Tuesday, June 29, 2004

Twists, turns like no other

Gymnasts face daunting task

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Between July 13 and 18, former Cincinnatian Mohini Bhardwaj and 11 others will compete for the remaining four spots on the U.S. Olympic women's gymnastics team. We don't know how the four will be picked, because it will be done behind the gym doors at the Houston ranch of Bela and Martha Karolyi.

If you're not up on how this works, join the club. It doesn't have much to do with doing well at the Olympic Trials. The top two finishers at the Trials Sunday night were all but guaranteed spots. A committee of Martha Karolyi and two others will decide the other four at the camp, which promises to be as much fun as a minimum-security lock-up.

Bhardwaj finished sixth at the Trials. Six women go to Athens, and three alternates. In a normal world, the six best at Trials would be the team. Women's gymnastics isn't normal. The selection process for their Olympic team makes the Bowl Championship Series seem sane.

The committee can name you as first alternate and not put you on the team even when a team member is injured. That happened to Alyssa Beckerman in 2000. Beckerman's snub was such a disappointment to her coach, Mary Lee Tracy, Tracy nearly quit coaching.

"Some dreams may be crushed," USA Gymnastics president Bob Colarossi told the New York Times. "It's just the way life is."

Yeah, stinks for you, sweetie. Now go on back to middle school.

"If you're not one of their favorites, they'll just toss you out with the garbage," Beckerman told the Times. Tracy, the local coach whose gym produced 1996 gold medalists Amanda Borden and Jaycie Phelps, didn't return phone calls seeking comment on the way USA Gymnastics treats its child stars.

In 2000, Vanessa Atler arrived at Camp Karolyi fresh off a sixth place finish at the Trials and didn't make the team, even as an alternate. Atler now calls the Karolyis "sneaky" and says "in the end, they manipulate you."

Into all this loveliness comes Mohini Bhardwaj. The best thing she has going for her is that she's 25 years old, close to graduating from UCLA with a double major and, as she says, "I'm doing this for myself, not for (the selection committee) or anyone else.

It's a good bet Bhardwaj will exit the process with her head on straight, whether she survives the camp or not. Being an adult has its advantages, even in the weird, pixie-fied world of gymnastics.

On Monday, I asked Bhardwaj's coach, Chris Waller: Does the subjectivity of the camp make you nervous?

"Yeah, but you have to go beyond that immediately and prepare," Waller said. He was on the committee in 2000. "It wasn't much fun. A lot of it has to be left up to the integrity" of those on the committee. Waller called it a necessary evil. "If you want to put the best team on the floor, there's no other way to do it."

Bhardwaj excels on the vault, and is expected to make the team on that basis. If she does, chalk one up to persistence. You aren't supposed to be doing this at age 25, pulling your hair back in a skull-shrinking knot, enhancing your appearance with glitter, shimmying into a one-piece Superman suit that's tighter than the seal on a jar of grape jelly.

"When Mohini decides what she has to do, until she gets the goal she doesn't change," said her father Kaushal, who lives in Hyde Park. Mohini trained for 10 years at Queen City Gymnastics, moving to Orlando when she was 14, then on to Houston, where she maintained an apartment at the advanced age of 16.

Just to pursue the 2004 Games, she has worked part time and maxed out her credit cards. A $20,000 donation from quasi-actress Pam Anderson has eased the financial crunch.

At its highest level, women's gymnastics is as much about what you don't see as what you do: The eating disorders, the stress fractures, the childhoods lost to hours in the gym. The politics.

Mohini Bhardwaj has been 21 years chasing a dream. It's very much alive. Here's hoping the shot she gets at Camp Karolyi is nothing but pure.

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