Five-ring Circus

The 2004 Olympics

In praise of America’s senior citizen gymnasts.

Bhardwaj: over the hill at 25
Bhardwaj: over the hill at 25

Heartbroken! That’s how I felt when the finalists for the U.S. women’s gymnastics team were announced—on live TV, presumably because everyone was hoping that the “girls” would have a teary meltdown on air. The big news was that two grown women earned spots on the squad: Annia Hatch, 26, Cuba’s seven-time national champion (she moved to the United States after marrying an American coach), and Mohini Bhardwaj, 25, a former all-American at UCLA who was sponsored in part by Pamela Anderson. As I watched the women vibrate with excitement, I felt an annihilating sense of regret: Was it time to consider a career change?

I imagine I’m not the only woman out there thinking, “What if … ?” The fact that I’m not entirely kidding—I’m a former would-be gymnast who retired at 15, due to an ankle injury and looming “middle age”—testifies to how narcotic a pleasure (and torment) gymnastics is for those who practice it. Most profiles of female gymnasts emphasize the enormous sacrifices required to become an Olympian. The smashed toes! The ripped palms! The long hours! The eating disorders! But that’s not the entire truth: They’re young girls, but they’re not lobotomized automatons.

All gymnasts tend to be masochists of a sort, and for some of them—the best of them, probably—ambition is happiness. (We weren’t allowed to say “I can’t” in my gym without punishment-by-sit-ups. I remember this with great fondness.) To get to the top, you have to want it. If you don’t, you quit—as Bhardwaj herself did in her teens, when she felt she was competing for her coach and parents rather than herself.

Because the sport is, in a sense, totally new—women’s gymnastics before 1976 had little of today’s athleticism—and the gymnasts typically so young, we have a hard time differentiating between willing self-punishment and browbeaten submission. Luckily, as the “new” gymnastics enters its middle age, the assumption that women’s bodies break down around age 18is proving false; sports science is better today, and older women like Hatch and Bhardwaj have learned how to train more efficiently. The main challenge for older gymnasts, as Bhardwaj has pointed out, is financial: They don’t have parents to pay their gym fees, and training is a full-time job. Age does bring at least one advantage, though: If you’ve passed puberty, you don’t have to adjust to a changing body.

Having a pair of twentysomethings on the team does illuminate how hilariously condescending the coverage of these athletes—and they are athletes!—can be. One New York Times piece about the girls who made the final cut made two references to tears and used the words “hangdog,” “sad,” “breathless,” and “heartbreak.” The women, though, have shown nothing but style and gravitas since the team was announced. In one neat display of teamwork, they refused to dissolve into cutesiness for the benefit of the Today show. First, name-sharing team members Courtney Kupets and Courtney McCool rejected the suggestion that they rechristen themselves Thing One and Thing Two, after the characters from Dr. Seuss’s Cat in the Hat. “No, One and Two won’t work, but we’ll figure it out,” promised McCool.

Then NBC Sports reporter Andrea Joyce turned to Bhardwaj and Hatch, the two twentysomethings:

JOYCE: You guys, the two of you, are about 10 years older, almost, than the rest of your teammates. Who’s going to be the mother hen? Are you—who’s going to be the mom of the group?

BHARDWAJ: I don’t think there needs to be a mom.

HATCH: No, no.

JOYCE: There’s not going to need to be a mom?

KUPETS: Yeah, we’re just teammates.

JOYCE: All right, now we’re getting—just the what?

KUPETS: Just teammates.

JOYCE: All right. But now we’re getting to the really important stuff, because you guys are going to be spending a lot of time together. … Who’s the one who has to be shaken a couple more times to wake them up?

KUPETS: I don’t know.

HATCH: I think everybody’s really disciplined and …

In the end, Joyce was forced to ask in despair: “Who’s the clown? No clowns? Oh, this is all going to have to come out eventually. …” Happily, it doesn’t. There’s a competition to watch. Let the games begin!