October 30, 1978 12:00 PM

Martin Turnbow is not one of those parents who forces his child into sports. “I’m against competition,” he says. “I don’t like the Little League mentality. I didn’t think gymnastics would give Donna a chance to develop mentally.”

Fortunately for U.S. gymnastics, Dad Turnbow isn’t stubborn. Acknowledging that his 17-year-old daughter is not only a world class athlete but eminently well adjusted, he smiles and says, “I was wrong.”

Donna was the U.S. women’s all-around titlist in 1977 and the top scorer in the September 1978 trials that picked the American team for this week’s World Gymnastics Championship in Strasbourg, France. Rumania’s Nadia Comaneci and a talented young Soviet squad should dominate the women’s competition (ABC will televise the finals Oct. 28), but Donna could spring an upset. She has already tied Comaneci once in her favorite event, the uneven parallel bars, at the New Orleans Superdome last year.

“I don’t have natural ability,” Donna insists. “I really have to work on each new movement.” It’s true, at least, that she did not become interested in gymnastics until the relatively advanced age of 10, after a friend invited her to a free class near her home in Bell-flower, Calif. When she joined the prestigious KIPS gym team of Santa Fe Springs, the coach, Jim Fountaine, recognized her talent: “I knew she had it—’it’ being the nerves to perform well under pressure. She also has a remarkable ability to cover her mistakes so no one, particularly the judges, is aware she is making them.” Donna’s weakness, he says, is being too conservative. “She is a perfectionist and unless she thinks her routine is perfect she won’t try it,” observes Fountaine.

Donna’s father, an electrical engineer and “weekend duffer in the low 80s,” has ended up with two athletic daughters—Donna’s sister Sandy, 18, plays tennis at USC. Turnbow now calls his daughters “Chrissie Evert” and “Olga Korbut.”

“Growing up,” Donna says, “Olga was my idol. Then I saw Nadia a couple of years before the Montreal Olympics, and I knew she was going to be something special.” Another inspiration was her mother, Sue, a secretary at a medical supply company who encouraged Donna during her first trying months of serious gymnastics. But because Mrs. Turnbow does not like to fly, she rarely attends tournaments. When she does, she is too nervous to watch. “I am never sure whether Dad will be there or not because he is either working or traveling or playing golf,” Donna adds. Explains her father: “We’re always excited to see her perform, but for us it is the 500th time, not the first.”

An “A” student at Mayfair High, Donna drives her ’71 VW to a gym for four hours of practice every day after school. She has few distractions: “I don’t have much in common with the kids I go to school with. I can’t get into football and cheerleading and stuff.” At 5’2″ and 98 pounds, she has no weight problems either. She fixes her own meals, usually salads. “A long time ago I realized it was her responsibility to take care of herself, not mine,” says her mother. “She does a good job of it.”

“I really don’t feel that I’m missing things,” says Donna of her training grind. “I really enjoy what I am doing.” Dad adds teasingly, “Well, I worry that she doesn’t have time to do things normal kids do—like hang around the corner and smoke pot.”

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