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SYDNEY 2000 / SUMMER OLYMPICS

Gymnast Beats Long Odds

From Las Vegas to the Games, Schwikert Becomes Unlikeliest Member of the U.S. Squad

September 15, 2000|DIANE PUCIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SYDNEY, Australia — When Tasha Schwikert called her mother, Joy, at work to give her the news, all of Caesars Palace celebrated.

"Mom," Tasha told Joy, "I'm going to compete at the Olympics."

Joy high-fived all the craps dealers in the pit and the shouting echoed off the slot machines and into those special high-roller rooms.

Joy Schwikert is a craps dealer, the first female craps dealer at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. Her 15-year-old daughter, Tasha, is a gymnast and the unlikeliest member of the U.S. team that will start defense of its team gold medal Sunday at the Olympic Superdome.

Tasha, who doesn't turn 16 until November and who barely made the cut under new age-restrictions rules, had left the Boston Olympic trials three weeks ago as nothing. She had not been named to the team. She had not been named as the alternate.

So Schwikert, a 10th-grader, went home to Las Vegas, eager to resume practice and already counting down the days to the 2004 Games.

But two days later, Schwikert was called by U.S. team coordinator Bela Karolyi and asked to be the team's second alternate. She went to Karolyi's Texas ranch to train, then flew to Australia, expecting to be a supportive cheerleader and an inspirational practice partner.

But then Morgan White, who had been expected to perform lead-off duties on all the apparatus, withdrew Monday because of a stress fracture. Karolyi bypassed first alternate Alyssa Beckerman and chose Schwikert.

"Tasha was a much stronger and more consistent performer in training," Karolyi said.

So the phone call was made and a casino celebrated.

Besides her mom, Tasha's dad, Shannon Warren, is also a craps dealer at Caesars. Joy's identical twin sister, Jill, deals craps, poker and several other games at the Mirage.

Joy and Jill had been professional tennis players in the 1970s.

"We turned pro right out of high school," Joy says. "It was 1972, the same year Chris Evert turned pro. We weren't Chris Evert. Our mother was the head pro at the Stardust so we were always playing on the courts there."

The Schwikerts played doubles at Wimbledon, scrapped to make a living, then finally went home to Las Vegas and dealer's school.

"Why not," Joy says. "You make good money for not having a college degree or nothing."

Joy and Shannon met on the casino floor and although they have never married, they have been together for nearly 20 years and are raising their two daughters. Tasha has a 14-year-old sister, Jordan, also a nationally ranked gymnast. There were nearly three girls.

Tasha had an identical twin who was stillborn.

"I never knew there was a twin when I was pregnant," Joy says. "Then Tasha came early. I had no pain, just all of a sudden a little foot popped out."

Tasha was born two months prematurely. She weighed barely four pounds and fought several infections in the hospital.

Her coach, Cassie Rice, says, "If Tasha had been born on time, [she] would have been born in January and been ineligible for the Olympics. She would have been too young. How ironic is that?"

Her life in Las Vegas, Tasha says, is normal.

"It's not like I'm hanging out on the casino floor all day," she says. "I'm too young. We have a normal house and we go to school and my parents just have a job that's kind of different."

Because Tasha was such a late addition to the team, there has been a struggle for her family to travel to Australia.

The United States Olympic Committee pays for one parent of a competitor so Joy was going. Caesars Palace chipped in $5,000 which was enough to send Jordan.

"I wanted Jordan to see what the experience was like," Warren says. "Maybe she'll participate one day."

And Aunt Jill was able to pay her way.

But Warren decided to stay home.

"I called Tasha and explained it to her," Warren says. "I told her that money was tight, this was totally an unexpected expense and that her sister should get the chance to go. I told her because this is so last minute, plane tickets are very expensive and so is housing. I told her that her daddy very much wanted to be there but I would cheer her at home."

That was not good enough for the Caesars dealers. They took up a collection and Warren will be here.

"These are good-hearted working people who don't have any more than we have," Warren says. "But everyone of them wanted me to see my daughter at the Olympics. My friend said, 'This is the greatest thing to happen. You have a daughter at the Olympics. You have to go.' "

"I'm so excited my father is coming," Tasha says. "The guys at the casino have been great. They're all behind me."

This has been an incredible whirlwind for Schwikert. She never expected to be an Olympian. She is not a typical gymnast, groomed as a tiny tot to be the next Mary Lou. Warren is African American, Schwikert white. Warren loves basketball, Schwikert was a good tennis player. But once Tasha went to the gym, just as a way to release energy, that was it. She was hooked.

"We didn't do this for the Olympics," Warren says. "We did this because our girls love it. What a journey this is."

And Warren has one other thing to say:

"Everything at Caesars will stop when the gymnastics is on."

That will be a first.

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