VANESSA ATLER: WORLD-CLASS GYMNAST.
SHE'S injury-free, nearly 16 and at her most competitive on the international athletics circuit. For gymnast Vanessa Atler, 1998 could be a breakout year in a career aiming for the 2000 Olympics.
Most youths await their 16th birthday so they can get a driver's license. For Atler, that milestone - which she'll reach in February - holds a different significance: It will mean she has reached the minimum age to compete in the world championships and the Summer Olympics, scheduled for Sydney, Australia, in 2-1/2 years.
International gymnastics officials have tightened the eligibility requirements for gymnasts in recent years, citing the trend of ever-younger girls competing not on the junior level but as adults on the physically demanding open circuit.
Five days a week, Atler's mother or father drives her from the family's Canyon Country home to all-day workouts at a San Gabriel Valley gym. She fulfills her schooling requirements through an independent study program.
Over the summer, Atler competed at two meets in Australia - a team contest in the port city of Adelaide and an individual competition in the capital city of Canberra.
The latter contest pitted her against athletes from Japan, France, Italy, Russia and the host country. ``I won that one. I got first in the all-around,'' Atler said. ``I had a good meet. It was a great experience because the (2000) Olympics are going to be in Australia.''
While her time is consumed with pursuits different from those of the typical adolescent, Atler said she has had experiences through gymnastics that would be unavailable to most her age.
``Most of the teen-agers that I know are hanging out with their boyfriends or getting drunk,'' Atler said. ``If I went to regular school, I don't think I'd be able to stay in gymnastics. I'd rather be going to Australia,'' she said.
``I don't think I'm really missing out on much.''
Known for an aggressive performance style, Atler works out at Charter Oaks Gymnastics in Covina, under the watchful eyes of husband-and-wife coaches Stephen and Beth Rybacki, taking time off only on Sundays and Wednesdays.
That practice regimen paid off in 1997, a fruitful year for Atler. ``In every meet she's gotten into, she's been superior on vault,'' Rybacki said. ``She's the reigning national champion on that event.''
In August, she battled to a first-place tie at the U.S. Gymnastics Championships in Denver. She and Cincinnati gymnast Kristy Powell deadlocked after competing on the balance beam, uneven parallel bars, vault and floor exercise.
While her Denver performance would have earned Atler a berth in the world gymnastics championships later that month in Switzerland, her age made the 4-foot-9 teen ineligible.
But 1998 will bring a whole new batch of invitationals and international competitions to challenge Atler. ``Her next big competition is going to be America's Cup, the United States' biggest invitational where they invite other countries to bring their top athletes,'' Stephen Rybacki said. That event will be held in March.
The last time Atler competed in the America's Cup, she finished second to a French teen. ``She was one of France's (1996) Olympic team members (and) France's top gymnast,'' Rybacki said.
In February, Atler expects to compete in meets in Las Vegas and at Mount San Antonio College in Walnut. Also on the horizon is the Senior Pacific Alliance, an invitational sanctioned by the International Olympic Committee and open to several Pacific Rim countries. That event is scheduled for July in Canada, Rybacki said.
But perhaps Atler's biggest plum for 1998 would be winning an invitation to compete in the Goodwill Games, scheduled for July 19 through Aug. 2 in New York.
``This will be an important year for her,'' Rybacki said. ``We're still putting in new skills and learning new things for 2000, but a year from now everything should be set and ready to go.''
Atler said she hopes 1998 will continue her injury-free streak. In the past, she has been nagged by minor back and Achilles' tendon problems, but she said she has never broken a bone or suffered any serious physical setbacks since she began tumbling classes at age 5 in Valencia.
Olympics and world championships aside, Atler has another goal: to someday invent a trick, a gymnastic maneuver, that will be so innovative that the gymnastics community will have to name it after her. ``I haven't had any great tricks that people admire me for,'' she said.
HOMETOWN: Canyon Country
GOAL FOR 1998: Earn a berth in Goodwill Games
PHOTO (Color in Valley edition only) Vanessa Atler
BOX: VITALS (see text)