Christmas came early this year for Ray Steckman, coach of the Woodson High School girls gymnastics team. In early November, he received four gifts which, he said, made his team "one of the best around."

The gifts were seniors Kathy Swoboda and Carla Richman and juniors Leslie Tranchini and Lisa Porter, who decided they would rather compete for Woodson than for the private gymnastics clubs they had competed for in the past.

Virginia High School League rules state that a gymnast may compete on her school team or private club team, but not both. Since gymnasts who have spend years competing for private clubs generally have better skills than those who have not, their experience can be invaluable to a high school team."

"There are a couple of major reasons why they switched from private to high school competition," Steckman said. "The girls reach a point where they realize that they're not going to make national competition or the Olympics, and they also know there is a less demanding schedule in high school."

Not that gymnasts have it easy at Woodson, where they practice 12 to 14 hours a week and work on what Steckman described as "some dangerous types of tricks."

"We have four girls who throw a half twist onto the vault and a half twist off," Steckman said. "We also have a girl working on a half twist onto the vault and a full twist off."

Despite the practice hours, advanced tricks and the team's general feeling that Steckman is a strict coach, most team members agree that competing for a high school has advantages over competing for a private club.

"This is my last year in high school and I just decided I wanted to do things I've never been able to do before - like go to dances," said Carla Richman, 17, who competed for a private team for more than four years. "I used to spend four hours a day after school at practice and then we'd have meets every weekend. It just took up too much time."

Junior Kristen Stolte, 16, spent two years with a private team, but switched to Woodson last year because "I was at the point where you have to spend all your time practicing with the private team if you want to go places. It was year round, every day."

Stolte said it was a "big decision because I liked my (private) team a lot. It had been most of my life for two years. That and school combined were too much.

"Nobody knew I was in gymnastics when I competed privately," Richman said. "But it's nice when my friends come to a (high school) meet."

Stolte, who works out four hours a week with a private team after the high school season ends, won the regionals for Woodson last year on the balance beam. But, she said, "competition in the high schools isn't as good (as on private teams). There are a lot better people at the private level."

"The scoring is a lot different," Richman said. "It's easier in high school to get high scores. High school is just less demanding."

The competition on the Woodson team is intense this year with the addition of the four newcomers who, Stolte said, "are a lot better than me" even on the balance beam.

In a high school gymnastics meet there are four events - the balance beam, uneven parallel bars, floor exercise and the vault. Four girls from each team may enter each event. Steckman said he has six girls who can perform effectively in all four events (called "all around" performers).

Such a surplus of talent could cause morale problems, but Steckman said he sees none developing, and Stolte said of a new girls, "I'm glad they came on the team because they give us a chance for the state title."

Richman agreed, saying, "I haven't noticed any hard feelings. I think we have a fantastic chance at (the) state (little)."

Steckman, in his fourth year as Woodson's girls gymnastics coach, is a 1971 Maryland University graduate with a physical education major, who "didn't even know how to spot a cartwheel four years ago. If anyone had said five years ago that I'd be coaching girls gymnastics today, I'd have told them they were crazy."

Steckman, a teacher at Frost Intermediate School, next to Woodson, took the gymnastics job "to get my foot in the door" for other coaching positions. It worked, because he now coaches varsity soccer in the spring in addition to the gymnastics team, which has been awesome in two scrimmages, scoring 203 points against a highly regarded West Springfield team and beating Chantilly by 25 points, according to Steckman.