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Star Turn

Bhardwaj goes from 'former slacker' to surprise role for U.S. women gymnasts

August 14, 2004|Diane Pucin | Times Staff Writer

ATHENS — Making the 2004 U.S. Olympic women's gymnastics team was an honor -- and a shock -- Mohini Bhardwaj said. Being picked by her teammates as the captain was both thrilling and humbling, she added.

Late Friday evening, Bhardwaj, who once called herself a "former slacker," received confirmation that a newfound love of her sport and a fanatic commitment to making one last attempt at competing in the Olympics had paid off.

It was expected that Courtney Kupets, Courtney McCool and Carly Patterson would be named by U.S. Coach Kelli Hill to compete on all four apparatus Sunday during the women's qualification round, but the selection of Bhardwaj, 25, was a surprise.

Bhardwaj, a onetime UCLA star who had a reputation for being more interested in a good party than a good training session and who had given up on the sport after finishing college, has funded her own training for nearly two years and even needed last-minute financial assistance from actress Pamela Anderson during her final training push to the U.S. trials.

"I feel like I'm ready to do the all-around," Bhardwaj had said Thursday during the team's media session. "But I want to do whatever is best for the team."

Brian Eaton of USA Gymnastics said Bhardwaj was probably already in bed Friday night when the roster was released, so she was unavailable to comment.

But the theme of this year's Olympic selection process has been team-centric.

The 2004 group doesn't have a nickname yet. Not like "the Magnificent Seven," the highly hyped 1996 team that went to Atlanta and won the first U.S. team gold medal in the sport.

Already, though, this nameless collection of teenagers and veterans is getting compared to the "Mag 7," the shorthand version that rolled off the tongues of little girls around the country.

"Were you inspired by the Mag 7?" That's a popular question for this team. "Are you as good as the Mag 7?" That's another.

The answers usually are, "Yes," and, "We just want to be ourselves."

"Ourselves" is an eclectic group. There's Annia Hatch, regal and quiet, a 26-year-old Cuban defector who moved to Connecticut for the love of her now-husband and without thoughts or hopes of making the Olympics. And there's Bhardwaj, whose physical abilities prompted club and college coaches to excuse her forays into drinking and partying, and treating practice as a suggestion.

Then there are the youngsters -- Kupets, 18, and McCool, 16, who were the cleanest, steadiest performers during the two-part Olympic qualifying process this summer; Patterson, 16, who has been tabbed for two years as a favorite for an all-around medal, and Terin Humphrey, who turns 18 today and who is unobtrusively steady.

Those teenagers have said that it was while watching television in 1996 and seeing Shannon Miller, Dominique Dawes, Dominique Moceanu, Kerri Strug, Amanda Borden, Jaycie Phelps and Amy Chow embrace the pressure of being the hometown favorites and shatter the Russians that has motivated them into throwing their own bodies into the world of twisting, turning, pounding competition.

"When I saw the Mag 7, it was the moment I knew what I wanted to do," Kupets said.

Added McCool : "I loved watching the Mag 7. When I saw them with the gold medals, I wanted to wear a medal too."

Martha Karolyi, U.S. team coordinator, says there is a big difference between the 1996 and 2004 teams.

"In 1996, it was a team of very talented individuals who came together to win a gold medal," she said. "But they were individuals first. This is a team in the true sense. All these girls cheer for each other."

Kelli Hill, the team's coach and Kupets' personal coach, also was involved in the 1996 team with Dominique Dawes, and Hill agrees with Karolyi.

"This is a true team," she said. "It was chosen with the strengths and weaknesses of each girl kept in mind. The most important thing this year is the team medal. Whatever else happens, we aren't even thinking about."

There is such depth in U.S. gymnastics that three members of the 2003 world championship team have been left off it. Tasha Schwikert, a member of the 2000 Olympic team, and Chellsie Memmel are alternates but Hollie Vise isn't even in Athens.

Instead, Hatch and Bhardwaj were chosen, partly because both are strong vaulters who have the degree of difficulty needed to score well against the challengers from Romania, China and Russia.

Chris Waller, one of Bhardwaj's coaches, said, "By choosing Annia and Mohini, I predict the U.S. will gain four-hundredths of a point on everybody else. In the team competition that will be huge."

Still, even Waller was shocked that both Hatch and Bhardwaj, old by gymnastics standards, had made the team.

"I don't think anybody predicted that, yet it was, by far, the best thing for the team," he said.

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