WHOSE STAR WILL SHINE IN SYDNEY? : ATLER, JONES AMONG AREA HOPEFULS.
Four years ago, few people outside the archery community knew of Justin Huish, the Simi Valley sharpshooting prodigy. But after Huish's golden charge in the 1996 Olympics, he was celebrated from Ventura to Burbank, from Encino to Lancaster.
So, who's the next Huish? Which local athlete will burst upon the Olympic scene at the 2000 Games in Sydney?
Well, the next Justin Huish also may be the next Kerri Strug.
Her name is Vanessa Atler, and she's a 16-year-old gymnast from Canyon Country. In 1996, Atler won the U.S. junior championship. Last year, in her first seniors competition, Atler dominated until a late fall forced a co-championship with Kristy Powell. U.S. Gymnastics officials believe Atler is an early favorite to make the Sydney team - the only favorite, at this point.
``She is, by far, one of the most talented athletes in the country,'' said Mary Lee Tracy, an assistant coach on the '96 U.S. team who runs a gym in Cincinnati. ``She's definitely a top prospect. She has everything it takes. All she needs is a little more experience, and with two years to go, that shouldn't be a problem. She's got the potential to be the next Dominique Moceanu.''
Atler isn't the San Fernando Valley region's only rising star. There's Marion Jones, of course, the former resident of Palmdale, Camarillo and Thousand Oaks who has five gold medals in her sights: 100 meters, 200, long jump, 400 and 1,600 relays. U.S. track believes Jones is its next superstar, its next Jackie Joyner-Kersee, its next Michael Johnson.
There's Len Krayzelburg, the brilliant backstroker from Studio City and USC. A native of Odessa, Ukraine, Krazelburg moved to the United States with his parents, Yelena and Oleg, in 1989. He spent one year at Santa Monica City College, then transferred to USC in 1996. In '97, he was named Swimming World Magazine's swimmer of the year.
``I wake up every morning and go to practice thinking about the Olympics,'' Krayzelburg said. ``It has always been that way for me. Growing up in (the Soviet Union), the sports programs there are oriented to raising Olympians.''
There's former Thousand Oaks native Amy Skieresz, an Arizona junior. She's the two-time defending NCAA champ in the 5,000 and 10,000 and one of the most dominant college distance runners ever.
``I can't think that far in advance,'' Skieresz said of Sydney. ``I want to get through my college career first. But everybody wants to go to the Olympics, of course.''
Atler has no such indecision. She studies French at Canyon High, she takes an independent study program at Learning Post School in Newhall - ``My mom wants me to get some social interaction,'' she said - and she trains six hours per day at Charter Oaks Gymnastics in Covina, with coach Steve Rybacki. (Atler's training partner, Jamie Dantzscher, is a Palmdale resident who finished sixth at the national championships and also has a chance to make the U.S. team.)
``We're working to get Vanessa to the point she's successful at the Olympic level,'' Rybacki said. ``We're working with short-term goals and long-term goals. She has a high level of difficulty in her routines now. We're working on cleaning up her skills and making her routines more artistically pleasing.''
Atler's aggressive style caused trouble at the '97 national championships. She held a .65 lead entering the final event - the dreaded uneven bars - but instead of a conservative routine, she opted for the difficult ``Comaneci.'' A fall ensued.
``I was a little disappointed because of the fall on the bars, but I was thrilled to get first place,'' Atler said. ``When the thing started, I wasn't even thinking about winning because it was my first senior (championship).''
Now she's not only thinking about winning, she's thinking about winning gold.
PHOTO Vanessa Atler, a 16-year-old gymnast from Canyon Country, is an early favorite to make the U.S. Olympic team for the 2000 Games.
John Lazar/Special to the Daily News