Wednesday, July 27, 2005

By Ann Tatko-Peterson

The comeback story will have to wait a little longer.

Dominique Moceanu, a 1996 Olympic gold medalist, had hoped to return to gymnastics competition this past weekend at the age of 23 and after a five-year hiatus. But an Achilles' injury forced her to withdraw from the U.S. Classic in Virginia Beach, Va.

Moceanu called it a temporary delay in her comeback bid.

Her former coach, and a legend in the sport, seemed to undermine that bid even before this setback.

"There are many who want to do the same thing," Bela Karolyi told the USA Today last week. "But very few have succeeded. I have to be honest; I don't even recall any strong comebacks. I always applaud it, though."

Karolyi must set very high standards when it comes to defining a strong comeback.

He had a firsthand glimpse of two such returns just last summer when his wife, Martha, oversaw the 2004 U.S. women's Olympic team.

Then 25-year-old Mohini Bhardwaj and 26-year-old Annia Hatch had defied the notion that only teenagers could succeed in women's gymnastics. They helped the Americans secure silver in the team competition.

Then as an encore, Hatch won silver in the individual vault competition.

Not bad considering she was the oldest U.S. female Olympic gymnast since Doris Fuchs Brause, 32, in 1964.

Granted, the biggest American name at the 2004 Olympics did belong to a teenager, 16-year-old Carly Patterson.

Of note, according to USA Gymnastics president Steve Penny, Patterson hasn't ruled out a possible return for the 2008 Summer Games. By then, she will no longer be a teenager.

"It's not unthinkable that one or two Olympians from 2004 may be in the mix," Penny said during a teleconference last week. "Event specialists are becoming more and more important. That allows athletes to extend their careers."

In Karolyi's defense, the height of his coaching career came at a time when teenagers dominated the sport. In 1976, he coached 14-year-old Nadia Comaneci when she scored perfect 10s at the Montreal Olympics.

Since then, only a handful of gymnasts who are 20 or older have attempted to prolong their careers. Kathy Johnson did it at 24, winning silver for the U.S. team and bronze on the balance beam at the 1984 Olympics. Former Olympian Kim Zmeskal did it at 21 when she qualified for the 1998 women's U.S. team.

Gymnastics' international federation has inadvertently helped, too, by implementing a rule that a gymnast must be at least 16 to compete at the Olympics.

"More gymnasts are starting to realize that although there are limitations, opportunities still exist after college," Hatch said. "As older gymnasts experience success, I think you will see even more attempting comebacks." 

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