Top Rhythmic Gymnast

Sadly, the citizenship race doesn’t end positively for all athletes. In 1996, Tatiana Brikulskaya was a 17-year-old top rhythmic gymnast from Ukraine when she moved to Brooklyn with her family. At first, Brikulskaya was miserable. “I couldn’t speak English, and I didn’t know how this country worked, how the lifestyle was,” she says. A month after her arrival, she met a fellow gymnast at the Jewish center where she was taking English classes. The woman gave her the name of a coach; even in a foreign country, gymnastics was something that Brikulskaya understood. “I started doing gymnastics again for myself, just for myself,” she says.

Brikulskaya, now 21, had bigger ambitions: to go to the Olympics. But the Immigration and Naturalization Service has refused to bend its five-year residency requirement (she’s been here for three years and five months). Brikulsakaya says, “I think there should be some way to make an exception when you want to compete for this country.”

There isn’t, says Elaine Komis, public affairs officer at the INS. “By law it’s five years, no matter who you are.” Brikulskaya, who will be 25–geriatric in gymnast years–by the 2004 Olympics, is trying to be philosophical. “I would love to compete in Sydney,” she says, “but not more than I want to become an American. This is my country now.”

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The Athleticism of The Sport

Later, Lea Ann Miller, who skated for Stars on Ice for years before becoming one of its choreographers, stands by the practice rink watching rehearsal. “Figure skating has changed so much,” she says. “There’s more money, more television–the skaters are stylized early. They become characters.”

Has the athleticism of the sport suffered as a result?

After all, when asked, many of the skaters label themselves not athletes but performers.

“I think the girls would like to be considered athletes,” Miller says. “Skating for Target Stars on Ice is much harder than doing a four-minute Olympic routine. They’re on the ice for up to 45 minutes.”

Nearby, Lu Chen takes off her skates to reveal feet blistered and callused, her toes scrunched like a mass of grapes. She tapes her ankle and winces. Chen hasn’t developed a fanatical following in the United States. “I spend most of the summer in China,” she says quietly. “A lot more people know me there.”

Chen is 23 but seems younger. She likes shopping at malls and watching Ally McBeal. Her ears are pierced with miniature butterflies. When she smiles, her Kewpie mouth curls at the edges.

The child of professional athletes–her mother played ping-pong, her father hockey–Chen wanted to be a dancer until she saw a Peggy Fleming special on television. “I saw her and I was, like, ‘Wow!’ I wanted to be her.” Instead, Chen was rushed into China’s notoriously rigorous training regimen. She struggled, had many disappointments and comebacks and finally retired after winning an Olympic bronze in 1998.

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Meccas For The Muscled

Ten U.S. cities prove why they are meccas for the muscled.

Where do the most phenomenally fit people live? We put America’s 50 largest cities (population 300,000 plus) to the test. We tracked health club participation, the percentage of residents at a “healthy” weight and involvement in 25 sports and fitness activities, We also looked at the number of local bike trails, golf courses and footraces. Here are the breakaway winners–the 10 sportiest places to live in the U.S.

  1. DENVER Is something in the mountain air turning ordinary mortals into athletic goddesses? The Colorado capital tops the health and fitness charts in virtually every category. It has the lowest percentage of obese people in the nation and the highest overall participation in the 25 sports we tracked, from aerobics to martial arts to volleyball. Denver’s elevation (5,280 feet) also attracts world-class runners, who train there year-round. “In Denver, you don’t work out just to work out,” says Chris Biretta, 29, an attorney and a die-hard hiker. “You do it so you can climb that fourteener. People go to the gym on weekdays to train for a race on the weekend.” Not to mention some of the best skiing in the country is within commuting distance. (Colorado Mountain Club, 303-279-3080)

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The Global Spotlight

KERRI STRUG Her iconic vault kept Strug out of the all-around competition in Atlanta, but it thrust her into the global spotlight. She emitted her signature squeak on national talk shows and Saturday Night Live and appeared on Beverly Hills 90210, Touched by an Angel and the cover of People. Barbara Walters chose her as one of the 10 Most Fascinating People. Yet Strug seemed to devolve quickly from team martyr to team traitor after she racked up endorsement deals and skipped the pro tour. The school paper at UCLA, where Strug first attended college, wrote that she should win a gold for being “the most annoying person ever.”

