ALLENTOWN - It was 1984 when a hopeful 7-year-old gymnast named Shannon Miller walked into a Dover, Del., arena for her first serious competition.

As the tiny Missourian nervously surveyed the crowded floor, the familiar chatter of children and their parents hummed reassuringly in the background. And then, suddenly, as a group of youngsters in red, white and blue warm-ups entered, the gym went silent.

"There was this hush," recalled Miller, who went on to win seven Olympic medals and become America's most honored gymnast. "I asked the girl next to me who they were. She whispered, 'Don't you know? Those are the Parkettes.' "

Though Allentown's Parkettes might not inspire the same reverence 24 years later, the program founded in 1968 by a curious phys-ed teacher and her husband - USA Gymnastics Hall of Famers Donna and Bill Strauss - remains among the nation's elite producers of top-flight gymnasts.

"What the Strausses have done for all these years has been an incredible gift to gymnastics," Miller said.

Formed in the gymnastics dark ages of 1968 with the help of a Philadelphia club, the Parkettes started out in the Strausses' backyard, then moved to an unheated barn, a church basement, and a room above a concert hall before settling in a state-of-the-art, warehouse-size facility here.

In those 40 years, the program has produced a flock of world-class gymnasts, sending at least one competitor to every Olympics trials since 1976.

And even though the center of the American gymnastics universe has shifted south and west, the Parkettes' streak will continue this weekend in Philadelphia.

When the U.S. Olympic trials begin Thursday at the Wachovia Center, the Parkettes' Amber Trani will be one of the 19 girls hoping to earn a berth on a team that will be favored to win a gold medal in Beijing.

Should she do so, Trani, an 18-year-old from Richlandtown who has trained with the Parkettes since she was 2, would be the fifth from the program to represent the United States at the Olympics, joining Kristin Maloney (2000), Kim Kelly (1992), Hope Spivey (1988) and Jodi Yocum (1976).

They were among the more than 100 national team members, including five in 1992 alone, produced by the Parkettes. The Strausses coached the U.S. Olympic team in 1988. In 1992, the Parkettes won the national team title.

Today, 130 elite gymnasts are being trained here, in addition to 900 other students, from 1 on up.

And while the program has its critics, particularly those who find the Strausses' no-nonsense style a bit harsh for young children, the nonprofit program's reputation remains as solid as a Shawn Johnson vault.

Natalia Yurchenko, a Russian coach and gymnast so revered that a widely popular vault she created is now named in her honor, immigrated here after the collapse of the Soviet Union and soon was working in Allentown.

"At first, I did not know the Parkettes," Yurchenko said. "But when I found out about them and everything they have done, I was happy to come here and help train gymnasts."

One morning last week, the 4-foot-10 Donna Strauss was standing on a thick stack of orange mats, attentively monitoring all the activity under way inside the 32,000-square-foot Parkettes National Gymnastics Training Center.

"C'mon, get that hand behind you!" she bellowed at one point.

Dozens of female gymnasts, the Parkettes' best, were bounding through various routines. They work out with Strauss and the gym's other coaches for several hours a day. All are home-schooled and either were raised in commuting range or have families who have moved nearby.

That need for home-schooling - prevalent at all the top gyms - initially concerned Strauss, a former public school teacher. But, she said, 95 percent of her gymnasts have thrived academically. Trani, who won an athletic scholarship to Georgia, is an excellent student. Others have attended Cornell, Stanford and other top universities.

More serious gymnasts are in the Parkettes program now than in the entire nation in the 1960s, when the Strausses got the idea for their program.

"There were maybe 20 gymnasts in the whole country," Donna Strauss said. "And maybe one other place, in Long Beach, Calif., for serious training."

The Strausses' dream began one summer when Donna, an Allentown School District teacher, attended a gymnastics camp at Penn State.

"I didn't have a gymnastics background," said Strauss, 65. "But up there, it got into my system."

Returning home, she contacted Bill Coco, the Temple gymnastics coach who ran a Philadelphia club called the Mannettes at the Mann Recreation Center on North Fifth Street. Coco took the Strausses under his wing.

Back in Allentown, Donna Strauss formed a girls' gym team at Trexler Middle School.

"In those days, men ruled sports," she said. "Women had nothing. But we had a principal named Carroll Parks, and he made the basketball coach share the gym with us on certain nights. That was unheard of. Mr. Parks really supported us."

So when, in 1968, the Strausses began their own program, they named it in Parks' honor.

That was four years before Olga Korbut's telegenic performance at the Munich Olympics sent gymnastics' popularity soaring. When that happened, the Parkettes quickly outgrew their early facilities.

"We'd been to Moscow in the late '70s," Strauss said, "and we saw the training facilities. We knew we had to grow."

To that end, Mack Truck contributed $50,000, and the City of Allentown donated a parcel of land along Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. In 1979, the booming program moved into its more spacious home.

"With this facility, we were way ahead of where most of the country was then," Strauss said. "Timing was everything. We didn't really have a business model. All we knew was that we had a lot of young ladies who wanted to do gymnastics."

The Strausses read magazines and books to learn about technique, nutrition and training. They consulted other coaches, including Muriel Grossfeld, a three-time U.S. Olympic coach.

Little by little, they developed knowledge as well as a philosophy and a tough style. While most of their students flourished under that coaching style, a few chafed.

"Some kids are afraid to dream big, to think about things like [the Olympics]," Strauss said. "We tell them [to] take one step at a time. Kids are afraid because they don't want to be failures. Our philosophy is the people who are failures are the ones who never tried to achieve anything."

The Parkettes' staff has developed an eye for spotting budding gymnasts amid the hundreds of toddlers who come annually for instructions.

"It's the ones who are not afraid," Strauss said. "The ones who will do whatever they're asked. The ones that have strength and flexibility. You can see it in their eyes. They're not doing it because Mom is bringing them. They want to be here."

Maloney, Strauss said, did not stand out immediately. But when she won a meet after her mother had wanted to keep her out because she was running a 102-degree fever, the Parkettes knew they had another talent on their hands.

Now, their gym still flourishing, their ambitions still ripe, the Strausses are among the elder statesmen in a sport whose current popularity they couldn't have envisioned.

"In Boston [for the recent women's national championships], one younger coach came up to me and said, 'I just want to let you know how much we admire you guys and what you've accomplished,' " Donna Strauss said. " 'It's unbelievable to think how many years you've been around and still you keep going, producing gymnasts at this level.' "

Contact staff writer Frank Fitzpatrick
at 215-854-5068