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Gymnast, 25, Has Big Plans for Her Return

After being retired for five years, Annia Hatch has an excellent chance to make U.S. team for world championships this summer.

June 22, 2003|Nancy Armour | Associated Press

MILWAUKEE — Annia Hatch was happily retired, certain her career as a competitive gymnast was over.

She'd left her native Cuba, gotten married and was building a new life for herself at 22. Then her husband came across a story on the Internet about one of her old teammates who was back in the gym after having a baby.

"I was like, 'Wait. She's 22, too. Wow, that's interesting,' " Hatch said. "Let's try it."

The next day, five years after she'd retired, Hatch was back in the gym.

"I never thought she was kidding, because Annia's determined about things," said Alan Hatch, Annia's husband and her coach. "I said, 'Let's just start with the physical ability stuff and see how it's working, see how it's responding.' "

Two years later, Hatch's second go-around is working out quite nicely. Just 25 -- her birthday was last week -- she's a senior citizen in a sport dominated by teenagers learning to drive. Yet she's one of the top gymnasts in the United States, and she's a strong bet to make the team for the world championships this summer in Anaheim.

"Not at all," Hatch said, laughing, when asked if she envisioned this when she came out of retirement. "I never thought I could still, after five more years, do it and do it well. Because I was that type of person if I do something, it has to be done 100 percent.

"It's kind of scary when you stop for so long and then start with a new coach. It was hard, but it was fun."

Persevering is nothing new to Hatch. Born in Cuba, she began doing gymnastics when she was almost 5 and was soon training with national team coaches.

She won the first of her seven Cuban national titles when she was 10. But at 14, she developed a serious back injury that nearly ended her career. Told at first that she would need surgery, she decided she would rather quit the sport than risk the operation.

Another doctor told her she could treat the problem by strengthening the rest of her body, so Hatch took that option. For years she wore a back brace while she trained.

The injuries didn't slow her career, though. She won a bronze on the vault at the 1996 world championships, Cuba's first-ever world medal.

She qualified for the Atlanta Olympics only to have Cuba decide not to send her because it was too expensive.

"It just gave me chills every time I looked at the gymnastics," Hatch said. "I thought, 'I qualified, I should be there.' It was an opportunity wasted. I really deserved to be there. So it was really sad."

But her life was about to take a turn that would bring her a second chance at Olympic glory. At the 1996 worlds, Hatch met Alan, a coach at a gym in Connecticut. They struck up a friendship, and kept in touch after she went back to Cuba.

"He was just a nice guy," she said. "At the beginning, we were just friends. And the relationship just built from there."

Two years after they met, Alan proposed. They'd only seen each other three times.

"We kind of put it together real quickly that, 'OK, we want to be together,' " Alan said.

Alan couldn't move to Cuba, so Annia decided to come to the United States. She had already retired, and the government didn't put up much of a fuss.

Though she didn't speak any English and would have to leave her mother and stepfather behind, her family was supportive. She became a U.S. citizen in 2001.

Before she left Cuba, her stepfather gave her a good-luck charm. The small, black fist now hangs from a delicate gold bracelet, a way to keep her family close no matter how great the distance.

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