Strug transferred to Stanford. When she’s not studying for a communications degree, the 22-year-old does public speaking and charity work. In January 1999 she completed the Houston Marathon (in a respectable 4 hours, 12 minutes) and plans to run it again this year. “My life used to be like the movie Groundhog Day,” she says. “I kept living the same thing over and over. My teammates and I were a little robotic, we were all so similar. Now I have perspective; I am able to relax.”

There’s one more thing. “You know how [my coach] Bela carried me?” Strug asks rhetorically. “Strangers, fans, people on the street–they always want to pick me up and carry me. Especially men. I think that’s kind of weird.” Sometimes she lets them.

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Figure Skating

“After the 1994-95 season, the attitude was, get in, get cash, get out,” says Mark Lund, publisher of International Figure Skating magazine. The sport had “unnatural popularity…. I don’t foresee those kind of ratings ever again, unless someone gets shot on the ice.”

Champions on Ice

Thus the manic must-see swirl of publicity has ebbed into a low-grade appreciation for watching what often amounts to pretty girls making pretty twirls. Most of the fans are women, and it is largely their stubborn affection that supports a clump of traveling shows, themed specials and the big guns of the ice spectacles: Champions on Ice, featuring Oksana Baiul and Michelle Kwan; and Target Stars on Ice, featuring Lipinski, Chen, Gordeeva and Yamaguchi.

Unlike most sports, figure skating lives and dies by its personalities. These women are not just athletes; they are celebrities who triple-toe-loop. They must cross the boundary between hero and star. And for better or worse, the future of figure skating sits precariously atop their well-turned shoulders.

Stars started small. It’s the brainchild of Scott Hamilton, the 1984 Olympic champion and skating icon best known for his puckish backflips and effervescent commentary–not to mention his highly publicized battle against testicular cancer. In 1985, the short, balding skater was let go from the Ice Capades for being “commercially unappealing.” Stars began the next year, with a handful of skaters driving all night to low-paying gigs. Then came Nancy and Tonya, and Hamilton and his stars became very appealing and very rich.

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Grand Slam Victory

Publicly, Graf was the perfect, if unemotional, sportswoman. She rarely questioned a call, but if a match went awry she took to her bedroom in a black mood. “You could barely speak to her during those times,” Gunthardt says. “She didn’t talk, she growled. But no one realized how sensitive Steffi was. They saw her as a robot who won matches without blinking an eye.”

One of the few people who could cajole her into a better mood was her mother. “She was my rock, my pillar,” Graf says, lighting up at the mention of Heidi Graf. She recalls a flight home after a particularly difficult Wimbledon loss. “I was really down and nothing was helping. So my mother took a hand puppet given to children on the flight and began this performance making fun of my mood, which made me laugh. I realized that a tennis match wasn’t the most important thing in life.”

22nd Grand Slam Victory

Graf’s determination and perfectionism may have been off-putting to some around her, but they also enabled her to overcome career-threatening injuries. She has had surgeries for inflamed sinuses and bone fragments in her feet. In 1997, she underwent reconstructive knee surgery that required an eight-month layoff. Despite her doctor’s doubts that she would ever compete again, Graf set out to prove him wrong. When she prevailed over Lindsay Davenport, Monica Seles and Martina Hingis on her way to winning the French Open last May, it seemed miraculous. Her 22nd Grand Slam victory put her within reach of reclaiming the No. 1 ranking and tying Margaret Smith Court’s record of 24 Grand Slam titles. But Graf wasn’t tempted by history. “I never played for others–I played for myself,” she says.

Her egocentrism and a disdain for promoting women’s tennis off the court remain the only blemishes on an otherwise perfect career. Unlike her predecessors Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert, Graf felt that she owed the game only her best tennis. For most of her career, she rarely “worked” a sponsor party or conducted clinics. She refused to get involved in the tour’s business affairs and did not lend her support to the women’s campaign for equal prize money at Grand Slam tournaments. Continue reading “Grand Slam Victory”

The International Skating Center

Figure skaters aren’t just athletes. They’re celebrities who triple-to-loop.

