The Sept. 1, 1986 cover of Sports Illustrated boldly called Kristie Phillips "The New Mary Lou." Today, she is almost "Kristie Who?"
In recent months, the 16-year-old has gained and lost a lot of weight, skipped major competitions and twice changed coaches. Now, she is in jeopardy of not making the Olympic gymnastics team. The Olympic Trials will be in August in Salt Lake City.Four months ago, Phillips left her longtime coach, Bela Karolyi, and his Houston team for U.S. Olympic coach Don Peters and his Huntington Beach, Calif., team. Two weeks ago, Phillips returned to Karolyi, the big Romanian whose prize pupils included 1976 Olympic gold-medalist Nadia Comaneci and 1984 gold-medalist Mary Lou Retton.
"I realized that I needed more workouts," Phillips now says. "I'd grown up with Bela for four years and we have a special type of working relationship. He always pushes me to where I can't go any more and that's how I've been brought up.
"Out there, I was kind of relaxed and kind of kicked back and wasn't really working as hard as I should be to accomplish what I want to accomplish. And I wasn't getting enough hours in the gym. We only worked out every other day, and I'm used to working out six, seven days a week, 38 to 40 hours a week. Out there, we were only working out about 21."
A day in Karolyi's gym goes from 7 a.m. to 11 a.m. and from 4:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. That doesn't leave much time to finish final exams, which she has to mail to California.
"In these past 10 days, her progress has been, I would say, enormous," Karolyi said. "Many, many concerns around the country and many, many people are questioning, `Will she be on international team?' and `Will she be in Olypmic Games?'
"My strong statement would be, which is coming from me, very personally, based on my own exerience and of knowing her for a long time, I would say yes, she will.
"People don't know. Those people who are right now questioning her status on Olypmic team, they don't know what kind of competitor she is, what kind of tremendous, aggressive, competitive style is hiding behind her smiling, little, blonde-haired face.
"Those people who are not believing in her, I say don't write her off. She is very powerful mentally, she is extremely positive now and working as hard as she ever has worked. Our biggest enemy still is the time. Short time. We would have more of a guarantee if we had more time."
Kristie's first major meet since November is five weeks away. The Olympics start Sept. 17. In this case, time equals weight. The Phillips in the Sports Illustrated article was 4-9 and 78 pounds. She now stands 5-1 and is no longer a skinny kid.
"She gained some weight. Not just in muscles, she gained in other ways," Karolyi said. "The lack of intensity of the workouts that she went through in California. According to her, the number of the workouts and the intensity of the workouts were way below her regular workouts that we did for such a long time. Normally, if you don't burn those calories, they stick with you. That was pretty much the problem. But she has dropped more than 13 pounds since she has been here."
He said Phillips now weighs less than 100. Phillips confirmed that she's now 98 or 99, but wants to get down to 93. How do you do that?
"Starve," she said with a laugh. "No, when I came back, they told me the same thing happened to Nadia, the same exact thing happened to Nadia, in fact. She was taken away from them, they got her back about three months before the world chamionships and she had to lose 30 pounds. And they told me how she did it and that's what I've been doing. They also understand that I'm not going to have the energy and the strength to go through and do everything perfect. And they're willing to work with me on that. And that helps a tremendous amount. They're behind me and understand what I'm going through."
Karolyi is compassionate. Her weight gain is typical, he said.
"Kids are growing. This is just a child like all the other ones. Not an exception, either. The growing period is something we are always going to fight. By 15, 16, 17, that is the growing age for the girls. There are changes on your body, you are growing on the long side, sideways, growing in all different ways. Even your balance is changing."
Knowing that doesn't ease the frustration for Phillips.
"I think back and and try a move and say, `I used to be able to do that when I was overweight.' But it's easier. Before, I used to have to work so hard just to do one thing, and right now I can just like fly through the air. But then again, my endurance and my strength are not where they should be. When they come, and I'm lighter, I'm just going to be flying. There's going to be nobody who can stop me."