Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Gymnast Bhardwaj counts on experience

Cincinnati native bids for U.S. Olympic team berth

By Neil Schmidt
Enquirer staff writer

It'll be lonely this weekend up there on the balance beam. Or on the uneven bars, the gym empty except for competitors and three watchful judges. For Mohini Bhardwaj, though, it's home.

Born: Sept. 29, 1978

Hometown: Cincinnati

Residence: Los Angeles

College: UCLA, 2002

Began gymnastics: 1983

Major honors: 2001 vault national champion; world championship team member, 1997 and 2001; third place in all-around, 2001 nationals; two-time team NCAA champion; three-time individual NCAA champion.

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After 12 years away from her parents on a Homeric odyssey, home is wherever there's a gym. And a competition.

There's a big one beginning today in the suburbs of Houston, the biggest of the Cincinnati native's career.

Behind closed doors at the U.S. Olympic gymnastics selection camp, Bhardwaj will put her stirring comeback story to its last and tallest test.

"As long as they see continuous improvement, I think I'm there (on the team)," she said. "I think I have the capabilities to perform better (this weekend) than I ever have."

The pressure shouldn't ruffle her. A 25-year-old in a teenager's sport, she brings uncommon experience and resolve to the table. She's selling professionalism.

There's no one more professional than Bhardwaj, who lived on her own at 16, who returned after a year's retirement solely to make this team, who financed her own training until the well-chronicled gift from actress Pamela Anderson.

"I have a lot of people that recognize my experience, what I offer to the team - what nobody else has," she said. "I've been through this many times.

"I'm to the point I know what to do with my nervous energy ... how to use it to my advantage."

She is one of 11 women essentially competing for four remaining spots on the six-woman team.

National team coordinator Martha Karolyi and two other officials will watch workouts the next five days, including a meet Friday and Sunday, and name the team Sunday night.

Bhardwaj finished 12th overall at the U.S. Championships and sixth at the Olympic Trials. Her value is as an event specialist. She had the second-highest scores on vault at each of those past two meets and was fourth on the uneven bars at Trials.

Her performance at Trials was a revelation. The Anaheim crowd cheered wildly for the UCLA grad; TV captured Anderson waving a "Go Mo" sign; and Karolyi was seen reacting excitedly to Bhardwaj's efforts.

A TV darling is emerging.

"It's amazing the kind of collective enthusiasm that's behind this thing," Bhardwaj said.

Bhardwaj retired after an agonizing fall in 2002, when she dislocated her elbow. She had accomplished just about everything she could have in gymnastics: two-time U.S. world championship team member, 11-time All-American, collegiate gymnast of the year.

Everything except Olympian. Last summer, working three jobs, Bhardwaj decided she wanted to go for it. There was no stopping her.

"She is very determined," said her father, Dr. Kaushal Bhardwaj. "If she wants to do something, she has to do it, no matter what."

That was evident at 13. Training then at Queen City Gymnastics, Bhardwaj craved more intensive coaching. So she moved to Orlando, Fla. - her decision, her father says - to train. The first year she lived with a host family; then her mother, Indu, moved down for a year and a half.

Bhardwaj then moved to Houston to train at a different gym, living on her own for two years before college. She lives in L.A.; her parents remain here. Anderson, who heard of Bhardwaj's near-penniless pursuit this spring, found a kindred soul in the gymnast - both are strict vegetarians - and donated $20,000.

Bhardwaj had to start over last summer. She needed to go through a zone qualifier just to reach the qualifier for nationals, through which she advanced to Trials.

Long shot? As recently as June, USA Gymnastics didn't even include her bio among the 30-some women on its main page.

"Regardless of what happens this week, I've kind of shown people that at the age of 25, you can make a comeback and do better than you've done before," Bhardwaj said. "I think I'm just now peaking in my gymnastics career."



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