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In His Golden Years

Artemev, 18, could become the youngest on the men's Olympic team

June 21, 2004|Diane Pucin | Times Staff Writer

His favorite television show is the irreverent comedy "The Simpsons." His favorite movie is the grossly irreverent "Happy Gilmore." He loves to drive his car, eat junk food, shop for cool shoes. Alexander Artemev is the All-American boy.

Until he slips onto the parallel bars or slides onto the floor exercise mat or rises gently onto the still rings. Then Artemev, the 18-year-old Belarus native, performs more as a European gymnast, with silent elegance, with all fingers and toes pointed, with no crooks in his arms or bend in his legs.

"He is one of those athletes who is so pure and lyrical that when you are judging, after you watch the first skill, you just want to put your pen down and watch," said Bob Colarossi, president of USA Gymnastics.

Many eyes will be on Artemev this week at the Arrowhead Pond when the U.S. Olympic gymnastics trials begin. Artemev finished eighth earlier this month at U.S. nationals, which count for 40% of the final trials score.

While being lyrical and spectacular, Artemev was also filled with some teenage nerves. Artemev, who lives in Lakewood, Colo., had three thudding falls out of six apparatus on the second of two nights of performances at nationals. Even as Colarossi was speaking of Artemev's superb skills and unlimited potential, Artemev was losing his grip on the high bar and dropping inelegantly to the ground, stumbling awkwardly on his first tumbling pass and spinning right off the pommel horse.

Artemev was dusting chalk off his back and remounting the high bar and Colarossi was saying, "his lines, his execution and his technique are near perfect. When he hits a routine, you look at it and you can't do it better. He's beautiful to watch."

His father, Vladimir, who was a 10-year member of the Soviet national team, coaches Artemev. His mother, Svetlana, was a rhythmic gymnast. From his father, Artemev inherited strength and flexibility. From his mother, he gathered a natural grace. Even in his walk onto the podium Artemev has the lightness of a ballet dancer.

Ten years ago Vladimir received a phone call from a friend. There was a coaching job available in the Denver area. Vladimir and Svetlana were divorced. Vladimir was scraping out a living in Minsk but there wasn't much of a living to be made.

"It was a hard decision in some ways," Vladimir said in Nashville at the nationals, "but in another way it was not so hard. I had few options in Belarus. What was offered to me in America, it was the world."

His young son hadn't taken up gymnastics when Alexander and Vladimir landed in Colorado. "I tried lots of sports," Alexander said, "but I liked the gymnastics the most."

Four years after arriving in this country, Artemev caught the attention of U.S. gymnastics officials when he won the junior national all-around title, a title he defended a year later. In his first senior nationals two years ago, Artemev finished fourth on the pommel horse and parallel bars. A year later he was eighth in the all-around and earlier this year, at the only test event at the 2004 Olympic venue in Athens, Artemev finished fifth in the all-around and third on the parallel bars and high bar.

In 2002 Artemev earned his U.S. citizenship, and he has wanted to compete only for the U.S. Although he might have a better chance of making a team in Belarus, or at least qualifying as an individual for his native country, Vladimir said there was never a discussion about whose colors Alexander will wear.

"This country has offered us so much and given us all our chances," Vladimir said. "Alexander's future is with the United States."

Unless Artemev were to be injured or have a total breakdown at the trials, it seems likely he will be the youngest member of the six-man U.S. Olympic team.

The first two finishers are guaranteed Olympic spots, but U.S. team officials have discretion in choosing the rest of the team.

Colarossi was not the only man in charge who was filled with praise of Artemev.

"He is a joy to watch," said Miles Avery, coach of two-time U.S. Olympian Blaine Wilson. "He has such a bright future with this team."

Four years ago in Sydney, 18-year-old twins Paul and Morgan Hamm were chosen for the team. Now Paul is the defending world all-around champion and winner of the all-around at nationals. Morgan was third at nationals. The experience they gained in Sydney was "invaluable," Paul said. It is the U.S. plan that Artemev will gain that same experience this year.

Artemev seems to understand where he stands in the U.S. pecking order.

"A lot of coaches tell me I'm in a great position because I'm the younger guy," he said. "I try to look at it as I got two more Olympic Games in me even if I don't make this one."

That seems unlikely. "We like to have a young one in the pipeline," Colarossi said.

Added Avery, who also coaches the Hamm twins: "Part of development is giving young guys international experience."

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

U.S. Olympic Team Trials

ARTISTIC GYMNASTICS FACT SHEET

* Where: Arrowhead Pond.

* Schedule:

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