For Varina Heinrich French ’56, M.S. ’65, the thrill of the Olympics didn’t come from competing, but rather from watching the athletes only inches away from making their mark on history. However, French, a leader in the women’s gymnastics in the U.S., has left her own legacy on the sport, having worked with three Olympic Games.
French’s first involvement with the Olympic Games was in 1976 and 1980 as a delegate representative for gymnastics in the International Olympic Committee. But it was in 1984, when she spent three weeks as an official at the XXIII Olympiad in Los Angeles, Calif., working for ABC Television, that she breathed in the sweat and chalk.
As a spotter for the television coverage, French spent the long days watching the gymnasts’ every move, knowing when the athletes competed and then keeping track of their scores. ABC Television technicians then relied on her to relay the information via headset so it could be passed on to viewers.
Watching many of the athletes succeed that she had worked with for years was a very gratifying aspect of the Olympic experience, she said. She was on the floor of the arena when Mary Lou Retton captured her gold medal in the all-around competition and again when the U.S. men’s team earned the gold in the overall team contest. “I got so excited watching,” French said. “When Mary Lou Retton threw that 10 vault, that was something else.”
French’s enthusiasm for sports started as a young woman. She enrolled at Pacific from Hillsboro High School and was one of the only a couple female physical education (PE) majors. Her role models were PE Special Instructor Jean Horner ’44, M.S. ’52, and Assistant Professor of Women’s PE Better Owen. After graduation, she taught in the Hillsboro Elementary District for a few years and then joined the Pacific PE department in 1961, where she spent 17 years teaching and coaching.
Although gymnastics wasn’t the focus for the University, French found her passion there. As the women’s sport began to take off around the country in the mid 1960s, she stepped into help and became enveloped in the enthusiasm and need for leadership and promotion. “It started coming so fast,” said her husband Harold “Dan” French ’56 M.S. ’64. “She got started right at the beginning on the ground floor.”
Varina French became a trained judge, reaching the sixth of seven levels of judging, allowing her to judge throughout the U.S. and foreign teams competing in the country. In addition, she began education programs for training judges, a need that increased exponentially as the sport grew in popularity.
Eventually in the 1970s, the University fielded a women’s gymnastics team for a few years. Although Varina French coached the team, she was already engrossed in the sport, conducting a women’s gymnastics camp for children in Forest Grove, judging competitions around the country and training judges. “I just loved the sport,” said Varina French. In 1974, she was elected vice president of the U.S. Gymnastics Federation Women’s Committee.
By the time she retired from Pacific, having coached volleyball, softball, track and field, and gymnastics, Varina French had set up a certification program for judges and had at lease one assistant in every state administer tests to judges, according to Dan French. “She was in charge of certifying every women judge in the U.S.,” he said. “ She knew everybody.”
When the couple left Forest Grove and moved to California Varina French was able to take her certification role with her. In 1979, her position with the U.S. Gymnastics Federation grew, and she took on media relations as the international press coordinator, working at large meets in the U.S., including the World Gymnastics Championships in Fort Worth, Texas, and the Goodwill Games until 1990. Eventually in the mid 1980s, Varina French stopped judging, finding the training and media work kept her plenty busy.
Ten years after Varina French’s Los Angeles Olympic experience, her career came to a sudden halt after being hit by a drunk driver. The September 1994 car accident, which also involved her husband, put Varina French in a coma. After awakening, she had lost much of her memory and suffered brain damage. However, she still smiles and is delighted to share thought of her Olympic experiences and years working with women’s gymnastics. And, she admitted, she loves watching gymnastics on television.
Today, the couple, who recently celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary, spends their time “following warm weather,” in an RV, according to Dan French. Their home for the past seven years, the RV’s walls are covered with photos and memorabilia of the couple’s years together and in the athletic arena.