For Hill, coaching is balancing act

Olympics: Kelli Hill, who will be head coach of the U.S. women's team in Athens, also serves as mentor and mother figure to her gymnasts.

Athens: Olympics

July 20, 2004|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

GAITHERSBURG - The tomato plants still sit in their boxes. The needlepoint Christmas tablecloth is more X's than stitches. The Harley stands idle, waiting for a cross-country jaunt.

In Kelli Hill's world of unfinished business, almost everything is on the back burner until her most important work-in-progress is done. Next month, gymnast Courtney Kupets and Hill, reprising her role as the U.S. women's head coach, will find out how they stack up against the world's best.

A triumph in Athens would go a long way to removing the memory of the 2000 Olympics, when the U.S. women's chances were buried under a mudslide of bickering and power plays. Hill walked away from her profession tired and disgusted.

A win might silence critics who said Hill was too conservative, too quiet, to lead the U.S. squad to gold medals, that things would have turned out better in Sydney had the flamboyant Bela Karolyi been coach.

For more than a dozen years, Hill's clock has run on Olympic time. First came Dominique Dawes, then Elise Ray, followed by Kupets, the two-time U.S. champion. That has meant endless hours of coaching, strategizing and mental tinkering.

Hill's ability to teach elite gymnasts has been recognized by her peers. She was named USA Gymnastics Coach of the Year in 1991 and 1993; a coach for the 1992-1994 and 1996 world championships teams, and head coach last year. On Sunday, U.S. officials put her in charge of this year's Olympic squad.

That's a pretty good record for someone who, in her own words, was "a very low-level gymnast" and stopped short of completing her degree at the University of Maryland.

Gymnasts and longtime followers of the sport say Hill is the key that unlocks the potential of many young girls who dream of standing on a podium and receiving a medal.

"If I had a young daughter who wanted to be a gymnast, I would take her to Kelli," says Paul Ziert, publisher of International Gymnast magazine and coach of 1984 Olympic double gold medalist Bart Conner. "She's a fighter for her gymnasts and absolutely always has their best interests at heart."

Dawes, who started training with Hill at the age of 6 and moved in with Hill's family as a teen as she gained elite status, agrees.

"She's been a rock for me both in and out of the gym," says Dawes, a 1996 gold medalist who still lives in Silver Spring. "I consider her my hero and a powerful mother figure in my life."

No-nonsense approach

Roaming the floor at her gym here, Hill is surrounded by girls big and small working out. She cajoles and barks, ruffles hair and hugs, concocts fresh nicknames that generate giggles. Always, a bottle of Diet Coke is within reach.

"When they went to the 20-ounce bottle, she was ecstatic," says Ray, a senior at the University of Michigan who grew up in Columbia.

Hill showers those around her with attention, making photo albums of personal highlights for gymnasts and baking treats for her staff. She beams as she watches her sons, Ryan, 21, and Jason, 18, frolic with the tiniest tumblers. Last year, when Jason's best friend was orphaned, Hill informally adopted him just as she had Dawes.

But she brushes away compliments and the spotlight with a "we don't need any of that."

"She prefers it that way and she keeps herself there," Ray says.

Hill is known for her no-nonsense approach and her drill-sergeant toughness. Her blunt critiques can make eyes fill with tears and lower lips quiver. A sassy retort or theatrical rolling of the eyes leads to an early dismissal from practice. "No bellies showing, no bra tops. Dress like you're going to grandma's," she instructs the travel teams.

The youngest of four children, Hill, 44, grew up in a modest brick-and-stone front house across the street from the old Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring.

Even then, she was testing her gymnastics chops, using the halyard on the school's flagpole to swing high and wide over the football bleachers. Once, when the rope broke and a friend fell and struck his head, Hill landed on her feet.

After high school, Hill went to the University of Maryland as a physical education major and was a member of the women's gymnastics squad.

When faced with the final pre-graduation requirement - eight weeks of student teaching - the woman who has taught gymnastics to hundreds of girls and insists that her athletes go to the best college they can walked away from College Park.

"Looking back, I regret it. But I knew I'd never use it," Hill says of the degree.

Instead, Hill bought a gym in Wheaton in 1981, scraping together $500 to pay for the legal transfer, with the previous owner financing the rest.

"I had no business background. It's called being very naive and young and thinking you have the world by the tail," she says, shaking her head.

Hill's mother ran the office while Hill figured out how to be a coach.

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