'84 Olympic alternate tackles challenges, keeps on flipping

If Mary Lou Retton was the vital cog in American women's gymnastics, Marie Roethlisberger is the link. Retton won the Olympic all-around title at Los Angeles, but Roethlisberger is one who has stayed on to provide the United States team with a thread of continuity.

``After '84 we were lost for a little while, with a lot of young girls who didn't have much experience,'' said Marie. ``We're really starting to build up now, though, and by '88 I think the team's going to be great.''

Having just turned 20, she is easily the senior member of the US team, which briefly gave the world champion Soviets a run for their money at last month's USA/USSR Gymnastics Challenge. ``It does feel different,'' Marie confesses, ``because my teammates are so much younger than I am. We all get along great, though.''

At 4 ft. 11 in. and 100 pounds, Roethlisberger obviously doesn't look out of place, and her freshness and exuberance match that of such new-wave talents as 14-year-old Melissa Marlowe and 15-year-olds Sabrina Mar and Stacey Gunthorpe.

Most people won't remember Marie from the '84 Olympics. She wasn't one of the little dynamos shrink-wrapped in a stars-and-stripes leotard. Injured at the time of the US trials, she courageously performed to make the American squad, but served as the team's first alternate behind such athletes as Retton, Julianne McNamara, and Tracee Talavera, who are semiretired.

As a result, one of the best human-interest stories of the Games went largely unnoticed, sitting on the US bench. What few people realized was that Marie's father, Fred Roethlisberger, had competed as a gymnast at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, or that she had become an Olympic-caliber athlete despite what others might consider a major physical challenge. She is without hearing in one ear and has only partial, aid-assisted hearing in the other. She has cleared that hurdle as smoothly as she works the balance beam, and only the increased volume of the music for her floor exercise hints at her situation.

Her father feels gymnastics has been a perfect outlet for his daughter, since she likes mixing with others and is most comfortable doing so in the semi-structured way her sport provides. ``Gymnastics has really been an avenue for her to express herself better than she could in a less formal social situation,'' Roethlisberger says.

While Retton now plugs eating Wheaties ``like the big boys do,'' Roethlisberger simply grew up imitating the big boys, specifically the members of the University of Minnesota's men's gymnastics team her dad coaches.

Marie was a determined little tag-along, and picked up skills that few women attempted. One of these, the planche, is a striking strength move in which the gymnast balances on her hands above the beam while holding her body parallel to the floor.

The maneuver, which Marie makes more difficult by pressing into a handstand, awes crowds wherever she goes, and like many gymnasts she has bounced around quite a bit. Born in Madison, Wis., she moved to St. Louis Park, Minn., and then on to the Los Angeles area, where in 1982 she joined the Southern California Acro Team. She attended four high schools in as many years, graduating in 1984 from Marina High School in Huntington Beach, where she now lives with her mother, Fran Wells.

Since leaving school, she has kept busy taking a correspondence course, studying to judge gymnastics, and reading ``a bunch of books,'' including some by her favorite author, Ayn Rand.

Eventually she wants to return to the land of the lakes as a student-athlete at the University of Minnesota. A good math and science pupil in high school, she has been admitted into the college's engineering program, and expects to compete for Minnesota's women's gymnastics team. Her father, who feels this would provide an enjoyable change, says, ``Compared to what she's involved in now, it would almost be recreational, more low key and less intense.''

Marie, however, senses the pressure subsiding at the elite level. ``I feel more relaxed,'' she observes. ``It's not like I'm new and trying to prove myself as much. I know I've earned where I am.''

Even if she had participated in L.A., Marie says she'd have continued to train and compete, because the desire was still there. Whether she will stick around for a shot at the '88 Olympics, though, is uncertain. Being a full-time gymnast is an expensive proposition, since the US Gymnastics Federation picks up only part of the tab. `I'm just concentrating on the now really and not looking too far ahead,'' she explains.

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