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BOOST FROM SOVIETS HELPED U.S. GYMNAST ACHIEVE NEW STATURE

Sandy Woolsey will compete against the Soviets today in the women's portion of the multinational, made-for-television Olympic Cup gymnastics meet at the Huntsman Center starting at 1:30 p.m. Woolsey, the 17-year-old American, is expected to battle 16-year-old Soviet Yulia Kut for the top individual spot.

If Woolsey comes up with her first international-meet victory, the Soviets can take at least part of the responsibility.Stormy Eaton, who coaches Woolsey at his Desert Devils club in Tempe, Ariz., says the Soviets were the first to take proper notice of Woolsey.

She ranked 25th in the United States little more than a year ago. Now she ranks eighth in the world, having finished in that spot in the 1989 World Championships at Stuttgart, West Germany, last fall.

In between, Woolsey competed in the 1989 Moscow News Invitational in Leningrad. She was sixth all-around and one of few Americans to earn a medal in Russia, taking bronze on floor.

The Soviet gymnastics community, says Eaton, studies all competitors closely, and their judges were more aware of Woolsey than most.

"They recognized Sandy as a potential star," he says. "They are responsible for helping her become eighth in the world."

Eaton says Woolsey deserved to be higher than 25th in the U.S., so the jump wasn't as big as it looks. Gymnasts are often judged by their reputations, and she didn't have one until the Soviets gave it to her.

He also says she greatly improved her flexibility, and that was the one thing that held her up earlier.

Woolsey returned to the 1990 Moscow News meet two months ago with better results. She was fourth all-around and second on beam.

She will use today's meet as a final tuneup for the Goodwill Games in Seattle starting July 20. That's the biggest international meet this year.

Woolsey says it was her goal to make the Goodwill Games team, so she wasn't disappointed finishing fifth all-around two weeks ago at the Championships of the USA in Denver - a home meet for her because she grew up in Littleton. "I thought I did real well," she said. She went through the three-day meet sore after having jammed her back during compulsory vaulting.

Woolsey downplays her rise to prominence and can't pinpoint a specific reason for it, even if her coach can. "I just kept going," she says.

"It wasn't like all of a sudden, bang, I was there. It wasn't like I wasn't good and then I was. I kept improving."

She's one of the most even-tempered, consistent gymnasts Eaton says he's ever seen. "She could fall asleep in warmups and still do well. She always has it together," he says.

Woolsey admits she wasn't nervous at the World Championships. "I don't put too much importance on a meet," she says. "You do a trick so many times in workouts, this is just one more time.

"I'm not doing gymnastics for anybody but myself," she adds. "I have fun. That's why I do it. It wouldn't seem worth it to me otherwise."

That is one reason she chose Eaton's Desert Devils when she might have gone to the better-known Houston school run by Bela Karolyi, who produced Olympic champions Nadia Comaneci and Mary Lou Retton.

Houston, home of NASA, would have been a natural for Woolsey, a 3.8-4.0 student while in high school who wants to become an astronaut. She likes math and science, she says.

Karolyi has a no-nonsense approach. Eaton allows fun and time off. Woolsey prefers the lighter touch.

Woolsey learned about Eaton's school when her best friend moved from Colorado to Arizona and enrolled. Woolsey spent summers training with her friend and moved there a week and a half after starting high school in Colorado because most Colorado gymnastics is at Class I level rather than elite. A year later, the Woolsey family moved to Arizona.

The Goodwill Games and the USA-USSR meet in San Jose that closely follows will close out the major portion of Woolsey's international preparation for the 1991 World Championships in Indianapolis.

Today will be her fifth international meet in 1990, plus the Championships of the USA. She'll use the fall to attend some classes at Arizona State - she prefers math and science - and to learn gymnastically, too.

"I have to get my strength up and learn some new tricks," she says.