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Looking for a New Darling

This week's gymnastics World Championships could produce the next female household name.

August 14, 2003|Helene Elliott | Times Staff Writer

She probably has a ponytail. And maybe braces, which she can't wait to shed. Certainly, she has a determination that is as unshakeable as it is unteachable.

She's the next Nadia, Olga or Mary Lou, the girl who will blossom under the Olympic spotlight in Athens a year from now, winning the admiration of dedicated sports fans with her athleticism and claiming the hearts of casual fans as she nimbly navigates the awkward territory between adolescence and womanhood.

She will be the next gymnast known globally by one name, as Soviet sprite Olga Korbut was after the 1972 Munich Games, solemn-faced Romanian Nadia Comaneci was at Montreal in 1976 and ebullient, powerful Mary Lou Retton of West Virginia was after winning the all-around gold medal, two silver medals and two bronze medals at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.

Her identity may become clear starting this week at the Arrowhead Pond of Anaheim, where the World Gymnastics Championships will unfold over nine days. In addition to determining team, all-around and individual event world champions, the competition will decide team berths for the 2004 Games and individual entries for countries that won't send full squads.

The next "it" girl could be Romanian -- perhaps heralded newcomer Catalina Ponor or 4-foot-6 balance beam standout Oana Ban. Or Anna Pavlova of Russia, the 4-7 dynamo who won six medals at two World Junior Championships and graduated to the senior ranks this year, where she defeated legendary teammate Svetlana Khorkina at the Russian Cup.

Versatile Courtney Kupets could turn out to be the one. She won a gold medal on the uneven bars at last year's World Championships and followed up by winning the U.S. all-around title in June. But teammate Carly Patterson, reportedly recovered from the elbow injury that kept her out of the U.S. championships, might stake a claim to that honor with her poise and remarkably difficult routines.

Then again, the next queen of leotards might not be here at all.

She could be home nursing an injury. That's the misfortune of Natalia Ziganshina of Russia, the European vault champion and world vault silver medalist, who has a bad back. Or the queen might be a year away from that moment when body and mind cooperate to produce superb results, as Chellsie Memmel of the U.S. appears to be after a senior-level debut that included an all-around gold medal at the Pan Am Games. Or Zhang Nan of China, 4-8, fearless on the balance beam and last year's Asian Games all-around champion.

Foretelling the future in women's gymnastics is complicated. This year's blazing star might be next year's spectator, so unpredictable are the effects of puberty and the stress put on young, growing bodies.

Few female gymnasts enjoy more than two or three years at the top of the sport. The tricks they must master are so difficult that many suffer a major injury at some point -- and if it's just before the World Championships or Olympics, years of dreams can be lost. Then, too, there's always an energetic 15-year-old graduating from the junior ranks and pursuing them while they cope with the physical and emotional roller coaster of teen years.

Choosing favorites among the U.S. women is especially difficult. The reorganization of the national development program has created intense intramural competition and produced more world-class athletes than there will be spots in Athens. It's a pleasant problem, one shared by only a few countries, such as China, Russia, Romania, Ukraine and the Japanese men. Competitors lucky enough to be injury-free and perform well at their national championships or selection camps this year might not be as successful next year, when Olympic berths will be on the line.

"I think the World Championships will certainly be a precursor to the Olympic Games in Athens, but probably more so for other countries than for the U.S.," said Bob Colarossi, president of USA Gymnastics. "Our team is so deep, right now I can't even begin to guess what our Olympic team will be. I would expect some of the kids from this team would be there, but there are a lot of kids right behind them trying to fight for a spot on the team in 2004."

With the obvious exception of 24-year-old Khorkina, who has been competing at the World Championships since 1994, turnover is constant in the women's ranks.

Of the six members of the bronze medal-winning U.S. women's team at the 2001 World Championships, only Tasha Schwikert made it to Anaheim. Tabitha Yim of Irvine is injured, Katie Heenan didn't win a berth at the U.S. championships or at selection camp, and Rachel Tidd, Mohini Bhardwaj and Ashley Miles aren't competing on the Olympic track.

Predicting the next lord of the still rings -- and parallel bars and high bar -- is a bit easier because there's greater continuity in the men's ranks.

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