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For Hill, coaching is balancing act

THE BALTIMORE SUN

GAITHERSBURG - The tomato plants still sit in their boxes. The needlepoint Christmas tablecloth is more X's than stitches. The Harley stands idle, waiting for a cross-country jaunt.

In Kelli Hill's world of unfinished business, almost everything is on the back burner until her most important work-in-progress is done. Next month, gymnast Courtney Kupets and Hill, reprising her role as the U.S. women's head coach, will find out how they stack up against the world's best.

A triumph in Athens would go a long way to removing the memory of the 2000 Olympics, when the U.S. women's chances were buried under a mudslide of bickering and power plays. Hill walked away from her profession tired and disgusted.

A win might silence critics who said Hill was too conservative, too quiet, to lead the U.S. squad to gold medals, that things would have turned out better in Sydney had the flamboyant Bela Karolyi been coach.

For more than a dozen years, Hill's clock has run on Olympic time. First came Dominique Dawes, then Elise Ray, followed by Kupets, the two-time U.S. champion. That has meant endless hours of coaching, strategizing and mental tinkering.

Hill's ability to teach elite gymnasts has been recognized by her peers. She was named USA Gymnastics Coach of the Year in 1991 and 1993; a coach for the 1992-1994 and 1996 world championships teams, and head coach last year. On Sunday, U.S. officials put her in charge of this year's Olympic squad.

That's a pretty good record for someone who, in her own words, was "a very low-level gymnast" and stopped short of completing her degree at the University of Maryland.

Gymnasts and longtime followers of the sport say Hill is the key that unlocks the potential of many young girls who dream of standing on a podium and receiving a medal.

"If I had a young daughter who wanted to be a gymnast, I would take her to Kelli," says Paul Ziert, publisher of International Gymnast magazine and coach of 1984 Olympic double gold medalist Bart Conner. "She's a fighter for her gymnasts and absolutely always has their best interests at heart."

Dawes, who started training with Hill at the age of 6 and moved in with Hill's family as a teen as she gained elite status, agrees.

"She's been a rock for me both in and out of the gym," says Dawes, a 1996 gold medalist who still lives in Silver Spring. "I consider her my hero and a powerful mother figure in my life."

No-nonsense approach

Roaming the floor at her gym here, Hill is surrounded by girls big and small working out. She cajoles and barks, ruffles hair and hugs, concocts fresh nicknames that generate giggles. Always, a bottle of Diet Coke is within reach.

"When they went to the 20-ounce bottle, she was ecstatic," says Ray, a senior at the University of Michigan who grew up in Columbia.

Hill showers those around her with attention, making photo albums of personal highlights for gymnasts and baking treats for her staff. She beams as she watches her sons, Ryan, 21, and Jason, 18, frolic with the tiniest tumblers. Last year, when Jason's best friend was orphaned, Hill informally adopted him just as she had Dawes.

But she brushes away compliments and the spotlight with a "we don't need any of that."

"She prefers it that way and she keeps herself there," Ray says.

Hill is known for her no-nonsense approach and her drill-sergeant toughness. Her blunt critiques can make eyes fill with tears and lower lips quiver. A sassy retort or theatrical rolling of the eyes leads to an early dismissal from practice. "No bellies showing, no bra tops. Dress like you're going to grandma's," she instructs the travel teams.

The youngest of four children, Hill, 44, grew up in a modest brick-and-stone front house across the street from the old Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring.

Even then, she was testing her gymnastics chops, using the halyard on the school's flagpole to swing high and wide over the football bleachers. Once, when the rope broke and a friend fell and struck his head, Hill landed on her feet.

After high school, Hill went to the University of Maryland as a physical education major and was a member of the women's gymnastics squad.

When faced with the final pre-graduation requirement - eight weeks of student teaching - the woman who has taught gymnastics to hundreds of girls and insists that her athletes go to the best college they can walked away from College Park.

"Looking back, I regret it. But I knew I'd never use it," Hill says of the degree.

Instead, Hill bought a gym in Wheaton in 1981, scraping together $500 to pay for the legal transfer, with the previous owner financing the rest.

"I had no business background. It's called being very naive and young and thinking you have the world by the tail," she says, shaking her head.

Hill's mother ran the office while Hill figured out how to be a coach.

Dawes came to her about a year later, and when Hill moved the gym to Gaithersburg in 1991, the young gymnast moved into Kelli and Rick Hill's house during the week to be closer to practice. The coach set the rules in the gym and at home.

