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Monday, August 21, 2000
Training is serious fun at Olympic coach's gym

 GAITHERSBURG, Md. (AP) -- The day after Kelli Hill was selected head coach of the U.S. Olympic women's gymnastics team, Tim Osborn took his 6-year-old twins to her gym to check things out. They liked it.

 Osborn said Monday he may move Luke and Shannon there from the gym where they were enrolled last year. At Hill's Gymnastics Training Center, they would flip and tumble alongside two-time Olympian Dominique Dawes and national champion Elise Ray, both of whom will compete in Sydney next month.

 "Maybe the best thing is that they are able to do so well with young children here, getting them to enjoy what gymnastics is all about," said Osborn, a marine biologist at the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.

 Most parents who bring their kids to Hill's red brick gym in a suburban Washington industrial park say they only want them to exercise and make friends. But ask why they chose this gym -- where 12-week classes range from $115 to $225 and private lessons cost $40 an hour -- and they describe a personal, firm-yet-warm coaching philosophy that encourages students to excel.

 "The coaches are always there, always with the girl," said Mary Solis. whose 13-year-old daughter, Kristin, competes at level 9, two steps below the "elite" grade of Olympic-caliber athletes.

 Established 10 years ago by Hill, a former University of Maryland gymnast, the school strives to balance discipline with tenderness for its students, some as young as 3.

 "It's real easy to fall into the negative coaching. You have to get tough, but at the same time, you have to let the kids know you love them and care about them," said Cynthia Smaha, who coaches level 8 students.

 She faced such a challenge Monday afternoon when a 9-year-old girl, back from a week's vacation, grew tearfully frustrated at her imperfect performance of a double back flip on the balance beam.

 "Come on, Allison, you can do it," Smaha entreated, over and over. She never raised her voice but refused to let the sniffling girl off the beam until she had done the trick five times. Afterward, Smaha quietly praised her and promised to work with her on the routine.

 She said training in the same gym with champions -- Dawes won Olympic bronze in the floor exercise in 1996, and Ray won the national championship last month -- inspires the others.

 "These kids can look at Dominique and Elise and know what's attainable, and they know what they have to do to achieve it," she said.

 The kindness of the coaches brought Katie Mitchell back to Hill's gym this summer, six years after she won a state gymnastics championship. The recent graduate of Easton High School is tuning up in hopes of making the gymnastics team at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls this autumn.

 She first trained at Hill's gym as an adolescent after leaving another school where a coach had told her, "If you're not going to make this trick, you shouldn't even be in this sport."

 "When I came here, if I couldn't do something, they worked with me a lot more and made me feel like I was accomplishing something," she said.

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