October 24, 2015

GLASGOW, Scotland (AP) Underneath the red-and-black sweatsuits, the ones with the name on the back of a country they've never been to, Alaina Kwan and Kylie Dickson tried to treat it like any other meet.

Even if it wasn't, not by a long shot.

The two California teenagers lined up alongside the best in the world Saturday at the 2015 world gymnastics championships. It's a destination they'd always envisioned, if maybe not the path it took to get here.

American by birth and Belarussian by trade, Kwan and Dickson spent the better part of two hours under the lights at the SSE Hydro on Saturday trying to stay in the moment and not worry about the unorthodox way it came to pass.

''I get people have opinions but I know still in my heart that I'm a US citizen,'' Kwan said after posting an all-around total of 51.866, 73rd overall. ''That will never change for me. I just want to see how far this career will take me.''

It's already taken an unexpected direction following a last-minute deal that inserted Kwan and Dickson into the world championships lineup for Belarus. The girls replaced Sviatlana Lifenka and Valeryia Tsekhmistrenka after a bit of wrangling by Belarussian officials that expedited dual citizenship for the Americans in hopes a solid showing would infuse some oxygen into a program that has floundered internationally in recent years.

The same country that produced four-time Olympic gold medalist Olga Korbut (then competing under the flag for the Soviet Union) has struggled with funding, infrastructure and finding enough talented athletes to keep pace in a sport increasingly dominated by western nations with deeper pockets and talent pools.

Dickson and Kwan made their debuts in the crowded American elite gymnastics picture at the U.S. Classic in Chicago over the summer. Kwan finished ninth and Dickson 11th behind two-time world champion Simone Biles and reigning Olympic champion Gabby Douglas. Not bad for their first time out but quite a threat to earn a spot on the national team in the near future.

Galina Marinova and Artur Akopyan, who coach Dickson and Kwan at All Olympia Gymnastics Club in the Los Angeles area, started talking to Nellie Kim. The five-time Olympic champion is also the vice president of the Belarus gymnastics federation. Seeing a mutually beneficial opportunity, Kwan and Dickson found themselves suddenly representing a place a good 17-hour plane ride from Southern California.

Kim defended the decision by pointing out it is common practice for athletes to obtain dual citizenship in search of a better athletic opportunity. A number of other gymnasts in the field this week are competing for other countries they weren't born in. Toni-Ann Williams is an American competing for Jamaica, her mother's birthplace. Danusia Francis, a Brit with Jamaican roots, is on the same team.

By rule, what Belarus did is hardly illegal even if - unlike Williams or Francis - the Californians have no attachment to the country they suited up for. Nicolas Buompane, deputy secretary general of the International Gymnastics Federation, called it ''nothing special'' and isn't about to do a deep dive into the topic.

''We don't go that far,'' Buompane said. ''Do they live there? Go on holidays? We have clear rules.''

Still, the uncommon and hastily arranged alliance placed Kwan and Dickson in an odd position of competing in the same field against Americans, as Americans

Once they slipped off their sweatsuits, they could have been anywhere competing for anyone. Kwan's only real mistake came on uneven bars, where she slipped off in the middle of her routine. Dickson stumbled on her beam dismount but otherwise avoided major trouble while ending up 75th.

If only people wanted to talk to them about their gymnastics. It didn't happen on Saturday, with Kwan spending seven minutes politely if defiantly defending her decision.

''People have their opinions,'' Kwan said. ''We just are here to make the team better and when we do go over there (to Belarus) and train we're going to try and get the team stronger.''

They do plan to visit at some point. Belarus hired noted coach Oleg Ostapenko to get its women's program turned around. There may be a future for Kwan and Dickson with Belarus. Or maybe they'll just stay home. The 16-year-old Kwan remains committed to competing at the University of Kentucky.

''Honestly, I don't really like focus on what flag I'm representing,'' she said. ''I just want to do what I do, do what I love and see how far I can go.''

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