Flat Out The Best
Blaine Wilson lifted himself to new peaks at the U.S. gymnastics
This is an article from the Aug. 28, 2000 issue
Strip away all the gewgaws that made last week's U.S. gymnastics
trials in Boston such great television fare--happy tears, sad
tears, strutting pixies, winning twins, gritty vets, Bela
Karolyi hovering, Bela bear-hugging, Bela bellowing Belanese,
plus a much debated selection process that wound up choosing
what nearly everyone agreed were the most deserving men's and
women's teams--and you were left with one simple truth: Blaine
Wilson is the best damn gymnast in America.
He's the real deal, a five-time U.S. champion who proved at
Boston's FleetCenter that he's as good as any Russian or Chinese,
a bona fide threat to become the first U.S. man to win an
all-around medal in a non-boycotted Olympics. At the 1999 world
championships Wilson came within .001 of the all-around bronze,
and since that time he has improved his dismounts so that he now
lands as if fired from a bow.
"He could win it, no question," says U.S. Olympic coach Peter
Kormann, who also coached Wilson at Ohio State. "I've never seen
him better than he was here in Boston."
Such praise slides off Wilson like water off James Dean's hair.
The guy is old-school cool. Chuck Yeager cool. Clint Eastwood
spaghetti-western cool. He is the antipixie. At the completion
of one of his extraordinary routines, Wilson, 26, doesn't bounce
up and down, or pump his fist, or beam to Aunt Hilda in the 24th
row. Tight-lipped, he taps his fingertips against his hips in a
muted gesture of satisfaction, then simply moves on to the next
Wilson, who grew up in Columbus, Ohio, has cultivated his
rebel-with-a-cause reputation. He's a free spirit with a
maniacal work ethic, a contradiction he once acknowledged by
describing himself as a cross between Dennis Rodman and Michael
Jordan. Wilson has four tattoos, and a barbell-shaped stud
pierces his tongue. He has spruced up his act too, having sold
his motorcycle, removed an eyebrow ring and ceased bleaching his
hair. "Still, I don't know if I can be the poster boy for USA
Gymnastics," he says.
Yet Kormann calls Wilson the hardest-working gymnast he's ever
coached. He's the ultimate team player, a guy who, when asked how
he felt last month after becoming the first man since George
Wheeler (1937 to '41) to win five straight U.S. all-around
titles, fairly curled his lip. "I'm so past the titles," he said.
"My priorities lie with the team."
In fact, Wilson would rather win team bronze than individual
gold. Other gymnasts would like to be actors when they stop
competing. Wilson wants to be a stuntman. Do the dirty work, let
someone else ride off with the glory. Problem is, capable as the
other men on the 2000 U.S. Olympic team appear to be (and two of
them, freckle-faced 17-year-olds Paul and Morgan Hamm, made
headlines in Boston by becoming the first identical twins to
qualify for the same team), not one is on the same level as
Wilson. Not one is even close. "He's like the Tiger Woods of U.S.
gymnastics," says Kormann.
"Every year he gets meaner and nastier," says John
Roethlisberger, who on Saturday qualified for his third Olympic
berth. "I'm just glad he's on my team."
Just what the Mexican peasants used to say about Clint.
Dara Torres Returns
Back in the Swim
Since retiring from the sport after the 1992 Games as a
three-time Olympian and four-time medalist, Dara Torres has been
a fashion model, TV color commentator and infomercial
spokeswoman. Now, at 33, she is foremost a history maker. Having
qualified for four events in Sydney--the 50 free, 100 free, 100
butterfly and 4x100 free relay--she will almost certainly become
both the oldest U.S. female swimmer to win a medal and the first
swimmer of either sex from any country to win medals at four
Torres wasn't thinking comeback last summer when a friend told
her, "Every time you talk about swimming, you get this gleam in
your eye." "No I don't," she snapped before phoning Richard
Quick, the Stanford-based Olympic coach. "Richard, I'm nuts,
right?" she said. "Tell me I can't do this. Richard...."
Quick was mum. "Something in her voice suggested she wanted to
give it a try," he recalls, "but she had to come to that
conclusion herself." Torres, who had been living in New York
City, moved to Palo Alto in July 1999 and was so worried about
telling her father, Edward, a retired real estate developer in
his 80s, that she was making a comeback that she broke the news
in a long letter. Torres's biggest supporter at first was '92
Olympic teammate Jenny Thompson, who was training at Stanford.
Thompson helped Torres find an apartment and hoped her pal would
push her to faster times in practice.
Torres arrived at the Stanford pool with outdated bug-eyed
goggles and a lithe model's physique unfit for elite swimming.
After watching Torres do two laps, Quick, a respected innovator,
pulled her aside and said, "Dara, we don't swim like that
anymore." Torres had to modernize her stroke. She worked on
elongating her body, rotating her hips and looking down instead
of ahead. To compensate for her asthma, which was diagnosed in
1993, she learned to exhale thoroughly underwater so she could
get a full breath above the surface. Torres, who overcame
bulimia in 1990, now eats six meals a day and ingests a daily
complement of 25 pills, powders or supplements, including
creatine. Under the ministrations of strength trainer Robert
Weir, a British discus and hammer throw Olympian, she has bulked
up since last summer from 143 to 160 pounds and increased her
bench press from 105 to 205. She does so-called mashing
exercises in which trainers walk on her legs and back to relax
Torres's reemergence strained her friendships both with Thompson,
whose five Olympic golds have all come on relays, and with other
teammates who felt the attention directed at Torres was getting
out of hand. The New York Post proclaimed former Senator Al
D'Amato a "babe magnet" after he and Torres, fellow divorces who
according to Torres and D'Amato are merely friends, appeared
together at a public function. Moreover, things got too heated
between her and Thompson in the pool. "Every day was like an
Olympic final," says Quick, who split his stars in December and
has since trained Torres separately. "It was too competitive."
The tension eased in Indianapolis, where the swimmers hugged
twice after Thompson edged Torres in the 100 fly and 100 free,
fast races that confirmed both as medal candidates in each event
in Sydney. "I didn't leave the sport," Torres said. "I just
needed a seven-year taper." --Brian Cazeneuve
Nobody's Always Perfect
Lisa Fernandez, the U.S. Olympic softball team's pitching star,
had to settle for a no-hitter last Friday night in a 3-0 win
over a team of Southern California all-stars. When Fernandez,
29, gave up a walk in the fourth inning, it ended her streak of
retired batters at 122, a run that included five perfect
games....Marion Jones's chances for five gold medals may have
taken a leap forward last week when Cuba reaffirmed its refusal
to allow world long-jump champion Niurka Montalvo to compete
for Spain in Sydney. Under IOC rules, Montalvo, who became a
Spanish citizen last year after she married a Spaniard, needed
an exemption from her native Cuba to jump for Spain before 2002.