Tasha Schwikert walked off the podium at the U.S. Gymnastics
Championships in Philadelphia last month, having finished a
10-month evolution from accidental tourist on the Olympic team to
U.S. leader for the next quadrennium. After winning her first
national all-around title, the 16-year-old Schwikert spoke with
the swagger of a veteran. "I feel ready to lead the new
generation," she said. That may sound cocky coming from a kid who
made the Sydney Games only as an 11th-hour substitute. Still, as
the only woman with Olympic experience on the current U.S. team,
Schwikert appears ready for such a lofty vault.
She also has a history of making dramatic progress. Tasha's
mother, Joy, a former professional tennis player (she competed in
mixed doubles at Wimbledon in 1974) who returned to her hometown
of Las Vegas and became a craps dealer, was 7 1/2 months pregnant
when she went to her doctor on Nov. 21, 1984, suffering from
abdominal pains. "Suddenly I realized a foot was coming out of
me," Joy recalls. Doctors delivered two children, one stillborn.
The other, Tasha, weighed four pounds and was kept in an
incubator for three weeks. When Tasha went home, Joy dressed her
in Cabbage Patch doll clothes.
Joy sent Tasha and her younger sister, Jordan, to gymnastics
class starting when each turned three and watched them thrive.
(Jordan, 15, is the No. 7 U.S. junior.) "I wanted the girls to be
active, not just sit around and play dress up," says Joy. Working
under coach Cassie Rice, Tasha developed a coveted combination of
polish and amplitude. However, when five members of the
Magnificent Seven squad, which won the team title at the Atlanta
Games, unretired to join an already strong corps of contenders,
Schwikert became a long shot to make the team for Sydney. In June
2000 she suffered a stress fracture in her left foot. For five
weeks she channeled all her energy into recovery and rehab. Says
Tom Kocher, the physical therapist who treated Schwikert, "I've
worked with 18 world champion boxers--Michael Dokes, Tony Tucker,
Ray Mancini--and Tasha is the toughest athlete I've seen."
Schwikert placed ninth at the Olympic trials in August 2000 and
was picked as the nontraveling second alternate to a team of six.
Two days later she received a surprise invitation to the team's
training camp in Sydney. "I told myself, No one expects much, so
go after it," she says. Her improvement amazed U.S. program
coordinator Bela Karolyi, who dubbed her Miracle Kid. When Morgan
White's ankle injury persisted, Schwikert was chosen to compete
over first alternate Alyssa Beckerman, sending a wave of high
fives through the dice pits at Caesars, where Tasha's father,
Shannon Warren, works along with Joy. In Sydney, Schwikert
averaged 9.5 for five routines, helping the team rally to a
fourth-place finish. "Many girls give away points--a wobble, a bad
landing, tenths here and there," says Karolyi. "Tasha is solid.
She fights for that landing."
In the past year Schwikert has added a release skill on the
uneven bars, a harder mount on the balance beam and a new
tumbling pass on the floor. Despite favorable forecasts for the
group the country will send to Athens for the 2004 Games, neither
Schwikert nor the inexperienced U.S. squad will be among the
favorites next month at the world championships in Ghent,
Belgium. Then again, don't bet against the kid from Las Vegas who
has already beaten the odds.