America's girl gymnasts are sick and tired of being told they're beautiful. Really. Until recently the line at international matches went, "Darling, you had the loveliest team—even if your scores were terrible." Now, U.S. girls are capable of winning medals as well as compliments. Among those most responsible are the five gymnasts pictured on the accompanying pages, each of whom excels in all four women's events. They perform atop a 4-inch-wide wooden balance beam and on uneven parallel bars, vault over a side horse and execute a form of balletic tumbling set to music known as free exercise. Their maneuvers combine grace with daredeviltry and, now that judges give more credit for difficult routines without unduly penalizing mishaps, the U.S. might win its first Olympic medal in women's gymnastics next year at Munich.
'Give me a brr, bmm, bmm, brr, bmm, bmm'
I'm an outcast," says Herb Vogel (right) of Southern Illinois University, one of the few men who coach girl gymnasts. "When I travel with the team I drink alone. A few years ago at the Elks Club here in Carbondale I heard somebody play a real nice piano. It was a guy. Right away I thought, 'Just what I need—somebody who can provide live music for the girls' free-ex routines.' I also thought, 'Here's somebody I can drink with on trips.' "
For the most part, Vogel drives other girls' gymnastic coaches to drink. They find him too irascible, too suave—and almost unbeatable. This state of affairs will undeniably prevail at Cedar Rapids, Iowa in May, where Southern Illinois is favored to win its fifth AAU championship.
Vogel says that he has been in gymnastics as either a participant or a coach for 35 of his 40 years. Most notably, he competed for Indiana (1949-53), and from 1956 to 1963 he coached the Acrolympian Club of Flint, Mich., which was unbeaten in 64 matches. In 1963 he came to SIU—known chiefly to the outside world for Professor Buckminster Fuller; its nickname, the Salukis; its prolific university press and as being the alma mater of Walt Frazier, a nongraduate—to form the university's first girls' gymnastic team. Almost everyone in Carbondale was convinced it would be a farce. But after the first match there were only three complaints, all of which Vogel took care of. He dyed the girls' "too revealing" white leotards maroon, banned gum chewing and curbed his habit of swatting his gymnasts on the fanny.
As in Flint, his SIU girls have been winners, taking their first 55 matches—eight for AAU and collegiate titles—before losing to Centenary (La.) College in 1968. Thus Vogel went through 119 meets and 12 years without a loss. Since then SIU has dropped three more dual matches and, in 1968, its first championship—by four-tenths of a point to Springfield (Mass.) College.
Nonetheless, Vogel has detractors who claim that he doesn't produce enough world-class gymnasts. "They're right," he says. "To a certain extent. Girls learn best between 9 and 14. I don't get them that young. I get a few near that age, kids who move here to finish high school and get my coaching. But mostly I get them in college and have to correct mistakes they've made for years. That doesn't leave much time to teach new stuff, so you polish them as best you can. But my girls haven't done badly."
Understatement. Twenty-three of his girls have competed in international meets, five in the Olympics, seven in the Pan-American Games. All-America teams for girl gymnasts were first picked in 1966; since then 18 Salukis have made them, most more than once. Seven of last year's 10 All-Americas were from SIU.
"I could get more girls on international teams, but it's not the thing for everyone," says Vogel. "Some coaches don't agree with me on this. But we work on a team philosophy here, and our team is Southern Illinois. If a girl wants extra work to try for an international trip, I'll help. That means training almost year-round—only four, five weeks off all year. You can't ask them to give up social life, outside activities, families, just because you want them on a team. Life is for living. A really good girl I had quit a couple of years ago because of politics in the sport. She knew some girls made teams because somebody owed somebody else a favor. It got so bad once that they were talking about putting a girl on a team because of her looks. We have to keep in mind that we're no better than our selfish motives.
"If I have any virtues as a coach, it's that I've been around so long and have tried so much. And I'm creative. But Muriel and Dale [former Olympians Muriel Grossfeld and Dale Flansaas] can teach more style, more technique. They can show it because they're women and were good gymnasts. As you may have noticed, I'm not a woman so it's hard for me to show things to my girls."