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Two veteran gymnasts fill the leadership void

Sacramone emerges as 'the mom' for the women and Durante's perseverance gains respect of men.

August 20, 2007|Diane Pucin | Times Staff Writer

SAN JOSE -- Alicia Sacramone has six holes in her ear, a little show of bravado by a grown-up girl on a team of youngsters.

Sacramone, 19, heard whispers last summer when she announced she would attend Brown University and compete as a collegiate gymnast where the routines are watered down and dorm living is likely to cause the "freshman 15" weight gain that comes from eating at campus grills and burrito stands.

But Sacramone held tight to her beliefs and her diet and is headed to Stuttgart, Germany, Sept. 1-9 for the gymnastics world championships.

She is on a team loaded with precocious young talent -- three 15-year-olds including new national champion Shawn Johnson and 14-year-old Ivana Hong -- and with the exact role she envisioned.

"I'm the mom," Sacramone said. Her voice dominated a room filled with the squeaks and squeals of Johnson and the high-pitched whispers of Hong, two newcomers to the big stage of senior international competition.

When Johnson finished her final routine Saturday night at the Visa Championships, secure in her overwhelming victory in the all-around competition, she plopped onto Sacramone's lap as if she were a little sister seeking the comfort of a big sister.

Sacramone, from Winchester, Mass., and who turns 20 in December, is not on the team only to provide wisdom. She was a world silver medalist on the vault in 2006 and a gold medalist on floor exercise in 2005. She has a punchy floor routine that is not only technically superb but also full of the kind of pizazz that perks up her teammates.

"When Alicia does floor," said U.S. teammate Samantha Peszek, one of the 15-year-olds, "it makes everybody get adrenaline."

This search for leadership on teams of individual athletes who also have their own agendas is done carefully and delicately.

U.S. senior men's team coordinator Ron Brant had said last week that he had no leaders. The accomplished Hamm twins, Paul and Morgan, were only briefly into their gymnastics comeback. Competing in two of six events at nationals meant they would not be going to Germany.

Veterans such as David Durante and Guillermo Alvarez lacked notable successes. Brash youngsters such as Jonathon Horton and Justin Spring had flair, high-difficulty routines but more bravado than results.

But then Durante won the men's all-around. The 27-year-old had been an abjectly distraught failure a year ago, a man tabbed in 2005 as the successor to the Hamms, before he became an unused alternate in 2006 on a team that failed miserably in a 13th-place finish at the world championships.

A similar finish next month will mean the U.S. would not qualify a men's team to the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

"Not possible," says Durante, who like Sacramone, is now the leader.

Durante went into hiding early this season, sequestering himself at the USA training center in Colorado Springs, pushing his body to be stronger and sturdier and forcing his mind to forget about last year.

He rebuilt himself into a stoic competitor and an outspoken cheerleader for USA men's gymnastics. He boldly predicted a team medal for the U.S. next month. USA gymnastics President Steve Penny was more pragmatic, hoping that the U.S. men make the six-team finals.

In fact the goals of the men's' and women's teams can't be more different in Stuttgart.

The U.S. women hope to announce themselves not only as a team gold medal contender with defending world champion China, Russia, Romania and Ukraine, but as the favorite.

"I don't think it's chasing China," Penny said Sunday. "We are the threat in women's gymnastics I believe."

In Sacramone, the U.S. team has a plain-speaking veteran who will complete her very difficult floor exercise and put down a highly-rated vault set and then step away to slap the backs and ease the nerves of a twittering rookie such as Hong and even for Johnson, a junior star who hasn't lost a meet as a senior this year.

"She's not all in control," Sacramone said of Johnson. "On the floor she's all business, but when she comes off she's just a kid who wants to sit in your lap."

Sacramone has a wide view of life and the confidence to have believed last fall that she could go to an Ivy League college and still remain pertinent to an international gymnastics world that more often rewards prepubescent girls than plain-speaking women. She intends to head back to Brown after the world championships though she will make a concession to the upcoming Olympics and not compete at the college level.

"I couldn't just go home and only do gymnastics," Sacramone said Sunday. "I need to work my mind too. I think that works out best for everyone."

diane.pucin@latimes.com

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