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Beaming in America

Patterson finding out that it's never too soon to let the marketing begin at the Olympic Games

August 21, 2004|Diane Pucin | Times Staff Writer

ATHENS — Carly Patterson wants a nap and a week at the beach, a chance to lie on the white sands of Destin, Fla., where she has always gone with her family. Some day in the future she'd still like to be a dental hygienist or maybe an orthodontist, which has been a dream since Patterson was 8.

And pay attention milk people: The new Olympic gymnastics queen would love to do a "Got Milk?" television commercial.

The day after Patterson became only the second U.S. woman to win the gymnastics all-around title, a bleary-eyed Patterson wandered from the "Today" show set to dozens of local media interviews while her coach, Evgeny Marchenko, guarded her gold medal.

In New York, Patterson's agent, Yuki Saegusa, a vice president at the IMG agency, was fielding calls from dozens of interested sponsors. And, yes, the Wheaties people have made contact, Saegusa said.

Retton is still remembered for her Wheaties box picture, a validation that she had, indeed, become American's sweetheart.

Some 20 years later, Saegusa said, it's hard to compare what might happen to Patterson and what did happen for Retton.

"When you're the first to do something, that's special," Saegusa said. "But Carly and her family would be very happy if, 20 years from now, Carly is in the same place as Mary Lou."

Patterson didn't have a milk mustache Friday. She didn't have on her sparkling makeup. She was not ready for the Wheaties box close-up.

"I'm a little tired," she said. "But I'm still so excited."

She also would like to take a vacation, but that's not going to happen. On Monday, Patterson has a chance to win her third Olympic medal (she also has a team silver) when she competes in the balance beam final. Then there's a gymnastics tour scheduled for the team.

After Patterson finished second in all-around at the 2003 world championships, she and her family decided to hire an agent. "At that point," said her mother, Natalie Patterson, "Carly decided when she went to college she probably wouldn't want to do gymnastics."

The decision will pay off now.

Saegusa also represented figure skater Kristi Yamaguchi when she won an Olympic gold medal 12 years ago.

"We recently did a rating, and Kristi's name is more recognized now than it was in 1992," Saegusa said. "That is the kind of plan we have for Carly. She and her family would like for her to be a great spokesperson for gymnastics and a role model for young athletes 12 years from now."

Besides her mother, three aunts accompanied Patterson. Natalie's three sisters -- Mar'Sue Parro, Lauren Favre and Leslie Yander -- had made this a family vacation, and now it has become a family victory tour. Patterson's parents are divorced and her father, Ricky, watched his daughter at his home in Baton Rouge, La.

"I think he had a big party," Carly Patterson said. "But I haven't even had time to talk to him yet."

That's because a U.S. women's all-around champion is caught in a public relations tornado from the second the gold medal is put around her neck.

Bart Conner, who is married to former Olympic champion Nadia Comaneci, thinks that Patterson's performance Thursday night -- as well as Paul Hamm's winning the first U.S. men's all-around medal Wednesday night -- will be a big boost to the sport.

"You look at the obvious, the dramatic way they both won,and you look at the personalities," Conner said. "Both Carly and Paul are the All-American kid types, and it's going to be very attractive for sponsors for both of them. Plus the way they performed.

"Carly does one of the best balance beam routines I've ever seen. Paul pulls out the parallel bars and the high bar and is over 9.8 on both of them. That's the kind of thing that's just great for the sport."

Even before the Olympics, Patterson had deals with McDonald's, AT&T and Visa. But Natalie Patterson didn't want to admit her daughter was America's sweetheart yet.

"She's my sweetheart, and that's all that matters," Natalie said. "She's got what she wants. The medals. The rest of it doesn't matter."

When Patterson turned 16 earlier this year, she got a driver's license and a 2001 Honda Accord. Nothing too fancy. Carly would like a dog, Natalie said, something little that might travel well. Because Patterson won't be home much for a while.

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