Surprise! 25-year-old not done in Olympic quest

Posted: Tuesday, June 29, 2004

ANAHEIM, Calif. At 25, Mohini Bhardwaj should have long ago hung up the leotard. Clearly, though, she had different thoughts about a sport that spits most girls out while they're still in their teens.

Underwritten by a generous actress and motivated by an unshakable feeling that ''experience'' isn't a bad word in women's gymnastics, Bhardwaj has set herself up as the most intriguing candidate for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team.

A former All-American at UCLA who received $20,000 from Pamela Anderson to fund her training, Bhardwaj made a compelling bid for a spot in Athens at Olympic trials over the weekend. She finished in sixth place and earned an invitation to next month's selection camp, where team coordinator Martha Karolyi will fill the final four spots on the six-woman team.

''This is fantastic,'' said Anderson, who spent Sunday in the gym, holding up the ''Go Mo'' signs that became a staple during Bhardwaj's sterling career at UCLA. ''She deserves it. This sport usually ends for women at such a young age. But she's 25 and she's still doing great.''

When she was 15 the age most top-flight female gymnasts are thinking about the Olympics Bhardwaj was considered one of the great young hopes for the American team. But she shuffled cities, shuffled coaches and started feeling like a piece of meat.

She grew disenchanted, pretty much gave up on her Olympic dreams. After a third-place finish at nationals in 1997, it looked like her career, at least on the world stage, was over.

Even when she enrolled at UCLA that year, she felt like she was just going through the motions.

Then, a turnaround.

Because NCAA rules limit the amount of training about four hours a day instead of the eight or nine most world-class gymnasts put in Bhardwaj realized she could still be a good gymnast without having to sacrifice her entire life to get there.

She wound up an 11-time All-American at UCLA and won national titles in floor exercise and uneven bars. She set the UCLA record with eight perfect 10s, and led the Bruins to two national titles.

In 2000, when former Olympians Kristen Maloney and Jamie Dantzscher enrolled at UCLA, they were stunned by Bhardwaj's ability and told her so.

''They asked me why I didn't train because they thought I would have made it,'' she said.

So, back to the gym Bhardwaj went, her quest for the Olympics moving forward, albeit at an age at which most women have to think about coaching if they want to stay connected to the sport.

''I have this motto of living my life without any regrets. That's what made me start training again,'' Bhardwaj said. ''I don't want to look back and say I didn't train. If I try, then no matter what happens, I know I can look back with a clear conscience.''

But how to make ends meet?

At 25, she no longer lives with her parents. She isn't married, and it's hard to make good money when so much of her time had to be devoted to training. Not long ago, she had the idea to sell raffle tickets as a way to raise funds to bankroll her training. Anderson, the former star of ''Baywatch,'' heard about that and put an end to it right away, donating money for Bhardwaj to live and eat and train.

''Without that, I honestly don't know if I could have made it to this point,'' Bhardwaj conceded on Sunday.

Next, America finds out if the story made in Hollywood will have a Hollywood ending.

The answer will come July 18, when Karolyi's weeklong training camp ends and she fills out the rest of the Olympic team.

At trials, co-national champion Courtney Kupets and Courtney McCool all but wrapped up spots on the team by finishing one-two. Barring injury or something else major, they're guaranteed to be there. Karolyi said the other co-champ, Carly Patterson, pretty much has a spot wrapped up, too.

That leaves three spots, and Bhardwaj is one of 12 gymnasts vying for them. She'll have to fight off Hollie Vise and Chellsie Memmel, both of whom are recuperating from injuries, but both of whom were on the world-championship team last year that won a gold medal.

Tasha Schwikert is the only holdover from the 2000 Olympics, and she's trying to make it back. Tabitha Yim was a runner-up at nationals in 2001 and 2002 before injuries derailed her career. She finished fourth at trials, though, and rivals Bhardwaj as possibly the biggest surprise of the summer.

But, says, Karolyi, ''Mohini was not such a big surprise to me. I know her qualities from the 2001 world championships,'' which is where Bhardwaj first came back onto the scene.

Her high scores on vault and uneven bars at trials are what catapulted her toward the top of the standings. If she makes it, it will be as a specialist in those events.

But Bhardwaj thinks she brings something more.

''I've probably had, including my years competing in college, four or five or six times as many competitions as the others have had,'' she said.

To some, that might mean she's washed up.

To Bhardwaj and her backers, it's a sign that things might just be beginning.

''I want to show USA Gymnastics that older women can compete in this sport,'' she said. ''I feel I've made an impact on this sport, and I want to keep trying to do that.''

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