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She's Pursuing Delayed Dream

At 25, Mohini Bhardwaj is determined to be an Olympian. She finishes eighth at the American Classic to qualify for the U.S. championships.

March 06, 2004|Helene Elliott | Times Staff Writer

With her hair tied back in a ponytail and her white leotard glittering in the lights of the makeshift gym at the Ontario Convention Center, Mohini Bhardwaj looked much like her 15- and 16-year-old rivals at Friday's American Classic gymnastics competition.

But Bhardwaj is 25, with two NCAA titles at UCLA and appearances at two world championships behind her.

She's not getting older -- she's getting more determined. And she hasn't given up on the Olympic dream that she didn't pursue in 2000 because time seemed limitless and training for the Games too restrictive.

"I was in college having fun, and it wasn't something that was important to me at that time," she said. "This is a perfect time for me. As far as gymnastics goes, I accomplished everything I could except an Olympic team. It's just closure for me as far as my life goes, so I can be done with it and not wonder, 'Could I have done it?' "

Bhardwaj took a key step forward with an eighth-place finish at Friday's event. The top 11 finishers, plus Hollie Vise, who was a member of the triumphant U.S. women's team at last year's world championships but competed only on uneven bars and balance beam Friday, earned berths at the U.S. championships June 2-5 at Nashville.

"It's a relief, because I can't afford to pay for another meet on the East Coast," said Bhardwaj, who worked in a restaurant, a pizza place and a bar to pay her gymnastics debts after her college eligibility ended. "I was really stressed about qualifying, because I don't have a sponsor."

Her way is paid, but her path won't be easy. A combination of the results from the U.S. competition, the Olympic trials June 24-27 at the Arrowhead Pond of Anaheim and a selection camp will determine the six-member U.S. women's squad for the Athens Games.

Katie Heenan, a teammate of Bhardwaj on the 2001 U.S. women's team that won a bronze medal at the world championships, won the all-around title Friday with 37.150 points. Marcia Newby was second, at 36.925, followed by Nicole Harris (36.675), Alicia Sacramone (36.450) and Allyse Ishino of Irvine, who fell off the balance beam but still earned 36.175 points.

Tabitha Yim of Irvine didn't compete because she had knee surgery Monday. She would have to resume competing by April to have a chance to make the Athens Olympic team, according to Martha Karolyi, director of the U.S. women's program.

Karolyi was pleased with many of the performances she saw Friday, including Bhardwaj's efforts on vault (9.50) and uneven bars (9.325).

"She was extremely consistent coming out of college, when she was competing a lot, and she has to get back to that consistency," Karolyi said. "Plus, she must upgrade her routines.

"She's still promising. She did a nice vault and had a nice interesting bar combination. She will have to work very hard, but if she has three strong events, you can be a team member."

Hard work doesn't discourage her anymore. "Because she's 25, she does not waste time," said her coach, Chris Waller, who has been working with her since August. "She comes in the gym and knows what she needs to do, and she does it. She's cognizant that she can't afford to be sloppy."

She still must improve her conditioning -- she attributed her stumbles on the floor exercise to fatigue and was rueful about her beam mistake, but was pleased overall.

"For this [early] time of the season, it's not bad," she said. "If I peaked at this moment, I wouldn't peak later, when it matters.... This is a good time for me. I'm healthy and pretty much done with school and I'm going to go for it."

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