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Gymnast White's roots in Pinellas


© St. Petersburg Times, published September 3, 2000

ST. PETERSBURG -- Days from now, the Olympics will open in Australia, and she will compete in front of millions worldwide. But it was in a Pinellas County library nearly 10 years ago that gymnast Morgan White went on stage for one of her first public performances.

White, who now lives in Cincinnati, was a first-grader in Tarpon Springs when she began her career at a pair of Pinellas County gymnastics academies.

Rocky Strassberg, who owns the Gemini School of Gymnastics in Oldsmar, was part of a Pinellas County lecture circuit in the early 1990s, and White was one of his students. When he needed someone to demonstrate techniques, he took her along to help with the speech.

"I am so excited for her now," Strassberg said. "It gives me chill bumps when I sit back and watch her. My wife and I keep thinking this is the little girl who used to come to our house and swim in our pool, and now she's going to be in the Olympics."

White, 17, is the youngest of the six gymnasts to make the U.S. team. She is years removed from her Pinellas County roots but not entirely forgotten by the coaches who trained her in the early days.

White spent time at Gemini and the Apollo School of Gymnastics in Clearwater. And though it is impossible to predict Olympic-level success in a 7-year-old, Strassberg and former Apollo owner Valerie Hammond say White had characteristics that made her memorable even a decade later.

"Morgan was, and is, a very tenacious little girl," Strassberg said. "She was always very hard on herself, and she was not a quitter. When things got hard, she seemed to get even stronger."

Her paternal grandparents, Jim and Jeri White of Gainesville, said they cannot remember a time Morgan was not thinking gymnastics.

"She was always enthusiastic about it," Jim said. "She would come up here and be doing somersaults the whole weekend."

The family's devotion made White an elite athlete, Strassberg and Hammond say.

After several years in Pinellas County, she was ready to seek new challenges. The family moved to the Orlando area so she could train at the school that produced 1988 Olympian Brandy Johnson. From there, they moved to Fort Lauderdale so she could work with American Twisters.

Then came the move a few years ago to Cincinnati and coach Mary Lee Tracy, the assistant Olympic coach in '96 and '00.

"The great thing about it is she has turned out to be such a lovely person," said Hammond, who is now a gymnastics judge. "She doesn't carry the baggage that a lot of others do when they finally reach this level. Unfortunately, at the elite level, you often see cases where the family is the one who is pushing to get better. Morgan is the exception. She loves gymnastics, and she's the one who was always eager to do more.

"For her, nothing would do other than making that Olympic team."

MO BETTER RUN: Maybe Maurice Greene simply can turn it off and on whenever he pleases. But if that is not the case, there is reason for concern heading into Sydney.

The world-record holder at 100 meters, Greene has had an up-and-down summer. He breezed at the Olympic trials and ran the fastest time of the year, 9.86 seconds, in Berlin on Friday. But along the way, Greene has had a pair of fourth-place finishes and a fifth place, all since June.

"I want to show the world that I will be unbeatable in Sydney," Greene said before the race in Berlin. "If all the others go to the Olympics feeling they have no chance, it will be easier for me."

TEAM TORT: Now you know why they call them Olympic trials -- because at the end of each event, the lawyers are brought out to decide the team. The past month has brought us legal challenges from a cyclist, a wrestler and a tennis player who believed they were cheated out of spots on the Olympic team.

Maybe they would be better off following the lead of gymnasts Vanessa Atler and Jamie Natalie. Both finished among the top six in qualifying but were left off the six-member teams in favor of athletes with lower scores. Both gymnasts were naturally disappointed but handled the decision with class.

"It stinks really bad," Atler said. "But I think deep down in my heart, I knew I wasn't prepared. I think everybody wanted it more than I did."

- Information from other news organizations was used in this report.

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