not even talked about yet."

McNamara has endured her share of pain in reaching world level. Before the U.S. Olympic trials last year she was hampered by a strained ligament in her left ankle. With gritty determination, she went on and earned the sixth—and last—spot on the team. But the U.S. boycott of the Moscow Games prevented the squad from competing. Julianne consoled herself by tying for the all-around championship in the U.S.-vs.-China Friendship Invitational last December. Since then McNamara has put together a remarkable series of victories, winning overall in the New Zealand All-Around Championship, the Elite Team Nationals and the American Cup.

Those gold medals came at considerable sacrifice by her family too. The younger of two daughters of Kevin and Jean McNamara, both from Australia, Julianne was born in Flushing, N.Y. The McNamaras later moved to San Francisco, where today her father does commercial trade promotion for the British Consulate. Older sister Elizabeth took up gymnastics first, and Julianne tagged along. Her interest was piqued by the dazzling performances of Rumania's Nadia Comaneci in the 1976 Olympics. "I can still see Nadia on the high beam when she got her perfect 10," Julianne says. Despite uneven coaching at first, Julianne's hard work paid off at age 13 in a sixth-place all-around finish at the Junior Nationals. Julianne then decided she needed the top-flight coaching of Dick and Linda Mulvihill, who run a gymnastics academy in Eugene, Oreg. McNamara's parents felt she was too young to leave home, but she was persuasive. So far her parents have spent about $25,000 on her training, and after Elizabeth enrolled at the University of Oregon last fall, the family finances reached the breaking point. Then an anonymous donor agreed to pay Julianne's $500-a-month expenses.

With seven teammates, she lives dormitory-style in the Mulvihill home. Her daily routine is tough: up at 6:30, morning classes at South Eugene High School, training until 6:30 p.m., homework after dinner, lights out by 10. Her only concessions to a normal teenage life are bubble gum, cottage-cheese-and-jam sandwiches and weekend TV. Dates? No time.

"She's the kind of child who needs a hug or two per day," says Peggy Weinstein, a secretary at the Mulvihill academy. But Julianne is also a child of tenacious purpose. Though she's set her sights on the '84 Olympics in L.A., she's keeping her grade average hovering near a perfect 4.0 in the hope of going to Stanford and, after that, medical school. "The ultimate thing for me is to be the best," she says. "I always like doing things perfect."

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