Allison Glock goes backstage with America’s ice queens

The International Skating Center in Simsbury, Connecticut, teems with skaters hopping along in covered blades, the plastic thwapping on the carpeting like flip-flops. The rinks are cast in garish light and kept predictably cold. The scene is desolate: concrete benches and blaring rehearsal music, “Bridge over Troubled Water,” playing over and over for what seems like hours.

The only beauty to be found is on the ice, where a few of the world’s best-known figure skaters are warming up, preparing for this year’s Target Stars on Ice tour. Kristi Yamaguchi kicks her heels up to her hamstrings. A pairs team has a spat. Tara Lipinski shimmies in the corner. They all glide betwixt and between in a gorgeous, unfathomable flow. Even at its most pared down, figure skating remains exquisite to watch.

Yamaguchi exudes grace and whimsy. She floats. Lipinski is funkier, all hips and shoulders. Ekaterina “Katia” Gordeeva skates darkly, with stiff perfection, while Lu Chen, an Olympic medalist from China, moves with contrived sass, an attempt to fit in with her new American gang.

Outside the rink, groupies wait with disposable cameras in hand. They are all women, and they linger for hours. Most long to see Lipinski, a teenager invariably described as cute.

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HONORABLE MENTIONS

BOSTON Walking is Beantown’s No. 1 sport, and more people stroll to work there than in any other metropolis. “The city is so compact that you can walk from one end of town to the other in less than an hour,” says Kim Vickers, a 27-year-old convention planner and volleyball player. Aerobics classes are especially popular among residents of this New England college town, as are jogging, biking and inline skating on the path along the Charles River. The city is home to the Boston Marathon, the oldest and most prestigious race of its kind, and the Head of the Charles Regatta, the largest rowing competition in the world, which drew 6,500 rowers last year. (Boston Ski & Sports Club, 617-789-4070)

HONORABLE MENTIONS

Two cities just missed making the grade but are worth mentioning for outstanding masons: New York, where fitness is a challenge, and Honolulu, which makes exercise so effortless.

NEW YORK New York has more pro sports teams than any other metropolis, but natives don’t just watch sports from the stands. There are some 600 health clubs in the five boroughs, and the opening of Chelsea Piers, America’s largest recreational sports complex, has made it easier for residents to squeeze sports like climbing and kayaking into their 16-hour workdays. (Chelsea Piers, 212-336-6666)

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Mentor for Gymnasts

Last summer, Miller married Phillips, a med student. The 900 guests included all of her ex-teammates, who served as bridesmaids. (The bride admits to having had her nose surgically “scraped down.”) These days, her charity work includes serving as spokesperson for the Children’s Miracle Network; she’s also a mentor for gymnasts at major competitions. She will return to the Olympics in 2000 as an assistant producer for NBC. One of Miller’s personal benchmarks is growing a quarter of an inch: “I made the big five!” (Feet, that is). Meanwhile, a statue of Miller is being erected in her hometown of Edmond, Oklahoma. Its height: 18 feet.

AMY CHOW After becoming the first Asian-American gymnast to bring home an Olympic medal (a silver in the uneven parallel bars), Chow took a three-year break from elite competition to study biology at Stanford. Now 21, she’s back to training full-time for Sydney and rehabbing an injured ankle. She placed eighth out of 15 at the world team trials last September. Still, her coach, Mark Young, calls her chances of making the team again “excellent. She has an awesome new bar routine with skills that no one else is doing.” Chow’s post-Sydney plan is to become a pediatrician. Has her celebrity been an issue on campus? “Not really,” says the shy Chow. “There are lots of people at Stanford who are much more famous than me–like Chelsea.”

DOMINIQUE DAWES “Awesome Dawesome” competed in two Olympics and won a bronze in the floor exercise in ’96. She retired from gymnastics in 1998 and is now a communications major at the University of Maryland. What’s next? “I’ve always wanted to be either an FBI agent or an actress,” says Dawes, 23, who has appeared in a music video by The Artist and the Broadway production of Grease/ She will appear in an episode of the Disney Channel’s The Jersey this spring. “My heart still races when I watch competitions,” she admits, “but I know I can do many things in life as well as gymnastics.”

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