ATLANTA OLYMPICS SPUR GIRLS' DREAMS.
The Chatsworth gym run by Olympic gold medalist Li Ning is thousands of miles from this summer's Atlanta Games.
But the five, jumbo-size interlocking rings painted above the gymnasium floor provide a constant reminder of the ultimate goal of many of the youngsters who flock here daily for hours of tumbling, flipping and occasional falling.
It's a dream that spirals to intense levels at times like Wednesday, less than a day after 18-year-old Kerri Strug squelched the pain in her throbbing ankle and vaulted a second time, ensuring the first-ever Olympic gold for a team of U.S. women gymnasts.
Strug, Mary Lou Retton, Cathy Rigby. Along with figure skating, gymnastics is the Olympic sport that most seems to capture young girls' imaginations. It fuels their ambitions and drives them to ditch lazy days of ``Brady Bunch'' reruns and mall-ratting for rigorous battles with the balance beam.
Eight-year-old Chelsea Sawyer can't remember exactly when or why she started her life as a gymnast, but she knows why she's doing it now.
``I want to go,'' she says, with a look that assumes you know exactly what she's talking about.
Chelsea lives in Woodland Hills, but she appears quite at home standing barefoot on the padded floor in the 17,000-square-foot gym.
No wonder, since she spends up to five hours a day here, five days a week. She's training for her very first competition in September, and, some times, her mother says, Chelsea and her teammates even sleep over at the gym, building camaraderie.
On Wednesday morning, the team was practicing on the balance beam, and Chelsea was eager to demonstrate her skill.
Dressed in a crushed velvet leotard, her blond hair looped over her ears in braids secured with shiny red bows, Chelsea leaped onto the narrow beam, prancing along with deceptive ease.
Watching from the sidelines, her mother smiled proudly.
``Before Chelsea could walk, she was climbing on everything,'' said Linda Sawyer. ``She would climb up the cabinets and onto the counters. By the time she was 5 she could climb up the doorway. We said we'd better do something with this energy.''
Though just one of more than a dozen training centers in the Valley, Li Ning's International Gymnastic and Dance Academy has attracted nearly 400 young gymnasts, in part because of its namesake's credentials.
In 1984 Ning wowed the world by winning more medals than any other athlete at the Olympic Games in Los Angeles. He took golds in floor exercise, pommel horse and rings, silvers in vault and team competition and a bronze for individual all-around.
He's back at the Olympics this summer, this time as a judge for men's gymnastics.
In addition to the Chatsworth gym, which he opened in 1992, Ning markets his own line of sportswear and manages another gym in Fe Shan, Guang Dong Province, China.
Ning selected the Valley for his U.S. gym in part, he once told the Daily News, because of his Olympic victories in Los Angeles.
``This place is a lucky place,'' he said. ``I always won medals here.''
The dream of harnessing a little of that luck and a few more medals is what drives many of the children who tiptoe along the balance beams and twirl on the bars.
For many children at the gym, the Olympics are a long shot, said Ming Ming Yang, the gym's head coach.
``These kids can move up, but I don't think they will make it to the Olympics because they don't have the basic training,'' said Yang, who has been training gymnasts for more than 20 years.
``You have to start in at 5 years old, and build up from a very good beginning.''
But the Atlanta Games are fueling dreams in children like Chelsea - and the instructors at the gym are on the lookout for potential stars of tomorrow.
Yang's gaze shifts from the 8-year-old girls to a class of 5-year-old boys.
The tiny boys are taking turns running down a narrow pad, bouncing off a springboard and rolling through somersaults. One of them, Yang says, might have a shot.
``We watch them and test them,'' he said. ``This one might be too fat, but another one might be just right, limber and strong.''
PHOTO (1 -- color) Chelsea Sawyer, 7, works out Wednesda y in Chatsworth.
(2) Shelly Lessin does a cartwheel at Li Ning's International Gymnastic and Dance Academy in Chatsworth.
Terri Thuente/Daily News
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|Publication:||Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)|
|Date:||Jul 25, 1996|
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