For a group of young gymnasts and their entourage, the `trip of a lifetime' - to China

AT PLAY

SUMMER In Howard County

July 20, 2005|By Lowell E. Sunderland | Lowell E. Sunderland,SUN STAFF

Kristin Anderson joined an exclusive club this month - in a fanciful corner of her mind, at least. She did a handstand on China's Great Wall.

"When I was a girl," Anderson said, "I got gymnastics magazines, and they used to have photos from all over the world of gymnasts doing handstands here, there, everywhere. I was always fascinated by that. So I guess, now, my career is complete."

Anderson, 36, owns Columbia Gymnastics, and traveling to China was "a trip of a lifetime" not only for herself, but also for seven of her young gymnasts, another from Fairland Gymnastics in Laurel and four youth coaches. Add parents, and the entourage of 22, mainly Howard County residents, was in Beijing from June 27 to July 12.

The trip, planning for which began about three years ago, was arranged by two former Chinese national-team gymnasts who now are American citizens and coaches here. One of them, Xiaokui Ma, also 36, coaches at Columbia Gymnastics; her husband, Ping Wang, coaches at Fairland Gymnastics.

The rarest of opportunities for the coaches and youthful gymnasts, from 9 to 17, was working out almost daily for those two weeks in China's national training center, home of some of the world's most skilled gymnasts.

"They don't allow anyone else in that gym," said Anderson. "I mean, not even the U.S. national team has seen the inside of it, so we were very fortunate."

Members of the county group practiced under their coaches but next to members of the Chinese junior national team. One day, the Americans were under the tutelage of three Chinese coaches.

The lessons included how to do double backflips on the balance beam, one of the most daunting pieces of apparatus used in women's gymnastics. New choreography was introduced, and several travelers, supported by ropes suspended from pulleys, experienced new techniques on the eye-catching uneven bars.

Two Columbia Gymnastics' athletes - Kacie Kruger and Christie Miller, both 13 - said they will remember other aspects of the trip, too.

"Their practices were all silent," said Christie. "We're really noisy."

And that, Anderson learned later from one of her assistant coaches, was noticed by the Chinese athletes. "She told me one of their coaches had said their gymnasts wanted to practice our way - it seemed like a lot more fun."

The Chinese system, of course, is far more regimented than the American way. Chinese prospects enter residential sports schools as young as age 6 and rarely go home. Coaching is strict and focused.

"I've been around youth athletes all my life," said Anderson, "and I've never seen kids as fit as they were. I mean, `six-pack' [abdominal muscles] on 6-year-olds. They're amazing. But I also know that if we coached in this country the same way they coach, we'd have no gymnasts."

The trip was not all working out, of course. There were trips to Tiananmen Square, the Old City, the Summer Palace and the Great Wall, where Anderson and the visiting gymnasts all did handstands. For Collette Miller, Christie's mother, the trip afforded an opportunity "to spend more time with my brother than I've spent in 20 years." Her brother, Jeff Klose, who lives and works in Seoul, South Korea, was in Beijing for the visit.

For Kacie and Christie, food ranks high, for now, among the memories, along with two 13 1/2 -hour plane trips over the North Pole. There was a dinner of Peking Duck the first night, as well as dumplings, "lots of veggies," uncooked fish and squid - not to mention KFC chicken and McDonald's fries.

And then there were the people who, almost daily, came up to Kacie and Christie, wanting to touch their blond hair and, sometimes, to be photographed with them. One Chinese woman hugged the girls, and the girls were thrilled to be interviewed for a Hong Kong television station.

Travel also had some subtle athletic benefits.

"You could see it in the gym," said Anderson. "Our gymnasts would look over at the Chinese athletes next to them, and they'd stand a little straighter, point their toes better."

Call the writer about anything to do with amateur sports in Howard County at410-332-6525 or send e-mail to lowell.sunderland@baltsun.com.

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