A Gymnast Perfecting Her Passion

It's only an hour before the final round of the United States Olympic trials begins, but rhythmic gymnast Lauri Illy is keeping her cool.

"I don't get stressed out," Lauri says cheerfully. "There's no reason to get up in a jiffy, because then you'll just mess up."

Tough words from a 14-year-old. The dark, empty auditorium of Boston's Wang Center gapes beyond the stage like a huge hungry mouth. Under the glare of the bright stage lights, Lauri and her six competitors look tiny as they do warm-up stretches on the vast blue mat. By the end of the night, only one of the seven will qualify for the single US spot at the Atlanta Games. (The preliminary round is Aug. 1.)

Lana Lashoff, Lauri's coach, shares her protg's confidence: "She loves to perform. The more people watch her, the better she does. She has tremendous showmanship."

In rhythmic gymnastics, the ability to perform onstage is crucial to an athlete's success - which explains why Lauri is one of the top rhythmic gymnasts in the country. Like figure skating or synchronized swimming, this relatively new Olympic sport combines athleticism with fine-tuned coordination and grace.

Lauri says that often people confuse rhythmic gymnastics with the more familiar so-called "artistic" gymnastics, which involves the parallel bars and balance beam.

Instead of using such stationary apparatus, the rhythmic gymnast swings her apparatus over her head, hurls it into the air, and catches it again - all while leaping, balancing, and turning to a meticulously choreographed musical score.

The four rhythmic gymnastics events at this year's Olympics are the rope, ball, ribbon, and club. But Lauri's favorite - the hoop - will not be included at the Atlanta Games.

LAURI was born in Virginia Beach, Va., the youngest of eight children. At age 2, she was doing handstands. When she was 4, Lauri began training in rhythmic gymnastics. Her mother, Raquel Illy, remembers that "Right from the beginning, I was against gymnastics." Mrs. Illy had seen her other children's interests pass through a variety of phases.

Soon it became evident that Lauri's interest was different. With a passion and commitment unusual for a six-year-old, Lauri was training at all hours of the day. "You can force a child to do something, but you can't force virtuosity," Lauri's mother says. "You can't force success. It has to be a self-directing thing, and she led us all the way."

At age 10, after two years without steady coaching, Lauri traveled alone from Virginia to Evanston, Ill., to meet her new coach, Ms. Lashoff.

"I was pretty skeptical at first," Lashoff confesses. "I said, 'Give it two weeks, then two months....' " But the two hit it off immediately, and four years later, Lauri is still living in Evanston, 700 miles from her parents. She sees her family only during vacations.

Her mother recalls Lauri's departure as "one of the saddest, most empty moments in my life," but adds that it is "the responsibility of parents to make opportunities available to their children." Lauri's mother, a nurse, and her father, a social worker, have been trying to relocate to the Chicago area ever since their youngest daughter left home.

Coach Lashoff, a rhythmic gymnast who grew up in the USSR, now runs the Rhythmic Gems gymnastics club in Evanston. Lashoff saw how elite Soviet sports schools recruited future talent at an early age. But "even by Russian standards," she says, Lauri's is "a very unique situation."

DURING the past year as an eighth-grader, Lauri went to school for only two hours to take morning math and science classes. She admits that her classmates were envious of her light course load - and of her exemption from gym class.

Yet Lauri has less free time than most children her age. She practices five to seven hours a day, six days a week.

And although she lives with different families on a rotating basis during the school year, Lauri often spends her free time doing laundry, calling home, and cooking. As an athlete she watches her diet carefully, avoiding french fries, chocolate, candy, and other usual teenage fare.

"Everyone thinks I'm missing out on my childhood," Lauri says. "But this is my childhood. This is what I want to do."

There is no doubt that Lauri has had to grow up fast to enter the competitive world of rhythmic gymnastics, but competing has its advantages. Since 1994, she has traveled all across the country and as far away as Korea, Egypt, and France for competitions.

"Working onstage is awesome - more like you're performing than competing," Lauri says.

Though by the end of this evening only one of the seven competitors will qualify for the Olympics, Lauri says that "we're all really good friends. I think rhythmic gymnastics is a very friendly sport."

No one is too surprised that Jessica Davis - last year's national champion - takes first place and the only US spot in the Olympic rhythmic gymnastics competition.

Lauri, however, takes a close third after the last night of competition. True, her sights are set on the 2000 Olympics. But getting there is more of a "dream" than a fixed goal.

"I just want to be satisfied," she says. "Gymnastics is for fun, not for medals."

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