Olympic gymnasts return maturity to sport dominated by teens

Posted: Tuesday, July 20, 2004

NEW WAVERLY, Texas One woman likes Led Zeppelin, has already been through college and spent her time before the Olympics worrying as much about bills as tumbling and twirling.

Another is coached by her husband, has lived in two countries and is well into the second phase of her career after an earlier, five-year retirement.

They are 25-year-old Mohini Bhardwaj and 26-year-old Annia Hatch, hardly typical Olympic gymnasts. They were chosen for the American team Sunday, capping comebacks after refusing to buy into the widely held notion that female gymnasts are washed up by age 20.

''I hope we've inspired some more people to come in and do this,'' said Bhardwaj, who listed ''Led Zeppelin III,'' an album that came out in 1970, as the CD she'd most like to have with her if she were stranded on a desert island.

Time will determine the impact these women have, but their presence on a team expected to contend for the gold in Athens is a sign that things are changing significantly in women's gymnastics, especially in the United States.

The worldwide shift toward a teen-dominated sport began in 1976, when 14-year-old Nadia Comaneci put up a handful of perfect 10s at the Montreal Olympics.

Her coach was Bela Karolyi. And while Comaneci invigorated the sport, many gymnasts who followed didn't offer up such pretty pictures.

The image of painfully young, skinny girls prancing around the mat became common over the next 10 to 20 years. It's still common today, and conspiracy theories abound about certain countries that are willing to fudge on birth certificates to get underaged athletes their bodies more flexible and explosive into big-time international events.

The sport developed a reputation for chewing up and spitting out its athletes before they reached college, or often even before they hit puberty. In fact, Bhardwaj quit for a time when she was a teen, feeling she was tumbling more for her family and coaches than for herself.

''I felt a bit guilty, because in 1976, I turned women's gymnastics into kids' gymnastics,'' Karolyi said. ''But I realized this is not just a kids' sport. It's a beautiful sport where full-grown women will have a place to shine.''

Karolyi and his wife, Martha, the U.S. team coordinator, have probably done more to shape American gymnastics than any two people over the past 20 years.

It was in 1988, four years after Mary Lou Retton won gold in the all-around and the American team won silver, that the Karolyis looked around and realized they had no experienced athletes left. The '88 Olympic team didn't have a single holdover from '84, and Phoebe Mills, who won bronze on the balance beam, saved the Americans from a total medal shutout.

Thus began a trend toward giving more opportunities to older gymnasts. While leaders of U.S. programs didn't seek out girls in their 20s, they started building programs with room for the older athletes who had before been shown the door at 18.

Bhardwaj said the disappearance of the older gymnast in the mid-1970s wasn't just an institutional phenomena. It was also a simple cultural reality. Most high-school girls who dominate the sport in America live at home or get support from their parents. Most women Bhardwaj's age have to pay bills.

''Financially, it's impossible once you're done with college,'' she said. ''It's the amount of training required for the sport. It's a lot of hours. You can't have a regular job. And if you do, you don't have time to train.''

Bhardwaj believes financial considerations are a bigger drag on the hopes of many 20-something gymnasts than physical ones, and she insists she wouldn't be here if not for the $25,000 she received from former ''Baywatch'' star Pamela Anderson.

On the physical side, Bhardwaj and Hatch credit a much different approach to training, along with significant layoffs they had in earlier years, as the reasons they've been able to stay competitive with girls up to 10 years younger.

Bhardwaj abandoned her gym-rat tendencies when she went to UCLA, and NCAA rules required she spend no more than 20 hours in practice and meetings.

''You just learn how to spend your time more wisely,'' she said.

Like Bhardwaj, Hatch doesn't overdo it in training anymore. She's a vault specialist but doesn't work on the event as much as most girls do, if only to save herself from enduring the kind of pounding she took when she was training and living in Cuba in the 1990s.

''I've been there, done that,'' Hatch said.

''This is just another type of training that's working. You have to take into consideration that you are older, and you take longer to recuperate. It doesn't make you any less of an athlete because you keep your body healthy.''

Hatch says she wasn't hurt by the five-year layoff she took after leaving Cuba to get married and become an American citizen. While living in Cuba in 1996, she qualified for the Olympics, but the cash-strapped government didn't send her to Atlanta.

''I thought my career was over,'' she said. ''I didn't think I was going to have a chance to be in another Olympics.''

Eight years later, she made it. And she's got some good company for the trip to Athens.

''If you look at any pro sport, the athletes are between 18 and 29 or 30,'' Bhardwaj said. ''That's when you peak, mentally and physically, and that's how it should be for gymnastics. I'm not saying cut the younger ones out. I'm just saying the life span should be longer. And we're showing it's possible.''

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