In practices, they wear elbow pads and knee pads, and always they perform on a hard floor with only a carpet over it, doing leaps and jumps nearly as high as their counterparts in artistic gymnastics, who use spring-loaded mats.

Yes, there is a physicality to rhythmic gymnastics.The trick is to make it look like there isn't.

"It looks so easy on TV," says Susan Polakoff, spokeswoman for the U.S. Gymnastics Federation. "It's easy to make fun of it, like synchronized swimming," she says. But don't, she adds.

"You don't see all the pain and the heartache they go through," Polakoff says.

Salt Lake City will get its first real taste of live rhythmic gymnastics - more properly designated as "rhythmic sportive gymnastics," or RSG - this weekend as the eight best rhythmic practitioners in America compete in the U.S. Olympic trials at the Salt Palace.

From the two nights of competition - Friday beginning at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday at 7 p.m. - two women will be chosen to represent the country at the Seoul, Korea, 1988 Olympics in September. A third performer will be named as alternate; she will train but not travel to the Olympics unless it's necessary.

No team medals are awarded in the Olympics as each country is allowed only two performers.

There are no compulsory routines in rhythmics, and gymnasts perform in two events per night, although all four events are contested each night. The four events are rope, clubs, hoop and ribbon.

A crowd of perhaps 3,000 is expected for the rhythmic trials.

The rhythmic portion of the Olympic trials will be followed by a three-day lull, during which the men's and women's artistic team hopefuls will come to Salt Lake City and practice.

The artistic finals are Wednesday and Friday for the men, the defending Olympic gold medalists, and Thursday and Saturday afternoon for the women, who are defending Olympic silver.

Each of those competitions will feature 20-plus athletes, but rhythmic is a much more select bunch, partly because the sport is still new to Americans, even if it was first recognized by the International Gymnastics Federation in 1962. The first world championships were in 1963.

The sport is a major attraction in Europe.

Rhythmic gymnastics made its first appearance in the Olympics in 1984 in Los Angeles, with Canada's Lori Fung winning the all-around over a Romanian.

At the 1987 World Championships, the Bulgarians took the first three all-around spots.

Diane Simpson, 19, of Evanston, Ill., is reigning U.S. champion and was runnerup in 1987. She was the top American at the '87 World Championships, taking 22nd place. She and former Olympian Michelle Berube, 22, of Rochester, Mich., seem to be the favorites. They both train with the Illinois Rhythmics coached by Irina Vdovets, as does Dacon Lister, 17, of Tulsa, Okla.

Berube placed 14th at the '84 Olympics and retired, then came out again five weeks before the '87 Worlds and finished 46th. Lister was 38th.

The rival Los Angeles School of Gymnastics - the L.A. Lights - has four members among the hopeful eight this weekend. They are trained by Alla Svirsky.

The L.A. Light contingent includes three-time national champion Marina Kunyavsky, 23, of Culver City, Calif.; Irina Rubinshtein, 18, of Agoura, Calif.; Alexandra Feldman, 17, of LA; and Eugenia Yuan, 17, of San Marino, Calif.

The eighth meet entrant is Laura David, 19, of Gymnos USA in San Rafael, Calif. She's coached by her mother, Pauline David, a 1964 New Zealand Olympic team member.

Olympic medals seem a ways off for the Americans, but Polakoff says, "We're in a better position now than we have ever been. We've made great strides internationally. The last couple of years, we didn't place in the top 20, but we are now."

Kunyavsky has an international reputation, and Berube tied for second in the all-around at the prestigious '88 Four Continents Championships.

The point of rhythmic gymnastics is to perform a variety of required moves and catches, some of them blind, while using the entire surface area of the floor - and "to make it appear as if this hand apparatus is connected to your body, and extension of yourself," Polakoff says. That even though the apparatus may be thrown some 35 feet into the air.

Routines must show flexibility, style, technique and athleticism.

The routines are done to the accompaniment of one instrument. Most use piano, but it's become fashionable to use blues guitar, saxophone, drums and other instruments. It may be live or on tape.

- Linda Hamilton