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Fitness | WATCHING THE OLYMPICS / BODYWORK

Young athletes dream: 'That could be me'

Coverage of the Games inspires gymnasts, especially at the studio where Olympian Mohini Bhardwaj trains. Here, inspiration and imitation are combined.

August 23, 2004|Jeannine Stein | Times Staff Writer

On any other night, the All Olympians Gymnastics Center would be filled with bouncy kids flipping around a room full of gymnastics apparatus. But on a recent evening, a few dozen girls, a smattering of boys, and a handful of mothers and fathers were crammed into the gym's tiny foyer, riveted to a big-screen television.

They were watching the Olympic women's gymnastics competition, where U.S. team captain and local hero Mohini Bhardwaj (she trains at the Los Angeles center) and colleagues were in hot pursuit of a gold medal and athletic immortality. The mere sight of 25-year-old Bhardwaj was enough to send the young gymnasts into ear-splitting chants of "Mo! Mo! Mo!"

Each time the Olympics are televised, the sight of highly trained, elite athletes competing inspires kids to declare, "That could be me." Swim programs, track clubs and gyms, including this one, will undoubtedly see a bump in enrollment following the Games. Although the majority of boys and girls here are already dedicated gymnasts, watching the Games re-energizes their commitment and sparks a desire to imitate that graceful swoop of a double back flip. Gail Boggs-Larson says her 12-year-old daughter, Mattie, was 4 when she announced "I'm going to do that" after being transfixed by the Dominiques -- Dawes and Moceanu -- at the 1996 Summer Games.

Eleven-year-old Morgan Traina, recalls watching gymnast Shannon Miller during the 1996 Olympics; the two share similar features and long, blond hair. "I was really excited," she says, recalling her feelings watching the Games that year. Watching now, "It makes me want to do better."

According to Morgan's mother, Pam, "she begged me for a year" to take lessons. "It was pretty much all she wanted to do," she says. Even though Mom now has to schlep Morgan and her sisters Kacie, 9, and Samantha, 6, to the gym almost every day from Santa Clarita, it's worth it.

"They learn a lot here about eating right and staying fit," she says. "They're learning skills, not just tricks. And they get excited about it. You can't make a kid do this if they don't want to."

Toward the back of the room, the center's director and head coach, Galina Marinova, observes the crowd, knowing that some of the girls already are imagining themselves in the Olympic auditorium, their determined faces accented with glittery eye shadow. "Definitely, they see themselves," says the former Olympian, who competed for Bulgaria in 1980 and 1984. "They think, 'I'm doing that move, or trying this one, or I'm so close to that one.' It really helps them achieve their goals."

Being involved with gymnastics, she adds, "will probably get them to motivate their own kids to do sports. I see a lot of excited parents here, and it's not just because we have someone from here who's competing in the Olympics. They genuinely love sports."

As the Olympic competition unfolds, the Romanians begin to take the edge over the U.S. team. Yet the gaggle of girls parked on the floor in front of the TV doesn't seem anxious. During commercials they chatter and giggle, clutching cups of lemonade. Some wear leotards, their hair in tight ponytails or cornrows accented by colorful clips, beads and bands. A few fidgety ones venture into the gym to practice flips and tumbling routines on squishy mats, beams, trampolines and bars. Nearly empty, there's still a lingering, unmistakable smell of sweat.

Jana Shemano stands on a mat proudly showing off her split. The lithe 6-year-old has been coming here for three months and says she likes "everything" about gymnastics. After watching the first day of Olympic gymnastics competition, says her mother, Tracy, "Jana was much more focused than she had been. And she was very excited seeing Mo there after seeing her in person here."

Shemano's decision to enroll her daughter in gymnastics was motivated in part by Jana's temperament: "She is very active, and she likes to dance a lot. She never sits still."

Her own interest in exercise was also a factor. "I'm very conscious of physical fitness," she says. "I love the feeling of having jogged a long run. Jana learns a lot of discipline here, and it's good to be involved with a sport like this. It's a combination of mental and physical training."

It's also a demanding sport in which injuries are common, and commitment to weekly classes and coaching can be expensive and time-consuming. Whereas those involved in recreational programs may practice 10 hours a week, competitive athletes may spend 20 or more hours a week in the gym. Despite the sacrifices families often make, most say it's worth it, as long as their kids are learning and having fun.

Sometimes the inspired can be an inspiration themselves. Patty Homan enrolled her daughters Becky, 14, and Heidi, 9, 2 1/2 years ago, soon after becoming an office volunteer.

"The other parents and I would sometimes say, 'We should try to do what they do,' but we'd regret it the next day," she says, laughing. But the trampoline was something she could do. Homan stuck with it, eventually getting one for home use. She changed her eating habits, switching to a healthful diet. She's now 50 pounds lighter.

"The kids," she says simply, "inspire you."

*

Times staff writer Jeannine Stein can be reached at jeannine.stein@latimes.com.

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