"Kelli said, 'We do gym in gym and at home we don't talk about it,'" Dawes recalls. "If things went wrong in practice, when we got in the van to drive home, she'd drop it. At 6 a.m. the next morning we'd definitely have to confront it, but I was able to get a break and regroup."

While Hill is a great believer in clearing the air, she also knows how to shine a little light into the corners.

"I consider her an intuitive coach," says Ray, 22. "She doesn't ask you if you're hurt or tired or need to be pushed. She just knows."

A low point in Sydney

That trait helped Hill during perhaps the lowest point of her coaching career - the 2000 Olympics, when she led the women's squad.

Less than a year before the Sydney Games, panicked USA Gymnastics officials brought in coaching legend Karolyi when they feared the team would finish out of the medals. Like a typhoon, the new "team coordinator" shredded the old training regimen and installed one foreign to the athletes and coaches.

"We didn't fight it. We tried and it didn't work. It was a disaster," says Hill, the head coach. "We were in a dictatorship."

After the first night of the Olympics, with girls falling from the apparatus like autumn leaves from a tree, the shaken U.S. squad stood in sixth place.

Hill called a team-only meeting, say Ray and another team member.

"We were all scared the first day and it showed," Ray says. "She told us we had nothing to lose at that point, that we needed to go out and cheer and yell for our teammates, to wave the flag. She took away the pressure and stress, and we responded."

The women rebounded and just missed winning the bronze medal. In January 2001, after Karolyi held a coaches meeting and placed the blame on them, Hill called it quits.

"It was a high-stress meeting. I said, 'You know what? You're right. I'm done. I've had it,'" she recalls.

Since then, U.S. Gymnastics has changed the way it does business, replacing Karolyi as team coordinator with his wife, Martha (pronounced Marta). Hill, who says she loves Bela Karolyi as a person and can be seen bantering with him during gymnastics meets, credits Martha with instituting an inclusive approach toward the athletes' personal coaches.

"Martha listens to everyone. There's more give and take," Hill says. It was Martha who led the selection committee that picked Hill on Sunday.

During Hill's nine-month hiatus in 2001, she did the things she likes doing - cooking and baking for her family, going to her sons' football games, puttering in her vegetable garden, doing needlepoint. She handled the office work at the gym, but turned the athletes over to other coaches.

"After three months, the house was clean, the drawers were lined and I was extremely bored. But I hung in another six months," she acknowledges.

Finally back in the gym coaching lower-level athletes, she rediscovered the fun, so much so that she was reluctant to step back into elite ranks. However, a disastrous performance by her former charges at the 2001 U.S. Classic - including Kupets finishing last - changed Hill's mind.

"They got off the plane the next day and walked into the gym, and so did I," she says. "I raised the roof, told them it was absolutely unacceptable. I came back with a vengeance and coached my brains out from the Classic to the [national championships]. Courtney went from 24th to eighth."

Says Dawes: "She's a straight shooter. She won't hold back anything from you. Some people can't deal with that. But you don't have to think a great deal about what Kelli means because she says what she means."

Hill was thrilled when Dawes received a scholarship to Stanford in 1994 (she turned it down to train for the 1996 Games).

"It's not only about becoming an Olympian or World Cup athlete," Dawes says. "She wants you to be a well-rounded human being. Her proudest moment with me was when I graduated from the University of Maryland."

Partnership in the gym

Her three most famous gymnasts say Hill has built a gym on a foundation of sisterhood, where Dawes was a big sister to Ray, who, in turn, looked after Kupets, who keeps an eye on the next generation.

"Kelli understands that she can't be everything," Dawes says. "She understands that having another teammate struggling each and every day alongside you helps keep you going."

Still, the gymnasts learned to look to their coach in tough times.

"I could put all my fears, all of my worries, all of my doubts in her hands," Ray says. "I knew if I did what she said and did it to the best of my ability, I'd be OK."

Hill calls it a partnership.

"There are days when you're pushing your athlete up the hill and there are days when they're dragging me," Hill says. "Athletes get so hung up and concerned and forget that all they have to do is a certain event on a certain day.

"I tell them, 'Just let me do my job.' You have to believe in them and they have to know it."

Kelli Hill at a glance

Age: 44

Residence: Gaithersburg

Began coaching gymnastics: 1976

Head coach of U.S. women's Olympic team, 2000 and 2004

Member of coaching staff, U.S. women's world championships team, 1992, 1993, 1994 and 1996; head coach, 2003

USA Gymnastics Coach of the Year, 1991 and 1993

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