Sunday, August 15, 2004

Nothing ordinary about her

Life's challenges never derailed gymnast's dream

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ATHENS - Before she dislocated her elbow and quit gymnastics for a year ... before she came back, went to college, resumed training, worked three jobs and maxed out two credit cards to stay solvent ... before she became The Pam Anderson Gymnast ... Mohini Bhardwaj spent the 1996 Olympics in a Cincinnati bar.

Specifically, she marked the night the U.S. women's team struck gold by partying with friends at the Yacht Club, a now-defunct Clifton nightspot. Kerri Strug landed the gold-clinching vault on that bum ankle without Mohini Bhardwaj watching.

"I was a little upset," Bhardwaj says now. "I was real excited for the women (and) kinda bummed I wasn't there." She had missed making the team by .075 of a point.

On the eve of the same event eight years later, Bhardwaj is on the inside looking out. Hers was a dream deferred, not denied. "Life-fulfilling," she calls it.

It isn't easy trying to be perfect every day. This is what gymnasts do. The Land of the Pointed Toe is no place for 99 percent. Usually, it's no place for adults, either, unless they're teaching perfection, not attempting it. Bhardwaj is 25, too worldly to be infatuated with gymnastics, too old to approach it with the na‘ve energy of a 16-year-old.

bhardwaj What do you have in common with your teammates, someone asks. Other than 26-year-old Annia Hatch, Bhardwaj keeps company with high school girls.

"The love of gymnastics," she says. "I don't know. We like the same movies?

"I don't feel 25. I don't think I'm that different" than she was eight years ago. "Are you different than you were eight years ago?"

She's at the podium with the other girls. Only she's not a girl. Her hair is pulled back in that same, severe way as all the girls, tied in a bun, as neat and perfect as a 10 on the floor exercise.

When Bhardwaj speaks, she sounds like the girls: small, chirpy, 8 years old. As if someone stuck helium implants in her voice box. But it doesn't take long to understand she comes with a depth of personality the others have not earned. The culture of international gymnastics allows little time for personality development, which is why the girls are always more compelling to watch than to listen to.

Bhardwaj is different, which you might expect from someone who will graduate with two degrees from UCLA in January, who has worked on balancing her checkbook and her balance beam routine. "The financial issues," she sighs.

"You have to train. It's a lot of hours. Thirty or 40 a week. It's not something you can do in your back yard, in your spare time." Coaches need to be paid, groceries bought, landlords satisfied. This isn't Kamp Karolyi outside Houston, stocked with 14-year-olds whose dreams are paid for.

That's a big reason elite gymnasts have a short shelf life. Another is the grind. Strug said that ending her career was a relief, not a sadness. Bhardwaj took a year off, though, and confesses, "I wouldn't rather be doing anything else."

She was in debt when Pam Anderson wrote her a check for $20,000, then auctioned off one of her cars, sending the proceeds to Bhardwaj. Anderson is a former gymnast and was friends with one of the mothers whose daughter trains with Bhardwaj in L.A.

Each has tattoos. Bhardwaj hides hers - "all flowers," she says - beneath her leotard. Both are also vegetarians. Bhardwaj was raised that way in Cincinnati by Hindu parents. Now, she says, staying meat-less "is more of an ethical thing."

Debt-free, she can concentrate on her long-held, little-girl dream with the poise of a woman. "I know what I want. I have it together mentally," she says.

When it's over, she'll stay in gymnastics for one more year to compete in the world championships, then commence the What Now? part of her life. She'll go to law school, study sports and entertainment law. She'll return to Cincinnati (Bhardwaj's boyfriend attended Summit Country Day), frequent the Blind Lemon in Mount Adams and Pomodori in Clifton.

She'll do it all without regrets. Giving the Olympics one more shot took care of that. "My success is a little sweeter. And I'm going to get the rings (tattooed) on my wrists when this is all over."



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