Panthers get lift from Norway

April 22, 1994|By Roch Eric Kubatko | Roch Eric Kubatko,Sun Staff Writer

In gymnastics, timing is everything.

Especially for a coach trying to rebuild his team.

That was the task before Annapolis' Neill Russell, who worried late last month about "starting from scratch" on both the boys and girls sides. Graduation and some unexpected departures had him scrambling to find replacements as the season's first tri-meet approached.

In recent years, he always had at least one standout on either squad, including Peter Lombard, who transferred to Annapolis in 1991 and led the Panthers to the boys county and state/regional championships.

Two years ago, Jason Hill and Dominic Boardley helped the boys to another sweep of the county and state/regional crowns. And last spring, senior Angela Cheatham finished fifth in all-around at the girls county meet.

But this season appeared to be much different, with no immediate help in sight.

That is, until Russell got his first look at Ole Jakobsen, 17. Funny how the picture, and the coach's outlook, completely changed.

An exchange student from Oslo, Norway, Jakobsen arrived in the United States on July 24. And as far as Russell is concerned, he got here just in the nick of time.

"He's rejuvenated interest in men's gymnastics at Annapolis," Russell said. "The entire student body is behind Ole."

The hype started early. Before the season began, Russell called Jakobsen "phenomenal" and added, "He's capable of being one of the top boys gymnasts this year."

Jakobsen has taken first place in all-around in two meets. Three weeks ago, he swept every event in a tri-meet with Chesapeake and Old Mill. Before that, he won the pommel horse and high bar, tied Severna Park's Jesse Whyte for first in vault and placed second to Whyte in rings to claim the all-around with a 40.6 score.

Wednesday, he won three events and took second in all-around in a tri-meet at Chesapeake.

He missed the two previous meets while staying in California as part of his exchange program, but he has qualified for the high school nationals in Michigan on Memorial Day weekend.

His best event is the high bar, where he has learned three new skills. But he also is drawing notice on the vault and is practicing a tsukahara -- a 1 1/2 back flip rarely seen in high school competition. He said there is a "50-50 chance" that he will attempt it before the season ends.

That's quite a jump for someone who hadn't been involved in the sport since age 15. To better prepare himself for what lie ahead, he worked out at Barlow's Gymnastics in Annapolis before trying out for the high school team.

"I never expected anything like this," said Jakobsen, whose brother, Thomas, competed as an exchange student at Severna Park six years ago. "[The attention] isn't uncomfortable, but it's definitely something different.

"It had been a long time since I competed, but it's just like riding a bike."

Jakobsen wasn't always at ease in his new surroundings. He found it difficult to make friends right away, but with his name being read over the school's public address system the morning after each meet, "he's one of most popular boys in school, especially among the girls," Russell said.

"At first, it was hard being new and not knowing anybody," said Jakobsen. "By March, I had some friends, but this has definitely helped out."

Jakobsen will return home on June 30. He has another year of schooling to look forward to, but gymnastics no longer will be a part of his life.

Sports aren't offered in schools in Norway, and he said, "if you're not on a national team when you're as old as me, you don't do gymnastics because it takes so much time. And that's pretty sad.

"That's what I like about this. You get a chance here, even if you're not the best."

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