Monday, July 19, 2004

Bhardwaj named Olympic gymnast

By Neil Schmidt
Enquirer staff writer

The journey spanned 12 years, taking her from Cincinnati to Orlando to Houston to Los Angeles. And then, Sunday night, Mohini Bhardwaj arrived at her final stop.

"Cloud nine," she said.

The U.S. women's Olympic gymnastics team poses Sunday. Front row from left: Courtney McCool and Mohini Bhardwaj; back row: Carly Patterson, Annia Hatch, Courtney Kupets and Terin Humphrey.
(AP photo)
The Cincinnati native completed an improbable comeback story Sunday with her appointment to the U.S. Olympic gymnastics team.

Having lived essentially on her own since she was 13, her dream once lost during a year's retirement, Bhardwaj emerged for a final run that defied history.

At age 25, she ranks as the nation's second-oldest female Olympic gymnast since 1964, when Doris Brause was an alternate.

New teammate Annia Hatch, 26, is the oldest.

"I think I don't really believe I made the team," Bhardwaj said.

"I'm so excited, I don't think words can really explain."

A three-member selection committee headed by national team director Martha Karolyi concluded a five-day, closed-door selection camp Sunday night at Karolyi's gym in suburban Houston.

It was the final step in a lengthy process that began for Bhardwaj in January, when - starting over - she had to go through a zone qualifier just to reach the qualifier for nationals, through which she advanced to the Olympic Trials.

Mohini Bhardwaj competes on the vault for a spot on the U.S. women's Olympic gymnastics team Sunday.
(AP photo)
Analysts expected the committee to select one vault specialist to aid the team in its weakest discipline.

Bhardwaj and Hatch were figured to be jockeying for that one spot, along with 17-year-old Liz Tricase, the 2002 national vault champion.

Surprisingly, both Bhardwaj and Hatch were picked. They joined Terin Humphrey and Carly Patterson. Courtney Kupets and Courtney McCool had sewn up their spots at the Trials.

The surprise names left off the six-woman team were Hollie Vise, who finished second in the all-around at 2002 and 2003 nationals; Tasha Schwikert, the 2001 and 2002 all-around national champion and a 2000 Olympian; and Chellsie Memmel, the 2003 uneven bars world co-champion. Memmel, Schwikert and Alysse Ishino are the team's three alternates.

Bhardwaj, the 2001 national vault champion, had posted the second-highest vault scores at nationals and Trials.

"They really need two great vaulters," Bhardwaj said. "But to say we're just specialists is selling it a bit short, because we're also great all-around gymnasts as well."

Bhardwaj finished 10th all-around at the 1996 Olympic Trials, then bypassed a run at the 2000 Games to focus on gymnastics at UCLA. This opportunity looked lost when she retired after an agonizing fall in 2002, in which she dislocated her elbow. Last summer, Bhardwaj came back.

When the announcement was made Sunday, she was visibly moved by the moment.

"I realized going to the Olympics was something I really wanted," she said. "It just makes it that much sweeter. I had a goal that I went for, and I accomplished it."

Bhardwaj grew up in Cincinnati, training at Queen City Gymnastics, but moved at age 13 to Orlando - and later to Houston - in search of more intensive coaching. She competed for the U.S. world championship team in 1997 and 2001.

The U.S. team, defending world champions, is the favorite to win gold. In 1996, Cincinnatians Amanda Borden and Jaycie Phelps helped America claim its only Olympic gymnastics title.



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