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WORLD GYMNASTICS CHAMPIONSHIPS

There Was No Topping Her Flip

Schwikert, 18, of Las Vegas bounced back from a poor performance to excel in team final, lead U.S. to gold.

August 22, 2003|Helene Elliott | Times Staff Writer

To say Tasha Schwikert has come full circle is no cliche, no cutesy pun about her gymnastics skills or ability to contort herself into a pretzel and look graceful doing it.

Three months ago she was banished from the gym by her longtime coach, Cassie Rice, who refused to tolerate her lackadaisical practice habits and desire to waste the talent that had twice won her U.S. all-around titles. On Wednesday, Schwikert stood with shoulders straight and head held high at the Arrowhead Pond, captain of the first U.S. squad to win a team gold medal at the World Gymnastics Championships and wiser for knowing how close she came to missing this historic moment.

It was Schwikert who had staged a last-day rally at the U.S. championships to win a berth on the U.S. team, who refused to let her teammates' spirits sag in Anaheim when Ashley Postell fell ill and Annia Hatch blew out her knee last week and Courtney Kupets tore an Achilles' tendon Tuesday, leaving the team one athlete short.

It was Schwikert who made major gaffes on the uneven bars and floor exercise during the team preliminaries Sunday and earned three scores below 9.0 but explored the depths of her resolve during the team finals Wednesday and rediscovered her core strength.

When the team was down numerically and could have dipped emotionally, Schwikert came through. The 18-year-old Las Vegas native, the daughter of two casino craps dealers, stuck her vault landing for a 9.325 and moved smoothly through her uneven bars routine for a 9.60, erasing memories of her toe-stubbing, 8.912 performance in the preliminaries.

The U.S. won gold, but Schwikert already had proved she was a winner.

"She is a strong girl," Martha Karolyi, coordinator of the U.S. women's national team, said Thursday. "I believe that in the first day of competition she put too much pressure over herself. She let the disappointment of making a mistake on the bars affect her, which is very uncharacteristic of her because she is always acting with so much confidence.

"I'm happy she came back for the team and kept the team encouraged."

Perhaps because Schwikert has worked so hard for this, because she had to reassess her life and make weighty decisions, she hasn't allowed herself to bask in golden glow of victory. Certainly, she was delighted. And relieved. But like most supposed miracles on the playing field, ice or floor, Schwikert knows the sweat and strain that go into such moments -- the work behind the magic tricks.

"I know it's pretty amazing, and we're the first team ever to win worlds for the U.S., and I think it's incredible, but I haven't really let loose yet," said Schwikert, a member of the fourth-place U.S. team at the Sydney Olympics and the team bronze medalists at the 2001 World Championships. "Everyone's trying to stay focused because the competition isn't over yet."

Schwikert's work is done, because she didn't qualify for tonight's all-around finals or the weekend's event finals. The U.S. will be represented tonight by Chellsie Memmel, the unflappable 15-year-old who had the top combined scores Wednesday, and Carly Patterson, another 15-year-old with ice in her veins. Memmel will be the only U.S. gymnast in the individual event finals, competing on the uneven bars Saturday and the balance beam Sunday.

In gymnastics, however, there's always work to do. Schwikert practiced with her teammates Thursday to stay sharp and, perhaps, to sustain the bond they forged while producing the best possible result under the worst of circumstances.

"Everyone was more relaxed [Wednesday] than the first day," she said. "We were really pumped up from the crowd. They were awesome. We had nothing to lose and everything to gain because we had so many things go against us.... "

With any luck, it won't be the last time she hears cheers from a California crowd. Not only will the Olympic trials be held at the Pond next June, Schwikert has committed to attend UCLA in the fall of 2004.

"It's a quality program and a very good education," she said. "I like the coaches and gymnastics team, and it's only four hours from home. Plus, I like the West Coast....

"This has been a really nice World Championships and I think it's been run very well. It's awesome for the trials to be here. I think it's going to be great."

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