Carly Patterson has become accustomed to drawing startled looks from adults and unabashed stares from kids when they recognize her as the Athens Olympic all-around gymnastics gold medalist.
"It's OK," she said. "I'd do the same thing if Jessica Simpson was there."
Life as an Olympic champion has been exhilarating and exhausting for Patterson, who visited Los Angeles this week to promote performances by the T.J. Maxx Gymnastics Tour of Champions at the Arrowhead Pond of Anaheim on Saturday and Staples Center on Oct. 30.
Patterson, 16, said she has spent "two days here, two days there" at home in Allen, Texas, since she won the all-around title and silver medals in the team and balance beam competitions at Athens. Her post-Games whirlwind included appearing on Wheaties boxes, one of only three Athens Olympians so honored. The others are 100-meter gold medalist Justin Gatlin and swimmer Michael Phelps, winner of six gold medals and two bronze medals.
"That's really cool," Patterson said, "because there were lots of people who did really good for the U.S. at the Olympics. The softball team and women's basketball teams did good too."
Although sometimes so tired that she sleeps through her wake-up call, she's fascinated by the worlds now open to her. An aspiring singer in the mold of pop-rock princesses Ashlee Simpson and Hillary Duff, she was asked to record a song. She posed for a Cosmo Girl layout with the theme "Born to Lead," and for Glamour as one of its "Women of the Year." She especially enjoyed the Glamour shoot, which took place in New York's Central Park, because she wore "real clothes."
"Not in a leotard," she said, smiling.
She still spends plenty of time in spangles and spandex as the headliner on the 41-city T.J. Maxx tour.
The cast also features U.S. Olympians Terin Humphrey, Courtney Kupets, Annia Hatch, Mohini Bhardwaj of Los Angeles, Brett McClure, Jason Gatson of Upland and Guard Young.
Most of the performances are group numbers, but Patterson has a floor exercise solo. She usually draws the most attention.
"As soon as they hear my floor music everyone starts screaming, and that makes us start laughing," she said.
She remembered watching a gymnastics show when she was a child and thinking "this would be so cool" to do. Aware that she might inspire someone else's Olympic dreams, she's conscious of being a good role model.
"I don't think I've ever set a bad example," she said. "I'm just down to earth, normal."
She hasn't decided what she'll do after the tour ends next month, other than a long-term goal of someday studying dentistry. But she hopes to be remembered as fondly as 1984 all-around champion Mary Lou Retton.
"I've been called the next Mary Lou," Patterson said. "I just hope to stay out there as long as she did."
At a Glance
* What: 2004 T.J. Maxx Tour of Gymnastics Champions
* When and where: Saturday, 7:30 p.m., Arrowhead Pond of Anaheim; Oct. 30, 7 p.m., Staples Center.
* Tickets: $19.50-$100; on sale at ticketmaster.com, the arena box offices, by phone at (714) 740-2000 and (213) 480-3232 and Ticketmaster outlets.