July 06, 1987 12:00 PM

In the small, quiet town of Layton, Utah (pop. 23,000), normally trustworthy eyewitnesses have reported a blur of blond hair and skinny legs whirling, flipping and twisting across their lawns every day around breakfast time. Dogs are too stunned to bark. Passing drivers stop in their tracks. But people who live near the two-story, redbrick house in the south part of town have gotten used to it. It’s only little Derrick Gibson, 13, getting ready for the Olympics.

“When I see a stretch of lawn,” explains Gibson, “I have to give in and do a back flip or two.”

At a mere 4’9″ and 80 lbs., Gibson, just out of seventh grade at Central Davis Junior High, might be mistaken at rest for a slightly oversize bookend. But he has already put in seven years on the amateur tumbling circuit and has won six national age-group titles and the 1986 world championship for 11- and 12-year-olds. Tumbling differs from gymnastics, the sport of Nadia Comaneci and Mary Lou Retton, in that it is more athletic and less balletic: The sport involves a straight run, a takeoff and a lot of fast flips. Gibson seems to have it down cold. “Guys nearly twice his age will go to national meets, take one look at Derrick and think, ‘He’s too tiny. It will be a cinch to outdo him,’ ” says Lori Davidson, one of the nation’s top tumbling coaches. “But as soon as Derrick runs down that mat, they start to think differently. He blows them away.”

One of seven children, Gibson started practicing somersaults on the family coffee table when he was two years old. Four years later, his mother, Mieke, grew tired of buying Super Glue to mend her furniture, so his father, Hi, an electrician, arranged to do some repairs for a local gym in exchange for tumbling lessons for their son. At 8, Gibson became the youngest tumbler in the world to perform a full-twisting double back flip and was well on his way to refining his repertoire. “It’s kind of like a rush,” he says. “I feel a tingle all over. Practicing three hours a day four days a week can wear me out, but I always feel great when I’m done.”

In preparation for competitions, Gibson bulks up—more or less—on lasagna. “I don’t like vegetables,” he says. “But Mom makes me eat them anyway.” His long-term goal is to “get real rich and build a gym.” Meantime, having won a spot last year as the youngest member of the U.S. Tumbling Team, he anxiously anticipates the 1992 Olympics, when platform tumbling debuts as an exhibition sport. Says Jim Aamodt, a U.S. Team coach and Gibson’s longtime mentor: “If you think he’s good now, just wait until then.”

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