Game and Gutsy, Three Tiny Teens Limber Up for the '88 Olympics

updated 11/02/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/02/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

They are pint-size and pixieish, most of them barely approaching 5' tall in their ballet slippers. But beneath those elfin exteriors, the 20 girls of the U.S. women's senior gymnastics team are ferocious competitors with little time for boys, burgers or a full day in school. Aided by private tutors, they put in 40 hours a week of practice and travel to numerous meets every year. And every year they must qualify all over again, because making one U.S. team doesn't guarantee them a place on the next. This year, the competition is fiercer than usual because team members are striving to rack up enough points in competition to be anointed as one of eight U.S. women gymnasts who will go to the Olympics in Seoul next year.

Injuries and the normal ups and downs of individual performance mean that rankings on the team change fast and frequently. The tension is enormous.

Last week the kids and their trainer were in Rotterdam for the the world championships, which are second in importance only to the Olympics. There, as at many other meets this year, the betting has been on three favorites: Kristie Phillips and Phoebe Mills, both 15, and Melissa Marlowe, 16. Phillips and Marlowe rank first and second on the U.S. team, and Mills has dropped to number eight—temporarily, most experts believe—after injuring her left heel last April. When the Olympic flame is lit in South Korea next September, coaches expect this trio to shine.

When Melissa Marlowe was just a few days old, she would gurgle, grin and bounce her head up and down as if she were trying to touch her toes. "Doctors and nurses were always telling me, 'This is the strongest baby we have ever seen,' " says her mother, Jeannine. Now 4'11" and weighing 85 lbs. counting her hair clips and earrings, Marlowe has the audience-entrancing air of Tinker Bell. "She has that special magnetism you don't find in many gymnasts," says her coach, Mark Lee. "She also has talent and dedication. If she could be consistent, nobody could touch her." Demonstrating Lee's point, Marlowe won the gold medal on the uneven parallel bars at the Pan American Games in July and scored a near-perfect 9.9 on the bars at a meet with the Soviet Union in Denver in April. "I'm still working for that 10, though," she says with a grin. "Ten is my favorite number."

Missy's father, Timothy, is a hospital lab technician; her mother, Jeannine, an elementary school counselor. They divorced when their daughter was 2, and Missy began dabbling in gymnastics at 9. "It was just something to have fun with on a Saturday afternoon," she says. Not for long. She was in the Utah State gymnastics championships by 10 and now trains from 1 to 6 p.m. each day after classes at a private school in Salt Lake City. "I've never had a boyfriend," she confesses. "To be a gymnast, you have to be married to the sport 365 days a year. You can't wake up with the attitude, 'Well, I think I'll just bag practice today and lounge around in front of the television with a bowl of potato chips.' "

The rewards so far have made up for the sacrifice. "The thrill of traveling is almost as much fun as competing," says Missy, "but there is one city I've been dying to see." She pauses, does a back flip, crosses her fingers and says excitedly, "Seoul, Korea."

In gymnastic circles, there is a balance-beam maneuver known as "the Phillips," named after the magnificent sprite who perfected it. Kristie Phillips, all 4'11" and 87 lbs. of her, is a legend in her sport before she can drive, and is considered a likely successor to the effervescent Mary Lou Retton, who won an '84 all-around gold medal and a place on the Wheaties box. Phillips has won the prestigious McDonald's American Cup as best all-around U.S. female gymnast two years in a row and may well capture it again next March. That would tie her with Retton, the only person to win it three times. Like Mary Lou, Kristie is a protégée of renowned coach Bela Karolyi, the Romanian expatriate who has relocated in Houston. "Kristie has very unusual flexibility and remarkable upper-body strength," says Karolyi, "and she is a natural showgirl." She's tough too. After suffering a stress fracture in her left wrist last year, she kept right on training, despite sharp pain.

It was another Karolyi superstar, Nadia Comaneci, who inspired Phillips to become a gymnast. Watching the Romanian Olympic champion on TV in 1976, 4-year-old Kristie got so excited that her mother, Terri, took her right out and signed her up at a gym in their hometown of Baton Rouge. To make it possible for her to train with Karolyi, Kristie moved with Terri to Houston four years ago while her father, Jimmy, a maintenance supervisor for Exxon, stayed home. Currently enrolled at a private school, Kristie works out two hours every morning and again for three hours every evening. "Sometimes it's hard to keep motivated," she confesses. "But I think I was lucky to find what I wanted before I knew what I was getting into." Once the Olympics are over, though, Phillips plans to put the gym far behind her. "My dream is to become an actress," she says confidently. "If I can do that, I can accomplish two dreams in one lifetime."

Phoebe Mills is Karolyi's other big-time pupil now, dogging Kristie's tracks in the ratings. In March at the American Cup, Mills was only a quarter of a point behind Phillips. At 4'10" and 80 lbs. she is, like almost all gymnasts, small-boned and lithe, a necessary criteria for the sport. "She came here four years ago with no special achievements," recalls Karolyi, "and now she has a chance to be a powerful athlete in the Olympics. A lot of it is based on her tremendous willingness, drive and unusually intense work. She's not a natural showgirl like Kristie. She's closer to Nadia in personality."

Phoebe suffered a major setback when she badly bruised her left heel against the uneven bars six months ago. "I have to work through bad times when they come," she, says, "and think about how good it feels when you win." Some of that drive must be inherited. Her mother, Susan, won nine high school varsity letters; her father, Christopher, a lawyer, lost his leg in a tractor accident and became a 1967 national amputee ski champion. Susan enrolled her daughter in a gymnastics class at 5—"I just like flying through the air and swinging around," says Phoebe—and turned her over to Karolyi four years ago. A straight-A student, Phoebe lives with her mother in Houston. Four other kids—two of them nationally ranked speed skaters—live back home in Northfield, III., with their dad, and one more is in California, training to be a figure skater. Phoebe's mom returns home as often as she can.

Phoebe, like her peers, knows her career as a gymnast will be essentially finished by age 23 or 24. "I want to go to college," she says, "but I don't know yet what I want to do with the rest of my life." For the moment the Olympics are enough to think about. "We are anticipating them with fierce determination," says Phoebe's mother. "She wants to win medals, not just be a member of the team." Adds Phoebe: "I dream of the Olympics all the time."

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