America's best gymnasts, Blaine Wilson and John Roethlisberger,
are a study in contrasts
The two finest male gymnasts in the U.S. were trying to execute
a handshake after last Friday's qualifying meet for the American
team at next month's world championships in Tianjin, China.
First-place finisher Blaine Wilson, 25, had tape wrapped around
his left fingers and ice on his right shoulder and wasn't sure
which hand to extend. Runner-up John Roethlisberger, 29, was
stretching the left calf he had just strained on his high-bar
dismount and unstrapping the brace on his right knee. Finally
the two men with eight national all-around titles and seven
operations between them plopped down on adjacent chairs in
Municipal Auditorium, in Kansas City, Mo., exchanged way-to-go's
and called it a celebration. "You won't find two grittier
competitors," says John's father and coach, Fred, a 1968 Olympic
gymnast. "Even if they get there in different ways."
At 5'9", John Roethlisberger is the model gymnast, finely
chiseled, precise and rarely flamboyant. He sleeps 10 hours a
night, forswears junk food, is married to a school teacher and
likes classical music. His relentless training regimen has made
his name part of the gymnastics lexicon. "Want to scare people?"
says Wilson. "Tell 'em, 'We're doing Roethlisbergers today.'" If
he earns an Olympic berth next summer, Roethlisberger will be
the first gymnast 30 or older on a U.S. Olympic team since Jim
Culhane in 1972.
At 5'4", Wilson is dynamic and unpredictable. He travels by
Harley and competes as though he were doing motocross. He got
engaged in August 1998 and was unengaged by the following
January. His coaches on junior, college and national teams have
all kicked him out of gyms for tantrums. U.S. gymnastics
officials have had to persuade him to remove the ring from his
eyebrow and the tiny barbell from his tongue during meets. He
wants to do stunt work after he returns to finish his degree in
psychology at Ohio State. "When I was 13, I smoked, drank and
got into fights," Wilson says. "After sophomore year [of high
school] I got more serious about gymnastics, which turned me
To those who know Wilson, his attitude is at least part
affectation. Ron Brant, coach at the Olympic Training Center in
Colorado Springs, says the U.S. squad's team-first, me-second
attitude starts with Wilson. When Wilson incorporated a new
skill into his rings routine last Friday without alerting his
coaches--he crossed the rings in an L-support and uncrossed them
while pressing to a handstand--it was in tribute to former
teammate Jason Whitfield, who taught Wilson the skill before
dying in a motorcycle accident in 1991.
Since the U.S. men won the team title at the 1984 Games, they
have placed no higher than fifth at a worlds or an Olympics.
Given their health concerns--on top of Roethlisberger's and
Wilson's aches and pains, 19-year-old future star Jason Gatson
tore his anterior cruciate ligament last month--a team medal
will probably be on hold until at least next September's
Olympics in Sydney.
Roethlisberger and Wilson will wait. Roethlisberger has made an
eight-man event final at a worlds or an Olympics only once but
has placed ninth or 10th seven times. At the 1998 nationals he
tore the ACL in his right knee and competed on two more
apparatuses before withdrawing. Wilson was poised to make junior
national teams in '89 and '90 when he had to undergo operations
on his right hand and left shoulder, respectively. He had
surgery on his right shoulder in '98.
"We'll be ready," Wilson says of the Olympics. "I'm a hot-headed
s.o.b. John's a kick-your-ass workaholic. One thing I learned
from John: Pain don't hurt."
Adds Roethlisberger, "You mean 'doesn't hurt.'"
Welcome to Vanessa's World
Though 17-year-old Vanessa Atler hasn't competed at a world
championship or an Olympics, people are already flipping over
her a year before the Games. Atler's style is an uncommon blend
of polish and pop, her grin seems to end on the back of her
head, and her cheery disposition is infectious. She may be the
world's best vaulter and is a threat to medal on the beam and in
floor exercise. She has also run her own Web site since 1996 and
done a candy commercial for TV.
Comparisons to Mary Lou Retton are inevitable but premature.
Atler didn't compete in Kansas City, having petitioned her way
onto the U.S. team for the worlds to rest a sore left ankle. She
led the last three national all-around competitions but fell off
the uneven bars each time. Thus, she shared the title in 1997
and finished second behind Kristin Maloney in '98 and '99. On
Sept. 3 she left Beth and Steve Rybacki, her coaches of 6 years
in Covina, Calif., and won't select a new coach until after
Atler will post the first updates about her coaching decision on
her site (www.atler.com), where browsers can hear the 1984
Olympic theme song, note the time--down to the second--until the
Sydney Games and take part in whatever contest she has most
recently dreamed up. Seven fans sent in videos of themselves for
Atler's saltine-eating challenge. In her on-line diary Atler
gives praise to opponents, points out when she is overscored by
judges or overhyped in TV promos, and urges fellow gymnasts to
Atler's other ruminations have included the observation that
marshmallow and grammar would be easier to spell if they had e's
in them, and after a sub-par meet in February 1997, she posted
her Top 10 Reasons Why Vanessa Atler's Meet Didn't Suck! Among
them: She got home earlier because nobody wanted her autograph,
and she didn't get a sore neck from wearing medals.
Some of her activities on the Web haven't been so frivolous. At
the 1998 Goodwill Games, Atler was on the vault runway waiting
her turn behind China's Sang Lan when Sang landed on her head
and suffered a paralyzing injury. Atler went on to win gold in
the event and then sold one of her outfits on eBay for $1,000
and donated the money to Sang's medical fund.