At 14 they win gold and steal our hearts. By 18, they're often considered over-the-hill. Gymnastics is a sport reserved for the smallest and youngest of professional female athletes. The sport's biggest stars often find themselves caught in a time warp where nostalgic fans and media never let them grow up.
Mary Lou Retton, the first U.S. women to win the all-around Olympic gold medal in women's gymnastics, parlayed her athletic success with a foray into pop culture. She landed on the front of a Wheaties box as well as roles in Naked Gun 33 1/3 and on Baywatch. Now comes Carly Patterson, the 2004 all-around champion, who is on a similar mission, setting her sights on a career in pop music.
In Athens, Patterson was an underdog. Though she was among the best on the U.S. team, the favorite was Russia's Svetlana Khorkina, who had won gold on the uneven bars in 1996 and 2000 and was attempting at the old-for-gymnastics-age of 25 to win an all-around title. Patterson stormed into the lead after a breathtaking performance on the balance beam. It was her biggest moment, she was on top of the world, and then she was done. "That's the highest thing you can do in gymnastics," she said. "I just really wanted to go out on top."
Patterson is displaying Olympic-sized expectations when it comes to her fledgling singing career. "The Grammys would be awesome," she said. "I'm very serious about this. I'm turning it into a career. And it's nice because singing is a lot less grueling on my body."
That was another consideration for a career switch. At 16, Patterson was a somersault away from a few slipped discs, and she wasn't willing to consign herself to a lifetime of back pain. Retiring, though, did nothing to quell her desire to perform, which is why she is so motivated about her music. "I love performing for people," she said. "I can't wait to go on tour and perform for people every night."
Her first album is scheduled for release on August 5 and will include a number of Carly Patterson originals. Her first single, Temporary Life, Ordinary Girl, is already available on iTunes. "Having this new career and trying to get people to support me is a little bit nerve wracking" Patterson said. And then she owns up to what she likes about her new job most of all: "It's really nice not to have to wear leotards anymore. I've given all those away."