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She's Got Something

Patterson's verve and hard work command Olympic attention

June 23, 2004|Helene Elliott | Times Staff Writer

Martha Karolyi does not bestow compliments lightly. That's why it was so telling when Karolyi, the U.S. women's gymnastics team's program coordinator, invoked the names of Mary Lou Retton and Nadia Comaneci in discussing Carly Patterson's knack for thriving under duress.

Comaneci, with her skill and daring at the 1976 Montreal Olympics, raised the standards of technical brilliance in the sport. And Retton, with sure, powerful performances, helped the U.S. women win an unprecedented team silver medal at the 1984 Los Angeles Games.

They gave gymnastics personality and panache and inspired thousands of little girls to become balance beam divas.

Now it's Patterson, four months past her 16th birthday, who's poised to become the face of the Athens Olympics. All because the ponytailed Louisiana native, who took up gymnastics when she was 6, after trying it at a cousin's birthday party, has that indefinable something.

It will be on display starting Thursday, when the Olympic trials are contested in Anaheim at the Arrowhead Pond.

"That's the one quality that's absolutely important to become a champion," Karolyi said earlier this year of Patterson, who won a silver medal in the all-around event at the 2003 World Championships despite an elbow injury that required surgery a few weeks later. "Nadia had that quality. Mary Lou had it.

"It's that same rising and ability to perform better. Always, in a competition situation, she is able to do a little more, add that extra touch, that extra tenth."

Performing well under pressure is no big deal to Patterson. She won her second consecutive American Cup all-around title in February, five months after her elbow was repaired, and tied Courtney Kupets for the U.S. all-around championship earlier this month in Nashville.

"I just do my thing," she said, almost shrugging.

Her "thing" is built on diligence in practice and fearlessness on the competition floor.

"I really admire her toughness, her motivation, her discipline," said Evgeny Marchenko, who coaches her at the World Olympic Gymnastics Academy in Plano, Texas, north of Dallas. "She pushes herself very hard because she never wants to be second."

She's consistent, a precious trait for the exacting team finals format in Athens. Each team will send out only three athletes on each apparatus and all three scores will count, so the slightest wobble could be the difference between standing atop the podium and going home empty-handed.

It can be perilous. But to Patterson it's a chance to excel, not reason to fear failure.

"I really like competing in bigger meets, more than smaller," she said. "The crowd just gives me a lot of adrenaline, and I like performing for people."

That hasn't been lost on Karolyi, a member of the three-woman committee that will choose the Athens squad.

The top two finishers at the trials are guaranteed spots, subject to proving their fitness at a selection camp in mid-July at the Texas training center run by Karolyi and her husband, Bela. Kupets, who won last year's U.S. title while Patterson nursed her injured elbow, and Patterson are nearly sure picks. Kupets, who tore her Achilles' tendon at last year's World Championships, is staging an impressive comeback this season, and at 18, is a veteran with an appealing maturity to her performances.

It's Patterson, though, whose verve commands attention.

"She's willing to do an excellent job for herself, and that's the most important," Martha Karolyi said. "That was also Mary Lou. She wouldn't try to do it for anybody else, but because she wanted to be the very best. Without that desire you really cannot do it.

"If you're trying to do it to please somebody else, that never works."

Bela Karolyi, who coached Comaneci, Retton and a bevy of other champions, says Patterson "is the one who's going to run away" with honors at Athens.

"She's very well set," he said, pointing the forefinger of each hand at his temples. "She's smart. And she's the sturdiest kid, and I think she has a great chance.

"She's young enough that she doesn't feel pressure, and she's really, really, really confident. Amazingly confident. Courtney is a great kid but she's at an age and stage where pressure can poke at your head, and that might be one of the factors."

Patterson made one concession to the Olympic buildup when she switched to a private school for a flexible schedule and more time to train. In other areas, her resolve remains strong. Although she's part of a McDonald's advertising campaign and will appear on its cups and bags through September, she said she hasn't eaten fast food "since I was really young" because she must be careful about her diet and rest.

Yet, she sometimes envies her 14-year-old sister, Jordan, who can stay up late and eat pizza without guilt.

"My sister, she's totally different. The opposite of me -- very normal," she said.

Those few twinges of regret fade quickly, though.

"I focus on all I've accomplished in gymnastics," she said, "and I wouldn't want to trade it, because I've learned so much and experienced so much at a young age. I've been all over the world. Some people don't do that in a whole lifetime.

"It's great to be where I am."

Not to mention where she might be in August.

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