Thousands of athletes showcase talents at sports festival

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Beth Anders's performance in the National Sports Festival means the difference of whether or not she will be a member of the 1984 US Olympic team. Greg Louganis, a gold medal diver in the 1979 Pan American Games, came here in a successful bid for the right to defend that title later this summer in Caracas.

For Kathy Arendsen, the famed softball pitcher who struck out Reggie Jackson in a televised side attraction at the 1981 festival, the current competition provided a chance for both individual and team honors. She was a torch bearer at the opening ceremonies, then began the task of helping her team try to qualify for a Pan Am berth.

And that's just a sampling of the 2,600 athletes participating in 33 sports at this fifth nationwide competition put on by the US Olympic Committee. Indeed , there seem to be almost as many reasons for being here as there are competitors at the 10-day event, which continues through Sunday.

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Only the women's field hockey and men's ice hockey teams will actually select members for the 1984 Olympic squads on the basis of festival competition. But a number of other athletes - including boxers and wrestlers, as well as the aforementioned divers and softball players - are vying for Pan Am team berths. For many of the younger participants, meanwhile, the festival provides a chance to gain competitive experience and showcase talents with an eye toward future international competitions. Others have team or individual goals to attain, while still others may be participating for the one and only time in a competition with an Olympic-like format.

''When you watch the Olympics as a kid, you think 'wow!' wouldn't it be great to be there?'' said Anders, who is vying for one of 16 spots on the field hockey roster that will be announced later this week. ''I'm just glad that I finally had the opportunity.''

Anders, a midfielder who is also an assistant field hockey instructor at Old Dominion University, made the US team in 1980, the year field hockey became an Olympic sport. After the United States was one of six to qualify for the Moscow games, along came the boycott, postponing her Olympic dreams.

Vonnie Gros, the Olympic field hockey coach whose name is synonymous with the sport in the United States, likes the opportunity the festival provides of watching the nation's 60 best players, but dreads the weeding-out process.

''This is the hardest part of coaching,'' said Gros, who coached at West Chester State [Pa.] and Princeton before taking over the national team. ''All these players are excellent, and I hate excluding any of them.''

Louganis, the world's premier diver, captured both the 3-meter springboard and 10-meter platform festival titles.

''I'm glad there is a year until the Olympics,'' said the Mission Viejo, Calif., resident. ''I'm doing a lot of new dives this year. If I take more chances this year, I'll be taking less next year.''

Other divers earning Pan Am berths were David Burgering of Mission Viejo, the second-place springboard finisher, and Bruce Kimball of Ann Arbor, Mich., the runner-up in the tower diving competition.

Wendy Wyland of Mission Viejo won the women's gold medal in tower diving and was second in springboard. The 18-year-old, who was just graduated from high school and was one of the youngest divers at the festival, broke her own American record on the 10-meter platform with a total of 459.66 on eight dives, bettering the mark of 456.00 she had set last February. Also making the Pan Am team were Kelly McCormick of Columbus, Ohio, who won the springboard gold medal, and Megan Neyer of Mission Viejo, who placed second in the tower event.

For Arendsen, the toughest part of the festival came at the beginning. Kathy is used to pressure situations on the mound, but carrying the torch was something else.

''I could pitch in front of 100,000 people, no problem,'' she said . ''But that ramp looks awfully steep. This is the greatest individual honor I've ever had.''

She and co-bearer Scott Johnson, a gymnast from Colorado Springs who is a student at the University of Nebraska, performed without flaw at the ceremonies, then Kathy turned her attention to the competition.

''For us, this festival is very prestigious and represents the best softball in the country,'' said Arendsen, one of the few athletes who has competed in all five festivals.

To high school basketball players like Tom Curry of Baton Rouge, La., and Penny Toler of Washington, D.C., meanwhile, this 1983 festival is primarily a place to get recognition. With the Pan Am basketball squads already chosen, and the Olympic team sure to be made up of top college stars, these youngsters and their teammates know their main goal here is to gain experience and showcase their talents with an eye toward future international competitions.

Not so, though, for Jim Martin, a fireman from Washington, D.C. For him the festival meant the opportunity to give his relatively new sport, sombo wrestling , some exposure, and also prepare for a trip to Caracas.

Of Russian origin, the word sombo is an acronym for ''self-defense without weapons'' and looks like a combination of judo and wrestling. Venezuela, as Pan Am host, got the chance to introduce a new sport and chose sombo. The sport, which includes both men's and women's events, consequently was introduced to the sports festival - and of course Martin hopes it's inclusion eventually may lead to it becoming an Olympic sport.

''I'd love to be in the Olympics,'' said Jim, who is also a member of the US national judo squad. ''I mean I wouldn't care if it was judo, sombo, or tiddlywinks.''

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