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Hey, World, Look What I Can Do
Hank Hersch
September 01, 1986
A lot of people in gymnastics are heels over head in love with the astonishing maneuvers—and Olympian promise—of Kristie Phillips, the 14-year-old heiress apparent to Mary Lou Retton
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September 01, 1986

Hey, World, Look What I Can Do

A lot of people in gymnastics are heels over head in love with the astonishing maneuvers—and Olympian promise—of Kristie Phillips, the 14-year-old heiress apparent to Mary Lou Retton

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Mary Lou Retton had been settled into her front-row seat for a few minutes before anyone approached her. Sporting a new flyaway do and a deep tan, Retton looked a bit different from her Olympic glory days, and onlookers in Indianapolis's Market Square Arena did double takes. Suddenly a nymph in braces, strawberry blonde curls and a blinding print shirt charged four aisles over to Retton. The girl hugged and mugged with Mary Lou, then bounded back to her seat, where she filed this report:

"I can't believe it's Mary Lou! Don't you think she looks good? You know where she's been? Hawaii! I could never get a tan like that. No way. Albino City here. She's going to do the TV. Don't you like her hair? Mine is so retarded.... It's Mary Lou!"

For all her gushing, the gritty reporter—age 14, height 4'9", weight 78, shoe size 5—has in the past six months been doing her best to render Retton a memory. Last March, at the tender age of 13, Kristie Phillips of Baton Rouge defeated veteran gymnasts from 19 nations to win the American Cup in Fairfax, Va. Return's own American Cup victory in '83 brought her to the public eye and lent her credibility before the world's judges. Since her own Cup coup, Phillips has been unbeatable. In June, at the meet in Indy where she spotted Retton, she won the national junior title and might well have won the senior but for a rule limiting senior eligibility to those 14 or older as of Jan. 1. Kristie added a win in the Canadian Classic on June 28, then last month earned four gold medals, including one for the all-around title, at the U.S. Olympic Festival in Houston, where she trains.

With Retton supercharging Madison Avenue, Olympians Bart Conner and Peter Vidmar manning microphones and Mitch Gaylord gone Hollywood, Phillips has emerged as arguably the brightest star of U.S. gymnastics. Greg Marsden, the University of Utah's women's coach whose teams have won six straight national titles, says, "Without question, she shows the most promise of our gymnasts. She doesn't just execute the routine, she performs it. She'll be at her peak in 1988." Mike Jacki, executive director of the U.S. Gymnastics Federation, says, "We have to look at her as our outstanding hope for 1988. At her age, she is beyond anyone else we have ever had."

With ex-Retton guru Bela Karolyi as her coach, Kristie has put herself on a course that parallels Mary Lou's. Kristie even crowned her American Cup triumph Retton-style, with a kittenish leap into Bela's burly arms. "When I met Kristie three years ago, I saw she had a personality sort of like mine—outgoing, a big smile," says Retton, now 18. "I said to myself. This girl is going to make it."

At the Olympic Festival, Kristie's polished personality was ever evident. She carried herself with a confident arch in her back and played the pixie, flashing her baby blues and her braces during every dismount. She meanwhile delivered with enthusiasm the expected ingenue lines: her ambition to act instead of becoming—as she had earlier announced—an orthodontist ("too much work"); her longing for a sports car (a Porsche); her infatuation with teen actors Ricky Schroder and Anthony Michael Hall, the star of Weird Science ("He has to be funny to go through a movie with a bra on his head"): her skill with reporters ("When I was eight, I was doing interviews like this," she told The New York Times during the festival. "And I gave some pretty good answers").

Observes Karolyi, "If you look carefully, you can see many things [in Kristie] acting just like Mary Lou—the running and the hug. It's natural, because she likes the public, but at the same time, she's a good student."

Kristie's style is more reminiscent of another Karolyi protégée's, Olympic gold medalist Nadia Comaneci of Romania, than it is of Mary Lou's. Where Retton was, according to Karolyi, "an exploding bullet." Kristie is a rubber arrow. Phillips remains relatively weak on the bars, but she has long lines and a sense of rhythm that stand her well in floor exercises, and she is a world-class vaulter.

But Phillips was built for the beam. Her upper-body strength, combined with her tremendous lower-back flexibility, give her an astounding look. She may not have Comaneci's perfect technique, but she has an unusually dynamic physique. "Every now and then I have to feel to see if her backbone is there," says Kristie's father, Jimmy, a section supervisor at Exxon who has worked there for 26 years. "Even in one of her first gym classes she was lying on the floor and doing whatever it is she does now when she puts her button her head."

Ah yes, the-butt-on-the-head move. Early in her beam routine, Kristie locks her heels and her palms to the beam so that (cereal marketers. Cheerios in particular, take note) she forms a human O. Later Kristie goes from a handstand into a reverse planche, which means her back begins to fold backward (aagh!) until her noggin reaches her rear (owhh!) and her legs and torso form a horizontal (aieee!), whose stem is parallel to the floor. And that's only the beginning. After holding the J pose, with her eyes trained on her heels, she does a split, fanning her legs to 180 degrees. No one else in the world does this straddle reverse planche, destined to become known as "the Phillips."

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